The Help Desk: I wish I hadn't agreed to edit my friend's memoir

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

There’s this couple I’ve been friends with for years. One of them is writing a memoir, which I agreed to edit.

When I got the manuscript, I realized it documents a bunch of stuff I wish I didn’t know — without getting too specific, there are stories in this thing that call their entire relationship into question.

What’s my obligation to both of my friends here? I don’t think I can spend months working through the text and keeping those deep dark secrets to myself. On the other hand, “do I tell the girlfriend” is such a sad, tired story. It’s not really my business, maybe she already knows, and I did say I’d help bring this baby book into the world.


Carol, International District

Dear Carol,

You sound like the type of well-meaning person who lets crafty Mormon missionaries in your house to use your bathroom, ignorant of the fact that the anus is the gateway to the soul and its sanctuary should be protected at all costs. Or who is annually tricked into donating to the Humane Society by those personalized address labels they send out, ignorant of the fact that the Humane Society is a subsidiary of the Lisa Frank empire and saving furry lives is a front to push tacky office items.

Sweet, trusting Carol. In most instances, memoir has become a pretentious word for "journal." No friend should be forced to read, let alone edit, another friend's journal. (An aside to memoir-writing folks: Do not ask friends to read your manuscript – it is only appropriate to ask friends to read your memoir if/when it is published. In the interim, find a writing group full of aspirational memoirists and you can all take turn making each other's eyes bleed through the editing process. It is only fair.)

But the deed is done and now the mundane horrors contained within are forever stamped on your brain. At this point, your obligation is to yourself and your sanity. Approach your journaling friend and say something like, "Hey, I wish you would've given me a head's up about some of this content, as it's pretty personal and puts me in an awkward position with your partner. Have they read it yet?"

If they have not, tell your friend that you don't feel comfortable editing their journal any further, and point out that if they were truly serious about getting it published, their partner will read it eventually and they should have that talk now. If their partner is aware, suck it up and tell the journaler they owe you a keg for your mental anguish. Then finish editing the damn thing and immediately hang a "No Soliciting" sign on your front door.