How to Write About Difficult People or Topics in Your Life Story

Jun 02, 2020

How to Write About Difficult People, Topics or Controversial Events in Your Life Story


Challenging people or events may be crucial to your story but the question is - how do you write about them in a way that honours yourself, isn't a pity party, or gets you sued.


If you who want to write your life story, but feel stuck with writing about difficult people, events,  or controversial topics, this blog discusses psychological aspects, writing processes and legalities that may help you move forward.


Most people who want to write about their life do it for a couple of reasons:


  • Understanding of the self & others, releasing the past, and healing


  • Inspiring or helping others by sharing their story


  • Sometimes revenge is a motive, but "revenge doesn't read well"



Your Why

Everything comes back to your WHY when writing, so why do you want to write your life story?


Get real and honest with yourself

What are your intentions for the book?


Time - Are you really ready to write about your life?

Have you given yourself enough time in between the difficult events or challenges you have experienced, and the writing of your story? This is crucial.


If you want to vent - use your journal. A memoir/autobiography is not the place to manipulate or use your readers as a counsellor. Hindsight is perhaps the most valuable tool when writing a memoir because it's the reflection or observation that you bring to the people or events that you're writing about - that offers more depth and insight for the reader.


Get help if you need it

Writing about the past and /or traumatic events can trigger emotions and behaviours in you. Please seek help from a psychologist or healer or talk to someone you trust. Sometimes talking to someone is the best medicine and you may gain new perspectives to add to your story.


Autobiography versus Memoir

Remember the difference between autobiography and memoir. Autobiography is a chronological account of your life, but a memoir usually focuses on or explores one topic or theme. So the point is - consider what you will include or leave out.


How do I know what to include or leave out?

This is a question every writer should ask during the process of writing, regardless of what you're writing. But when we talk about controversial topics or challenges we've experienced - always come back to these questions:

  • How does this serve the story?
  • What will the reader benefit by knowing this piece of information?
  • Is this relevant to the story?


Don't just put something in for shock value. I don't like action movies that show all the gory details - do we really need to see the blood and guts coming out of someone who's been shot. Or can we imagine... The power of suggestion can be far more imaginative for the reader.


Sometimes you need to include EVERYTHING depending on your story, your style and voice or message but consider this carefully.


Most people who read my Wobbly Woman Memoirs 1 - Looking for Love said they "couldn't put the book down" but there was one woman who told me honestly that my experience of domestic violence was painful for her (because of her own experiences.)




Put a trigger warning in the introduction

I put a warning in my Introduction, but it didn't stop the woman from continuing to read my story. I think it's important to be honest in your description or the back blurb, so readers know what they're getting. Write your introduction in the same style as your book, so there aren't any shocks over graphic details, foul language or controversial and challenging topics. This is also important so you don't get bad reviews.


Write Under a Pen Name & Fictionalise Your Story

If you feel you can't write the story for fear of hurting loved ones (especially innocent people involved), or being sued, consider fictionalising your story and/or writing under a pen name.


Truth in Fiction by Neil Gaiman (Masterclass)

"Fiction stories are one of the most interesting phenomena that human beings have. Human beings are storytelling creatures. We tell stories. Stories are vital. Stories are important. We can go back later to why they're vital. We can go back later to how they're important. We can go back later to how long they have been around. But the important thing to understand is that stories are part of us. And we convey truth with stories, which is fundamentally the most gloriously giant contradiction that you can ever imagine. It can be more freeing to write your story as fiction because sometimes the fear of hurting others or of litigation stops people from writing anything."


How do I know whether to fictionalise it?

I wrote another blog on this topic. How to Decide Whether to Write Your Life Story or Fictionalise it. Click here...


But what if you feel you have to write your truth?


Be compassionate

Try to look at both sides of the argument or be honest in your role. Never condone bad behaviour - but consider how you can write about it with compassion and understanding and dare I say - forgiveness.


You don't have to provide all the answers for your readers (because you may not even have them) but writing with vulnerability and compassion for the self and others makes for a beautiful story. It promotes acknowledgment and understanding versus blame. We want to enhance our readers lives with inspiration or information, not draw them into a blood battle.


The only exception I would say about looking at your role in a situation, is if you write about child sexual abuse. Children are innocent. Do the work on yourself, dig deep and focus on how your story can help others and not keep them trapped in pain. Show them that sometimes the only way out is through...


Tips on how to write the hard stuff

  • Takeaways - When you write about challenging incidents, give insight, reflection or a takeaway for the reader.
  • Relief - Offer relief from the pain otherwise readers may find it too hard to go on. You can do this through hindsight or humour,
  • Use poems or quotes from other writers to describe something difficult.
  • You could also use symbolism or metaphorical language to depict difficult descriptions or scenes.


Remember, you can't please everyone. Some people like a certain level of honesty, and others don't. Go with what's right for you.


Bringing it back to centre

Remind yourself - Is writing about the challenging person, event or topic central to theme?


Past tense or Present tense

Most people write their life story in the past tense as it allows for the hindsight and reflection. Writing in the present tense places the reader in the story, which is an evocative technique.


Conversational Voice and Tone

Everyone has a different style, voice and idiom. That is, the way they speak and thus write. So, consider your voice and tone. Don't try to write in a way that isn't you. Reader's will see through the BS. Be you.


Write from a childlike perspective

Mary Karr wrote her memoir, The Liar's Club, about childhood abuse from the perspective of herself as a child. This brought an openness and honesty without being too graphic - and yet I found it even more emotionally charged.


Read Widely for Inspiration and Deconstruction

Read other books that may have similar themes or topics to see how those authors tackled writing about challenges. Take note of what books you liked and why. It could help you with your story. For example, I loved the fragmented style that Nikki Gemmell used in her memoir, After about her mother's experience of euthanasia. I used a lot of fragments in my Wobbly Woman book and that's why I think people loved it - because it had a poetic feel and flow.


Do I need to ask permission from the people I'm writing about?

Life will be easier if you ask permission from the people you are writing about, but it may not always be possible.


First, write your story - according to your truth. Everyone has their version of the truth, but this is your story. As with any first draft - just get the story down. You can plan out the structure and/or just free write. The point is not to self-edit as you go. If you write this way, you have a better chance of finishing your story and keeping the perfectionist or procrastinator in you at bay.  


If you can ask for permission from some people, do so, but you don't have to give your whole manuscript over to them. Unless you feel it's important that they give you the OK for the whole story.


I phoned, emailed or texted family, friends or people involved and mentioned I was writing a story and wanted to share a scene with them in it. From memory, I don't think anyone had a problem with it, except for my sister who wanted her name changed. I was surprised by that and discussed it with her, but she eventually agreed. I would have changed her name if she insisted, but sometimes taking about things is helpful.


I also did this with my husband for my Wobbly Woman Memoir. I warned him about how personal it would be and the reasons why. He read it with an open mind and only asked me to consider changing one thing (which was so minor and so unexpected but I did because it was important to him.) I ended up changing and deleting some stories because I read Mary Karr's book on The Art of Memoir and I realised I had some things in there that weren't written with integrity. I may have been writing for revenge in some parts. :(



Should you be telling someone else's story?

How far can you go? How does it relate to your story? There was a person in my Wobbly Woman book who caused me a lot of pain and heartache in my life. Initially, I wrote about an incident which had a negative impact on me, but after reading Mary Karr's book, I realised - what she did was her story to tell, not mine. There is a fine line. Her actions would have described the dark side of her character, but by writing about it would have shown mine! (Write for the Higher Good I say!)


Getting Permission - Brace Yourself

Are you prepared to lose a friendship or relationship by writing your story?

You can discuss why writing your story is so important to you with the person, or people involved. This would solve a lot of potential problems in the future. It is recommended that you get people to sign a Permissions Agreement, so you have it in writing. That's where email or text is helpful.


Or if that's not possible because it wouldn't be safe for you or others, just write it - according to your truth.


However, is it defamatory?


Can I be sued for writing about someone?

Yes, you can - if they can prove that you have ruined their reputation, and they have suffered personal or financial loss.


I am not a lawyer and I always recommend getting legal advice. You don't have to send the whole document in, just the parts that could be potentially defamatory, to save costs.


Note that even if you don't use their name, they can still try to sue you if they are recognisable in any way.


If they have committed a crime and it's been publicly recorded it may be more difficult to sue you if something has been out in the public domain. You need to check and get your own legal advice. If someone has died, they can't sue you, but their family can if they can prove you have ruined their reputation.


Decide if you want to change names and details to make people unrecognisable in your story and be sure to put a disclaimer at the beginning to say that while this is a true story some names and details have been changed to protect identities.


But what if you just have to write your truth?

***Prepare yourself mentally, emotionally and financially. Protect your assets in case someone tries to sue you.***


Is there a threat of violence or abuse for you or others?

Do you need to warn people or family members about your mission?

Get legal advice.

Get counselling.


Is this worth it? Is the stress worth it to tell all and name names?

This depends on you and your resolve. You may not be able to deal with the implications, so don't beat yourself up about it. But it may well be worth it. Do what is right for you.


My late father's story is controversial and potentially defamatory, but it is a story I have to tell. It's not only personal, it's political and historical. I have to give voice to my father's plight when he was silenced by the courts in Australia, for standing up against alleged corruption in local council. He did not get the justice he deserved, so by telling his story I will honour him and my family. This is my purpose in life.


You have to weigh up what is right for you? How far are you willing to go to write your story and stand up for what you believe in?


The problem is - Truth does not always equal justice. That's a story my family learnt the hard way.


In conclusion - you can follow this process or consider:


  • Your why
  • Write your story according to your truth
  • Get help and support throughout your writing process
  • Work out what is absolutely necessary as part of the story and what doesn't have to be included
  • Decide how you will write about difficult topics. With subtly, humour, graphic details, childlike perspectives or in another way
  • Permission - to ask or not to ask - that is your decision
  • Get legal advice
  • Protect yourself in every way
  • Be true to you


Defamation Discussion

If you want more information about the legalities of writing about other people, and how to protect yourself register here...

A legal consultant will advise us about permissions, defamation and libel, privacy and the implications of writing about other people and how to protect yourself.

This is a hot topic and is one that I want to address for my memoir writers. 


Note that this is a pre-recorded event and I'll send out the link to those who register after the 14th July.


In the meantime, keep happy and healthy and keep writing. 





 PS In case you haven't picked up your free copy - Guide to Write & Self-Publish Your Life Story (With a printable checklist) click on the image below. 

This is an overview of the whole process so you know what's involved and to help you start your story.

Need some guidance to write your life story? Book in a free 30 minute consultation with Leeza: here: I'd Love To!


 (Images from Pixabay)

Please note: This blog does not offer legal advice but is the opinions of the author. Please seek your own legal advice.


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Easy, step-by-step GUIDE to write and self-publish your memoir, complete with a "tick as you go" CHECKLIST to give you clarity and confidence to start.