Trespassing on other lives

We will generally avoid controversy if, in telling our story through memoir, we stick to the storyline of our own life and resist, at all costs, the many temptations that will arise for trespassing on other lives or poaching juicy details from others’ life narratives to enhance our own.

By which I mean, we are at liberty to borrow aspects and memories that are relatively uncontroversial and which add colour: I was born in interesting circumstances at a very colourful time. Therefore, I have considerable freedom to highlight how interesting these circumstances were. And if on the way, I find I must refer to personal details about my relatives, say, I will do my best in those colourful times to show them in a good, even flattering light: I use a light hand, and steer clear of anything remotely personal that is not directly relevant to me.

For example, one of my siblings may have encountered interesting, even rather tragic events; but I must not borrow from their narrative to enhance my own, even if what happened with them had an impact on my mental health or gave me nightmares. If someone dear to me was assaulted, say, I may mention my general unhappiness and sleepless nights at the time but would be better to resist the urge to refer back to this particular cause, unless the cause was severe or singular and therefore became part of my own memories and narrative. It’s a matter of degree and it can be hard to make that judgement.

If we feel tempted or entitled to include reference to episodes or stories about others, that will only be because (a) we were also directly part of that experience, (b) we are consumed with jealousy and unhappiness, which suggests that our experiences are still too raw to be written about; or (c) we have not done enough to make our own lives interesting, in which case we should stop writing meantime, and go away and make our lives more interesting.

Thanks for listening.

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