It can be sticky to write about your own experiences as inevitably, those experiences bump up against other people. Such is the case with memoir and most creative non-fiction. Our goal as writers is to find fair a balance between personal, professional and public expectations.
As William Zinsser so clearly outlines in Writing to Learn, we write in order to understand the world. In the end, we share the end result with an audience in order to enter into a larger conversation.
Published work takes a different path from, say, a diary. I might write incredibly personal and emotional work in a private diary. If anyone found these words, I’d be mortified (please don’t try.) This writing is a lot like the brainstorming that we do in response to a writing prompt.
From this muddle of words, I’ll look for ideas or images that might be accessible to a larger audience and representative of a larger truth. From there, I’ll expand upon those ideas to craft a complete poem. After all, I am not only writing for myself or a good friend. A common beginner error is to stop the editing process too early. In this case, the writing is inaccessible, or, even worse, uninteresting, to anyone who doesn’t already know or care for the author.
When an author considers writing memoir or creative non-fiction, there are questions about rights, ownership, and ethics. It is good to know that much more is available for us to justly use in our writing than we might imagine. A few years ago at AWP, I sat in on a panel about this issue. You can learn more by reading "Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry" compiled by the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute in collaboration with American University’s Center for Social Media and Washington College of Law.
If you live in the Washington, D.C., metro area and are interested in continuing this conversation, you might consider taking the memoir writing class that I will be teaching this fall at Politics & Prose Bookstore.