Everything I write is deeply personal. Even attempts to write fiction are largely drawn from my life experiences. Good times are included, of course, but it’s the pain—when I felt shocked, disappointed, devastated, or deeply hurt—that lights it up. Sadly, it’s fear of wounding the people I love that stops me from writing. How can I write my story without hurting them?
In the 1990s, when I asked my ex-husband if he’d sue me for publishing a memoir about our failed marriage, he didn’t even want to read it. He’d always had a strong ego, a locked-down image of himself. Adept at covering pain with humor, he made one request: “As long as you describe me as devilishly handsome, highly intelligent, an exceptional provider, and a stud in bed, I don’t care what you say.” I quoted his request verbatim in the prologue. Luckily for him, and us, really, it didn’t sell.
Not enough time had passed, emotional reverberations still rocked both our worlds. I’d aimed for objectivity, compassion—and fairness, but the wounds had not yet healed. He did what he did, but he wasn’t a monster, or I wouldn’t have loved and married him, would I? Still, from my point of view, he’d thoughtlessly destroyed what I wanted to be my only marriage, thwarted my desire for a happy family. I didn’t regurgitate all my anger onto the page, but had I been fair?
Years later, when my singer/songwriter daughter penned a song about how she felt I’d failed to hear or respect her anguish—it cut me to quick. My heart stopped. How could she possibly feel that way? I nursed my wounded ego in private, properly praised the artistry, tried to hide my pain.
When her brother—and my friends—wailed on my behalf, I said her perceptions belonged solely to her; and while it felt unfair to me, she had a right to tell her story. My son had had a different history with me, proving each person’s experience is distinctly his or hers. I’d had lots of therapy, learned this, knew her version reflected a slice of truth. Yes, I cried whenever she sang it—as she’d do while I sat front row, her most ardent, faithful supporter—but I wouldn’t dare suppress her art. It became one of her best, most requested songs for years Fancy how that felt?
She also wrote painful songs about her father, and then all the boyfriends who disappointed her. She’d been recording affronts in journals for years, developed a powerful, artistic voice, and I admired her confident use of it. Thankfully, she’s worked through a lot of her pain, found love, writes happier songs.
But I’ve been stuck, unable to write my story, mollified that the telling might hurt my children. Still, I’ve long known that my path is to write my story, fictionalized or not, and their father, and they, would be in crucial storylines--if I told my truth. I would focus on my debacles, from a healed, sensitive perspective, employing everything I’ve learned about writing, but still . . .
Today, it just so happens, this quote popped up on my Facebook’s “history” feed. I’d posted it years ago:
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” —Anne Lamott
Clearly, Anne Lamott would encourage full speed ahead, damn the consequences. I essentially agree, but here are five things I needed to recognize first:
- I know how to be objective: Years spent as a journalist taught me how to be objective. Report: Who, What, When, Where, and How. Focus on your feelings, don’t judge their actions.
- I’m not a vindictive, hurtful person: I often consider other people’s feelings far more than my own; and I’ve always been harder on myself than anyone else. The storytelling will reflect that.
- I have gathered wisdom: I am mentally healthier, more emotionally stable, and more nuanced when writing than even a few years ago.
- I worked out the pain first: I’ve resolved the traumas. All that’s left are the bones. The passion would be there, but not rancor, or finger-pointing, or misdirected fury.
- My story is my story. No one is stopping them from writing theirs.
Whether I write a novel or a memoir, I’ll write from a place of honesty, fairness, and respect for all involved. My goal will never be retribution. I write to heal myself, heal my loved ones, heal anyone who reads what I write. That’s who I am, that’s what I do.
If you’ve been hesitant to write fiction or nonfiction because it might harm a loved one, examine your motivations. If you’re so angry you need to vent “on paper,” then vent your little heart out, but don’t publish what pours out. Write furiously, then set those pages on fire, literally. Doing so psychically transports the blame to the perpetrator—and sets you free.
However, please do write what you need to write. Writing has its greatest power when it comes from the heart, shares deeply meaningful experiences, helps others learn from your mistakes.
The time to censor is when you edit and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite—as all writers seeking publication must do. That’s the time to identify transgressions, exaggerations, distortions, anger, or harshness, and reconsider the perspective. If you honestly wrote what happened, without subjective finger-pointing, it’s likely fair.
If it’s not, rewrite those parts until they are.
Whatever you do, keep writing.
Tip: If you’re writing about painful events that include someone you love, or once loved, remember to strive for objectivity. Simply report what happened—and your response. Focus far more on yourself, tell your story, and let readers make their own decisions.