The vital importance of documentation

Hello, dear readers —

Well, my gag is still pretty firmly in place, but I have figured out a way to derive a universal publishing lesson for you from the turmoil of the last few days: document, document, document.

Those of you who read this blog loyally will no doubt remember my extensive lecture (see posting of August 22) on the vital importance of documentation for memoirists. Because anyone mentioned in a memoir (and those who are insulted when they are NOT mentioned, or not mentioned enough: more common than you might think) could conceivably make, if not actual legal trouble for you and your publisher, then at least a few sleepless nights, YOU NEED TO KNOW WHO TOLD YOU WHAT AND WHEN. Trusting to your undoubtedly excellent memory is not enough — you should be able to produce a list.

For a memoirist, this can be very difficult. Who took good notes as an 8-year-old? However, you can cover yourself by documenting how and where you tried to verify those long-ago memories by speaking to the living in the present day.

You will be pleased to know that I did everything right in this respect. I was trained as an academic, where practically every statement requires an extensive documentary footnote, and keeping track of my own research is second nature. Also, I have an unusually good memory — not photographic, but nearly so. One of the first readers of my manuscript, declining to believe that I could in fact remember the color of curtains in a room where I was once at the age of ten, decided to quiz me on a book I mentioned in the memoir. To be specific, I discussed the impact of the relatively short treatment of Katherine Wright, sister of Orville and Wilbur, received in a history of flight I’d read once in the third grade. Unable to stump me on the facts, he challenged my claim to remember the typeface in which the book was printed. So he checked.

I was right, as it turns out.

However, this level of detailed memory is unusual, to say the least, and frankly, I don’t think it should be required for a memoirist to be credible. All the more reason to document whatever you can.

Curious about what could have gone wrong with my book (as opposed to what IS going wrong, which has little to do with the book’s actual credibility, but instead with who owns an individual’s own memories), I chatted with my marvelous agent about the topic. “What if,” I asked her, “I hadn’t done everything right? What if I hadn’t documented so heavily that my writing friends laughed at me?”

Now, I’m a pretty hardy soul, but I must admit that her answer, dear readers, chilled me a little. “The publisher would have dropped your book,” she told me, “the second that anyone from the Dick estate questioned it.”

This, incidentally, was said about a book that the publisher claims to LOVE, one where the editor gushes to anyone who will listen about the writing. (She mentioned modestly.) It has a target audience so obvious — Philip K. Dick’s literally millions of fans worldwide — that the publisher’s sense of risk is exceptionally low in publishing it. Yet even with all that going for it, they would have dropped the book in a heartbeat if I hadn’t been able to counter a series of unfounded charges with good documentation.

If learning this does not turn you into a super-documenter, nothing I can say will.

I have to say, this unspoken requirement strikes me as unfair to writers in general, and memoirists in particular. Surely, we all have the right to write about our perceptions of our own lives — which is, after all, more or less the definition of a memoir. Why, then, would publishers be so jumpy?

Because, I am now learning through experience, a suit for slander does not have to have any actual basis in fact to be frightening to a publisher. I REALLY have evidence of this: in the United States, it is legally impossible to slander or libel a dead person, and the primary character in my memoir, other than me, has been dead since 1982. AND I don’t say anything particularly nasty about him. However, those facts tend to fall out of the discussions at senior editorial meetings. It is not the content of the charges made by the complaining party that strikes fear into editorial hearts, but the financial status of the complainers. Translation: deep pockets equal major threat, shallow pockets equal minor threat, regardless of the actual basis for the suit.

I like to call this phenomenon censorship by checkbook.

In my case, what makes this censorship by checkbook particularly frustrating is that the scary money in question is, as I understand it, entirely derived from the proceeds from the books, short stories, and movie rights of a writer who was deeply, profoundly opposed to censorship of any kind. Even to those who know Philip K. Dick’s work only through the movies made from it, his name is synonymous with a distrust of corporate entities, governments, and any other powerful force that tries to silence individual thought and creativity in the name of its own prurient interest.

On my good days, the irony of HIS posthumous checkbook being used to try to silence any writer, much less me, amuses me considerably. It is, in fact, precisely the kind of thing that would have happened in a Philip K. Dick novel.

So that is why, dear readers, in case you have been wondering, the legal issues surrounding my memoir continue to irk me, and I continue not being allowed to discuss them here with much specificity. Deep, deep pockets: in effect, Philip’s fans are unwittingly bankrolling my chagrin, and that’s definitely unfair to everyone concerned. I try to keep a sense of humor about it all, but it’s hard.

Regardless of what happens to my book, PLEASE learn from my experience to document your research conversations impeccably. And not just your research conversations: keep those e-mails from kith and kin where they tell you that they are hugely supportive of your project, because they may claim later that they did not even know about it; keep the ones where they praise you and your work, because they may later say that they always hated it. Keep the ones where they tell you that you are telling an important story, because they may change their minds about that, and while you’re at it, keep the ones where they tell you in secret the stories they don’t want the rest of the family to know they told you.

Not that I have any personal experience that would dictate that these are good ideas, of course.

If you cannot get the relevant kith and kin to put these thoughts in writing, send an e-mail or letter (with a carbon for your files, of course) confirming what you were told verbally. Send follow-up questions in writing, and be sure to keep thanking them on paper for helping you so kindly. The day may come when being a little bit compulsive in your record-keeping may save your bacon as a writer.

And, as usual, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: Many, many thanks to those of you who took the time to weigh in on the Philip fansites about the censorship issues around my book; if you haven’t had a chance to yet, check out the very interesting discussion at I assure you, everyone concerned has been taking those postings very, very seriously; I’m really looking forward to the day when I can be explicit about that.

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