The Question of Memoir Ownership

I helped a restaurant owner start writing his memoir. He previously published a book on business development and leadership based on lessons learned in the restaurant business and his other successful enterprises including manufacturing, screen printing, and radio broadcasting. Now, he wanted to write about the challenges of his personal life including growing up in a dysfunctional family, a failed marriage, rebellious children, and health issues that nearly killed him.

We signed an agreement to conduct weekly recorded interviews, the transcripts of which I edited for his review and approval chapter-by-chapter. After four months he decided he wanted to go in a different direction and we agreed I could not take him there. According to our agreement, he paid me for the work I did and I turned over to him all of the recordings, transcripts, completed and draft chapters, and file folders of research materials. They belonged to him.

Who is the Writer and Who is the Author?
When you are writing a memoir for someone else, you are the writer and the other person is the author. You are helping the author create something that belongs to the author, even if you do not have a written agreement. If a memoir book is published it will be copyrighted in the author’s name, not yours, and you may not receive credit on the cover. Cover credit can be negotiated, though, as seen in books with an as told to or with line beneath the author’s name. If there is no cover credit for the writer, the author may mention the writer’s name in the acknowledgements section. Writer credit or not, the legal owner of the work and the materials used in creating it is the one in whose name the work is copyrighted. In the United States, copyright occurs immediately when an original work is written and does not depend upon copyright registration.

Some writers think because they are paid by the author they have created a work made for hire. Not necessarily. Work made for hire has specific limitations under United States Copyright law, including employer/employee relationships. Work made for hire is also known as corporate authorship, in which the employer is a corporation, organization, or individual. The completed work, be it a book, video, slide show, how-to manual, or software belongs to the employer. Microsoft’s Windows operating system is a useful example. Microsoft hired many programmers to develop the system and Microsoft is the legal owner.

The U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 
The United States Copyright Act of 1976 has two tests for work made for hire:
“(1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or (2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.” (17 U.S.C. § 101)

The work of a freelancer who writes memoirs is not considered work made for hire unless there is a signed instrument (agreement) the work is made for hire and the work falls within one of the limited categories in (2) above. 

For answers to frequently asked questions regarding copyright go to the Copyright Office website.  

For more on work made for hire see Works Made for Hire Under the 1976 Copyright Act.

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What have been your experiences of ownership issues in writing memoirs? Let us know by selecting comments below or send an email.

Today Would be Fine

CAT scan of human brain
"Always put off until tomorrow anything you can
do today."

I don’t think so, even though that’s a lot easier than getting to it. It’s like when the alarm clock goes off at 5:30 a.m. and you press the snooze button several times. Before you know it, it’s time for your mid-morning snack and your feet haven’t touched the floor; you haven’t had breakfast, fed the cat, started the laundry, picked up your prescriptions, or gone on your morning walk in the neighborhood. And why are the children home when it’s a school day?

Among the reasons for procrastinating are fear of failure, unclear goals, feeling overwhelmed, and lack of priorities. Putting things off, though, only makes you more uncomfortable.

Years ago there was a television commercial for a financial services company on getting started investing. “Today would be fine,” the announcer said resolutely. There also was a television commercial for a pizza company in which the announcer said gruffly, “Do it!”

Do it today would be fine. Put your feet squarely onto the floor, plant your rear firmly into the chair seat in front of your computer and start writing your memoir. Here is a quick roundup of websites with dozens of tips to get you started. After you visit them—and read the tips and do them, of course—let me know which ones worked best to get you started writing.

Refute These 14 Reasons Not to Write Your Memoirs
I can’t remember, I’m too old, I’m too young, nothing interesting has happened to me, and ten more totally useless excuses Jerry Waxler shoots holes through. Waxler is founder of Memory Writers Network and co-founder of Lifewriters Forum

Is It Time to Write Your Memoir?
Where to start and what to include, by Cynthia MacGregor, author of more than eighty books and the proprietor of a website for single parents.

First five classes of an online course free offered by Sheila Ellison, teacher, editor, coach and bestselling author of ten books.

Do it now before memories fade and while people are still alive. By Pat McNeese, president of the Association of Personal Historians.

Who Can Write a Memoir?
Ideas for writing your story by freelance writer Lisa Koning, with links to three more of her articles on memoir-writing.

Writers Workshop Series: Writing Your Memoir
Seven tips by Carolyn Oravitz, teacher and freelance writer.

Ten tips by Chris Hadley, freelance writer.

How to Assess If You Need a Ghostwriter
By Denis Ledoux, founder of Soleil Lifestory Network. 

How to Write a Memoir
Be yourself, speak freely, and think small, by William Zinsser, author and teacher. 

Share your excuses and how you overcame them by selecting comments below or send an email. Let us know what motivated you best.

Photo courtesy Jens Langner

Be Aware of Special Issues When Interviewing Elderly Persons

Interviewing elderly persons for their memoirs can have a different set of challenges than with younger persons. Elderly persons may be frail, drowsy, forgetful, and struggling with age-related illnesses. Interviews tend to be in shorter time segments. And, as husband and wife Sandra and Tony learned, elderly spouses interviewed together often have conflicting remembrances of the same events, and family members may not be on board with the project.

Faithful Testimonies
“David and Martha have been very special to us,” Sandra says. “David was our pastor for several years, a lay minister, and a retired dairy farmer. Martha had been an Avon lady. God helped them bless hundreds if not thousands of people through their humble ministries. The record of their lives is truly a journey in the hand of the Master.”

Sandra and Tony heard the testimonies of David and Martha over many years and felt led the stories should be captured permanently for family and friends.

“David carried on daily conversations with the Lord that guided his every step,” Tony says.

Tony had no training in writing memoirs when he met with David and Martha in 2008 to discuss recording and writing their memories.

“They were very receptive,” he says. “They were in their eighties and Martha had wanted to do something like this but felt she couldn’t pull it off because she was not computer literate. We agreed I would come to their house every Tuesday night to record. Sandra would transcribe the recordings into a computer and do the editing.”

Sandra and Tony thought it might take a dozen interviews. The project lasted two years.

A Good Start, Then . . .
The first few months went very well, although it was hard to keep David from jumping around from topic to topic. “If you asked him what time it was he would tell you how to build a watch,” Tony quips. “He was never shy. Humble, but not shy. Once we got him talking we pretty much sat back and listened.”

The interviews became less productive as David and Martha had strong words over which details went with which stories. It was helpful that David had kept a notebook of his many activities, including funeral services at which he officiated, spiritual experiences, and testimonies. Still, he and Martha disagreed.

“Sandy gave them a draft to read and they radically changed it,” Tony says. “More drafts and more changes followed. Discussions on the changes took longer than the interviews. David and Martha couldn’t agree on whether an event occurred west of town or east, whether it was in May or August. Our progress was minimal.”

Adding to the frustration was the deteriorating health of the elderly couple, including poor hearing and reduced eyesight, and for David a continuing battle with a nearly lifetime of arthritis. The transcriptions had to be printed in eighteen-point type.

Time to End an Unfinished Project
After two years Sandra and Tony felt they had done as much as they could with the narrative. They printed the stories into a single, two-hundred page, double-spaced manuscript and gave it to a son and daughter of David and Martha to determine what the next steps might be. The children had sat in on some of the interviews.

“Our thinking was for the manuscript to be at least in a spiral binding and copies printed to give to family and friends,” Sandra says. “The children were going to gather pictures and prepare a family tree.”

The children were not excited about distributing the manuscript as written. They were concerned about how some people might feel having their names and personal stories in print. They wanted Sandra and Tony to provide the manuscript on a CD and that would be the end of the project.

“There was nothing offensive to anybody,” Tony says. “When you take the names and places out the story is gutted. The children may have thought the project was just something to keep Mom and Dad occupied; a good activity to keep their minds active. We were disappointed the record of this man’s walk with the Lord would be shared only with the family and we consider the project to be unfinished; no wrap-up, no conclusion.”

Some Lessons Learned
Sandra and Tony say they learned the importance of getting up-front confirmation from the family on whether the final manuscript will be formatted as a book, what the review process will be, what the end product will look like, and who will be responsible for printing and costs.

“Most importantly, we learned we should have started the project much sooner,” Sandra says.

David and Martha are living their remaining years in a nursing home.

David and Martha are not their real names.

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What are your experiences interviewing elderly and ill persons? What have you learned? Share with our readers by selecting comments below or send an email.

Kim Fears Rendleman: The Bobby Pin Blessing

Kim Fears Rendleman
Guest article by Kim Fears Rendleman

A testimony of God's love came to me from an unexpected place when I was a teenager.

It all began at a sleepover at my best friend’s house. We were excited about the next morning because we were going to church camp for a week. That evening, I had the bright idea that I wanted bangs. At that time, we wore our hair parted down the middle, long and straight. So, my friend got a pair of scissors and began cutting my hair. After several attempts to get the bangs straight, it became apparent my new hairstyle looked ridiculous! I had nubs for bangs! By the way, in that day, kids didn’t spike their hair. So, I had no way out of this dilemma. I was going to look stupid at camp. The only thing to do was add Dippity-do and pin my bangs back with bobby pins.

I know many of you have never been a teenage girl, so I’ll point out that hairstyle matters, especially when you’re going to camp where there are lots of boys.

The next morning we loaded up the car and headed to Camp Semoca, which was in Doniphan, Missouri. On the way there, my mom stopped at a hair salon in Poplar Bluff and that’s where I found out there was nothing that could be done for me. However, my sisters and friend got really cute haircuts. Talk about adding insult to injury!

Well, if you haven’t guessed by now, when we got to camp, I had to endure being teased about my hair. I remember feeling self conscious and sad and I tried not to let my attitude about my hair have a negative impact on my camp experience, but it was hard not to.

Then, an incredible thing happened! I received an unexpected blessing because of my bad haircut. There was a young girl at camp named Kierston and she was probably five or six years old. Kierston was at camp because her mom was the Camp Director.

For some reason, Kierston liked me, bad hair and all, and wherever I went, Kierston went. Every morning she knocked on the bus door to walk with me to breakfast. You heard right, I did say bus. We were the lucky kids who were assigned to sleep in the bus that had been converted into a camper.
Anyway, one morning after hearing a knock, I opened the bus door to see Kierston standing there smiling up at me with two bobby pins in her hair, definitely worn just like mine. That simple act of imitation brought me great joy and changed my attitude. I was no longer sad about my hair and I was able to enjoy camp to its fullest.

Who would have thought that by combining a little kid, bobby pins, and a teenager’s bad haircut would equal a blessing! I think we know who . . . Thank you God.

Kim Fears Rendleman lives in Springfield, Missouri.

Photo courtesy Kim Fears Rendleman.

Share your testimony of God's blessing from a seemingly insignificant object. Select comments below or send me an email.

William Zinsser: Your Memoir Should Not Include Everything That Happened to You

William Zinsser
Book Review: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, 30th Anniversary Edition
William Zinsser
Harper Paperbacks, 2006
Softcover, 321 pages, with sources and index

This book is from my reading list at

The anniversary edition is Zinsser’s seventh updating of his classic. He published the first edition in 1976 as an alternative to the long-reigning king of how-to writing manuals, The Elements of Style, by E. B. White and William Strunk, Jr. Zinsser had been teaching his nonfiction writing course at Yale University for five years and wanted to put the course into a book. Where Strunk and White focused on writing rules, Zinsser’s course and book focused on how to write about people and places.

“If people connect with my book it’s because they don’t think they’re hearing from an English professor. They’re hearing from a working writer.”

Notice the contractions, which he uses extensively. Although dismissed by some writers and critics as lazy and sloppy, contractions give a friendly, approachable feel to his work.

Perhaps in defense of contractions, although he doesn’t state it as a defense, is what he says is at the heart of good nonfiction writing: the personal transaction between writer and reader, “an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next” without gimmicks. The transaction is cemented when the writer honestly communicates “humanity and warmth . . . clarity and strength.”

Chapters on Memoirs in This Update
His updates have included changes in social and literary trends, demographic patterns, new technologies, new words and usages, and lessons learned in wrestling with the craft of writing.

This edition covers principles, methods, forms, and attitudes as approaches to writing about travel, memoir, science and technology, business writing, and the arts. New in this edition is a chapter on writing your own memoir and a chapter on writing family history and memoir.

He believes we earn the right to write our own memoir because we were born. No other credentials or permissions are required. There are other reasons for writing memoir besides being published.

Regarding his students: “Year after year their stories take me deeply into their lives and into their yearning to leave a record of what they have done and thought and felt.”

When writing memoir, think narrow, he says. It’s not an autobiography taken from a daily diary, although that can be useful. It is snippets of sight, sound, smell, and touch that caused you to learn and change and make decisions; to become who you are.

Memoirs His Father Wrote
“The crucial ingredient in memoir is, of course, people . . . the men and women and children who notably crossed your life.”

Especially poignant is his story of the two memoirs his father wrote. One was a history of his father’s side of the family going back to nineteenth-century Germany. The other was a history of his family’s New York City shellac business founded by his father’s grandfather in 1849. “He wrote with a pencil on a yellow legal pad, never pausing—then or ever again—to rewrite.” His father had the histories typed, mimeographed and bound in plastic covers. He gave a personally inscribed copy to each of his four children and fifteen grandchildren.

“Over the years I’ve often found myself dipping into them to remind myself of some long-lost relative, or to check some long-lost fact of New York geography, and with every reading I admire the writing more.”

William Zinsser is a writer and editor who teaches at the New School in New York and at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of seventeen books including Writing about Your Life, his memoir that does not include everything that happened to him.

Photo courtesy

Which books helped you the most in writing your memoirs? Which were not helpful? Let us know by clicking on the word comments below.