I just finished my quarter as the Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Seattle University. I hadn’t taught college-age students in a long time and was a bit nervous, but they were so, so engaged. So willing to dig in. So brave. And so good at supporting each other. On the last day of class, I asked them to anonymously submit any questions they had about becoming a writer. I didn’t get to answer all of them in class, so I started writing up my answers and posting them on our class bulletin board. I thought I’d share a few of them here this week. Here’s the first one….
Q: They say you should write like your parents are dead, but what if they are alive? Do people ever get mad?
A: Yesterday in class we talked about the fact that yes, people can indeed be angered/hurt by things you write. We also discussed one strategy for initially avoiding dealing with some of those feelings (i.e. Not telling your family about the publication and not sharing the work on social media). This is obviously a strategy with huge limitations as avoidance strategies are never full-proof or very effective for the long haul.
Here are some other ideas:
1. Write the things you really desperately need to say that will likely hurt/anger others, but do not publish those pieces. Just the act of writing these things down can be extremely helpful as it can allow us to move on and write about other topics and sometimes the writing act can open up ways into the material that might not be so hurtful to others, such as:
2. Focus on your part, your feelings. If you minimize the parts of the story in which the Person Did the Bad Thing and talk more about the impact on you, it can make for a more interesting story and also minimize the focus on the person who did the bad thing. You might also think about your part in the situation. This really only works for stories with an adult narrator as children aren’t complicit in their circumstances, but with your adult narrator ask yourself the question, “Did I play a role in creating this problem?” If you did not (sometimes people are hideous and we did nothing), you might think of other stories in which you were less than perfect. Showing those narratives adjacent to the stories of in which Someone Did a Bad Thing creates a more balanced view of life and a more trustworthy narrator.
3. Think about books and essays in which someone told the truth and that truth made you realize you are not alone. Most writers possess a list of books and essays that changed their lives. When you write the truth about your life, you are offering a gift to your readers. You are sacrificing some of your own privacy so that they can have the experience of knowing they are not the only ones who’ve ever felt those feelings. As Anne Lamott once said, Now it’s your turn to be the host. It’s your turn to tell the truth–and to live with the consequences good and bad of telling that truth.
4. Remember that it’s not our job in life to cover up for other people. Of course, we don’t want to run around needlessly hurting people or stripping them of their privacy, but we also don’t have to hide how we’ve been hurt so they won’t be embarrassed.
5. Avoid using names. Whenever possible, change details that identify the person. Read the author’s note in multiple memoirs and see how those writers have given themselves permission to change identifying details.
6. Build that writing community. When you spend time with other people who spend time trying to write the truth about their lives and living with the consequences of doing so, you will likely be emboldened to do so yourself. Or, at least you’ll have some people to invite over for Thanksgiving.