Friday, April 26, 2013

How Much Do We Tell? (Part 2 of 5)

How much we tell has become even more critical than ever. We live in a litigious world and people are apt to sue for any reason. A flip-but-true saying is, "Never underestimate the greed of your friends." They can object to anything you write about them—even the good things.

Here are a few of the rules I've set up for myself.

1. If I refer to people and use their names, I send them a copy of the chapter of the manuscript in which I cite their name and include a permission slip. (See my next blog entry for an example.)

2. If I have to write something negative, I tell the story as truthfully as I can and use only a first name—not the real one. Here's what I sometimes write in my books immediately after the copyright page in my books:
"I've tried to tell true stories in this book, but sometimes I had to protect the guilty or shield the privacy of others. When I use a full name, that means I have permission to tell the story. When I use only a first name, it means the story is true, but I've altered a few facts to avoid lawsuits, the loss of friends, or disdain from the person cited."[1]
If the individuals are dead, my understanding is that we can write whatever we want without impunity. If we write about people who are in the public eye, publishers have told me that we have more leeway in which we write about them.

For example, years ago I wrote the autobiography of a famous jingles singer who grew up in Detroit. She told unflattering stories about several other performers. I wasn't comfortable with them, but she insisted, so they went into the book. We also included a statement at the front of the book that the author was solely responsible for the content. (No one sued.)

When I write about others, 
I try to be considerate.

* * * * *

[1] Making Sense when Life Doesn't: The Secret of Thriving in Tough Times by Cecil Murphey, (Minneapolis, MN: Summerside Press, 2012).


  1. Thank you, Cec, for this insight.

  2. Thank you for sharing your own guidelines, Cec. I've been struggling for a while with a book of my heart, and I realize now this very thing is one of the reasons I've been hesitant to get started.

    Thank you...

  3. You said, 'If the individuals are dead, my understanding is that we can write whatever we want without impunity.' Just wondering, can their children or grandchildren do anything about what you write about them?

  4. (Please consult a lawyer if this troubles you, because I'm no qualified to give legal advice.)

    If we can write about the dead without being sued, wouldn't that include their heirs? The statement I hear often is, "You can't libel the dead."

  5. I wonder if Janet's comments have to do with hurting family members. That's the real issue most of us face in writing about our family.
    My father was an alcoholic and beat me countless times. He's been dead for 35 years. Until 2010, I withheld writing about Dad. By then, the people who would have been emotionally hurt were also dead.

  6. Thanks,Cec,for your reply. I tend to agree with you. And yes we do have to think about family members feelings. I'm not writing a memoir, buy I have written fictional stories loosely based on family members' lives. I do change the names, but I am sure family members will see the connection.


What are your thoughts?