Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘censorship’

Excuse Me, But Is This Too Revealing?

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.

 

Banned Books Week!

Hi everyone and Happy Banned Books Week! This week is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Today is the first day of October, and here in Texas it feels a little bit like fall. Miracles! This year is the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week, so we’re celebrating thirty years of the right to read. Books like To Kill A Mockingbird, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 are still under fire; people are still attempting to take these amazing, inspiring, wonderful books off bookshelves in schools and libraries. And it’s not just classics that are threatened–books like Speak and The Kite Runner are being challenged all over the country. Check out Simon & Schuster’s page to see some quotes from frequently challenged authors: http://pages.simonandschuster.com/bannedbooksweek

I hope everyone celebrates Banned Books Week by reading a banned book. What book will you read? I still find it incredible that some of the most wonderful books in the English/American literary canon suffer attempted censorship, so everyone should rejoice in our freedom to produce, write, publish, and read banned books. After all, a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.

Even if some books aren’t outright banned, some are hoping to impose ratings on books, especially books for Young Adults. I read an article (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9558797/Fifty-Shades-of-YA-Should-teen-books-have-ratings.html) by a young adult author, CJ Daugherty, who discussed the possibility of imposing a ratings system on YA books in the UK, but the discussion isn’t limited to our friends across the pond (http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/05/18/is-it-time-to-rate-young-adult-books-for-mature-content). When I first read these articles, I couldn’t express my outrage. I struggled to find the words to explain how indignant I felt. After all, movies have ratings systems–if you’re under seventeen, you can’t see an R-rated movie without an adult. However, I never snuck into an R-rated movie before my seventeenth birthday. When I did finally go to one after my seventeenth, the girl at the register didn’t even card me, but the thought of a young person hooked on reading having to show ID to buy a book rankled me.

I do agree that some YA adults aren’t appropriate for elementary-age children. If I had kids, I’d limit if they could read The Hunger Games series (a lot of violence) or the later books of the Harry Potter series (lots of adult themes and death), but I want to leave that choice up to individual parents rather than imposing an arbitrary system like the MPAA does on movies. CJ Daugherty is a fan of the system in the United States where publishers place a recommended age on the back covers of YA books, but some feel that this doesn’t go far enough.

Why should books be exempted from ratings while moviemakers are forced to edit down their movies to receive a lower rating than NC-17? An NC-17 rating effectively cancels a movie’s ability to turn a profit, so filmmakers cut out a lot of the juicier tidbits to avoid the ire of the MPAA, and I do not want to see books go the same way, where authors have to water down the content to avoid getting a bad rating. The ALA believes that a rating system that would require authors to edit out content is nothing short of censorship.

Plus, where would you draw the line for what is appropriate and inappropriate for which ages? Three curse words is inappropriate for twelve-year-olds, but five is acceptable for thirteen-year-olds? Making out is taboo for 5th graders, but second base is okay for 7th graders?

Sarah Coyne, a professor in Brigham Young University’s department of family life points out that many books, if adapted into movies, would quickly be rated R within just a few pages. She argues, “I don’t think anyone would argue that books like Harry Potter orTwilight didn’t have a big influence on adolescents. When you see a TV show like Gossip Girl, you get a hint of the [adult content], but I don’t think parents are aware of how much worse it is in the books.” But books are different from movies. Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association, asserts that books provide a safe avenue for exploring more adult topics. “Books can be a safe way for young people to explore edgier, sensitive, or complicated topics, and they provide parents the opportunity to help their teens grow and understand these kinds of sensitive issues.”

Plus, books with too much edited out don’t truthfully depict what it’s like to be a teen. I led a fairly vanilla young adolescence, but I had friends whose activities, if displayed onscreen, would get an R-rating in a second. I think books should accurately portray what teens experience–their trials and tribulations, their triumphs, their heartbreak, their mistakes. I learned a lot about what it’s like to grow up and how to survive the perilous word of teenagerdom from reading books like Speak and Go Ask Alice. Without those books, I would have been more lost than I already was in a complicated world of teenage drama and emotions.

I fully support a parent’s right to closely monitor what his or her children read and to prohibit his or her own children from reading inappropriate material, but for goodness’ sake, let’s not create an organization that limits teens from reading a whole range of books. It’s hard enough to get teens to read today in general, so why on earth are we narrowing the field of what they can read? I cannot bear to one day see a young, avid reader who can’t buy The Perks of Being a Wallflower because they aren’t old enough to read it, according to a third-party organization.

Although I don’t want to fall into the trap of a slippery slope logical fallacy, I don’t there are too many steps between limiting what children can read and banning books altogether. Books challenge people, force them out of their comfort zone. Books are a door into another world we might have never experienced otherwise. And it’s brain exercise. Brain waves while watching a TV show or a movie are pretty stagnant, but while reading a book, brain activity is alive and on fire. Books spark creativity and imagination; books teach us about ourselves, whether the setting is the suburbs or a fantasy world. Let’s promote creative innovation rather than stifling expression.

 

%d bloggers like this: