What do you do when you feel called to tell your life’s story by writing a book, but there’s a good chance you’ll hurt or offend people who were involved in your life in some way?
Easy answer: Write your truth first. You don’t have to show it to anyone, so no self-censoring. Just finish the book, and then you can decide how to proceed. At that point, you have a few options:
1) Go ahead and tell your truth. If you’re naming names or writing in a way that people are easily identifiable (how many mothers do you have?), I highly recommend getting their sign-off, and whether you do or not, you need to get the advice of a qualified attorney.
2) Changes names, places, and other identifying characteristics, so no one could possibly identify who you’re talking about. For example, the behavior of a sister might be attributed to a made-up school friend. A simple disclaimer that tells readers you’ve made those changes will keep you safe from claims that you made it all up. (Remember James Frey?)
3) Ask people you care about to sign off on whatever part of the book involves them. Understand that some people will say no, and that’s their right. But others will surprise you by saying yes.
4) Fictionalize the story. Write it as it happened, and then go back and change the names of people and places and alter elements of the story, so it reads as a novel. You could also decide from the start that you’ll do it as fiction, and write accordingly.
NOTE: Obviously, you want to avoid any hint of libel. You knowingly put lies or half-truths about real people in writing, you’re asking to get sued, and you deserve what you get. Always have an attorney review your completed manuscript if there’s any chance you could be stumbling into lawsuit territory. Here’s an article that addresses the legal consequences in reference to fiction, much of which applies to nonfiction.
Don’t let fear stop you from writing the book only you can write. There’s always a way.
Go write something!