During the second semester of my freshman year, I was sitting in the hallway of my dorm studying for a psychology exam. My roommate was in the middle of a family crisis, so I was giving her privacy while her boyfriend comforted her. From what I can remember, it was a Friday night, so a lot of the girls were dressing up for a night out, wearing surprisingly little considering it was 40 degrees outside. One girl (I can’t remember her name so I’ll call her Nicole) was waiting outside her room for her friend to arrive. Nicole’s back coat was longer than whatever dress or skirt she was wearing underneath, and when the friend arrived, Nicole turned with her back to me and opened her coat and asked, “Is this too short?” For all I knew, she was flashing her friend. Like most things in life (relationships, money, etc.), my motto is “If you have to ask, you can’t _____.” For example, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it” or “If you have to ask someone to change or tell you they love you, you can’t afford to be with them.” My motto in this case was, “If you have to ask if it’s too short, then it’s too short.”
As I said, this motto applies to many areas in life, including writing. Every creative nonfiction writer, especially memoirists, faces the dilemma of how much he or she should reveal while writing personal narrative. Oftentimes, the characters in the memoir/essay are still alive and ostensibly can get their hands on a book. And often the writer is not portraying the characters in a particularly flattering manner. Unfortunately, the writer cannot wait for every possibly offended person to die or cut out all the salient details, so the question is, “How much should I reveal?” Casting others in a negative light is dangerous or implying potentially harmful sentiments has its consequences.
It’s no secret that memoirists often tweak the facts of the past to suit their purposes (if you want factually accurate, buy an autobiography), but how far is too far is the debate that rages on in the writing community–at what point does omission or minor changes become lying? Should writers alter their story to avoid hurt feelings and harming relationships at the risk of their own artistic integrity? My answer? It depends on how important these relationships are to you and how understanding the other person is likely to be, especially if he or she is litigious (think libel) or particularly sensitive. Some memoirists write under a pseudonym or change the story enough that they decide to publish the book as fiction–the creative nonfiction has become narrative nonfiction. The story is marketed as a novel, and the writer is free to manipulate the story any way he or she pleases. The internal turmoil can be excruciating for a writer, but after careful contemplation, he or she comes to the conclusion that he or she is most comfortable with.
But not all would-be memoirists go through traditional publishing channels. Blogging sites allow any writer to instantly write, post, display, and share anything he or she likes–from fiction to political opinion to book reviews to memoir–without the inspection of an editor or a lawyer, for that matter. If your blog is not advertised to your family and friends, feel free to post whatever you want. But it’s like posts on Facebook–consider your audience before you press enter, because there are 100+ people who might see it. And be doubly careful, because once you press publish, there’s no disguising yourself or taking back what you said once someone has read it. The “e” in “e-mail” or “e-journal” does not stand for “electronic”: It stands for “evidence” and “eternal.” Whatever you put out into the blogosphere is fair game for anyone to read, copy+paste onto a word document, and keep forever.
Is it counterproductive to the writing process to self-censor in the name of sparing others’ feelings? For one, writers who are not absolutely clear about their meaning leave the ambiguity of the written word as a communicator (again why going through a traditional publishing channel when discussing personal issues is preferable to the blogging world). But to answer my question: Yes, and no. Many writers pride themselves about their transparency and honesty in their writing, baring all in the name of the craft. But for me, I have different priorities. I’ve edited out a fair bit of potentially damaging material from my own work, or if I do write pieces that are damaging, I never submit them for publication or share them with others. I cannot claim to be a tell-all writer, but I’m okay with that, because I put my family and friends first and my needs and wants as a writer second. I struggle with the decision to hit the delete key, but usually I don’t regret keeping my relationships intact. I’d rather give up some of my artistic authenticity than insult my loved ones or harm our relationships. Perhaps I lack the courage or even maturity, but I have plenty of writing material without hurting others. One of my favorite authors of all time, David Sedaris, is shameless when using his family’s stories in his work. I suppose he’s already cleared it with them or maybe has come to terms with the possibility that his family will resent using their histories. I have no idea. But I am not a bestselling author, and I do not pretend to be more than I am as a writer. I have humility and appropriately modify my writing.
As I mentioned above, many writers claim to be set apart from the crowd by their open and honest writing. News flash: it doesn’t. I may self-censor, but because there is a plethora of writers who claim to be brutally honest, any declaration of honesty is rendered null and void. So when you’re considering how confessional to be (and that’s a whole other topic–confessional writing), remember that putting it all out there is not being artistic. A true memoirist carefully selects what to reveal in order to craft a narrative. Writing ad infinitum about your feelings or problems in an attempt to be an artist without consciously deciding what to discard and what to display is the opposite of good writing. The best writers are meticulous in the way they portray themselves and others–before they submit the manuscript or press “publish,” they have decided what to include and what to leave out and have accepted the potential fallout.