First, Do No Harm

Through the years I’ve consistently given this exhortation:
Any life story you write is better than writing nothing.
Today I’m adding a caveat from the Hypocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”I’ve written numerous posts about how to decide whether to share your stories, but I had not connected those dots with the advice above. That connection was formed by a recent question from a person who was helping someone else write his lifestory. The result was disturbing. The client insisted on including a section that described one of of his sons as a lazy, no-good, son-of-a-gun — or something to that effect.

Without going into the details of the matter, something became crystal clear to me: Anything you write is better than writing nothing, but
no writing you share with others should intentionally cause harm or exacerbate harm that’s already occurred!
I’ve discussed this point many times. But not until this situation came up did I realize that my core values have progressed to the point that I must say, loud and clear, that it is simply not okay to use your words, whether spoken or written, for the intentional purpose of demeaning, belittling, scorning, or worse. Writing for revenge pours oil on a fire rather than quenching it, and you will never find personal peace by going down that road.

So what do you do if you feel angry, hate-full, or abused? Am I saying you have to burn or lock up those words?

No. That is not my intent. Truth is important, and sharing your writing can unlock shackles of pain, bringing healing to at least the author. There is a difference between writing for the purpose of revenge and writing to document or “witness.” You can describe what happened and how it affected you. Pour the unfiltered content of your heart and soul onto paper or the keyboard. But it won’t be helpful or healthy to share your stories until you can write them without blame or attributing motives to others.

Heather Summerhayes Cariou does a fine job of this in Sixtyfive Roses when she tells how her maternal grandmother disowned Heather’s family. She tells of the circumstances and the resulting pain and loss she felt, but she writes objectively, without blame, making it clear she understands her grandmother's decision.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Heather wrote several drafts of her memoir before seeking publication. The first three or four drafts served the purpose of settling and healing her own spirit. Only then could and did she begin to share with others. Take a lesson from her example. Write those dark stories and thoughts, but don’t share them (outside a confidential writing group) until they have had time to mellow and you’ve thoroughly explored the consequences.

Do no harm. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with you.

Write now: jot down some thoughts on a situation that has pained you
and consider the perspective of the source of your grief. Do you think that person was intentionally hurtful? Do you honestly believe the person knew a better way to handle the situation? Why or why not? How do you suppose the situation made the other person feel? What do you anticipate the outcome would be of sharing your story with that person? In the overall scheme of things, did the situation affect your life for better, worse, or both?


Pat's Place said...

Excellent, excellent advice. I shall add that to my advice to other writers. Thank you!!!

Karen Walker said...

Sharon, thanks so much for tackling this subject. It is crucial for memoir writers to understand that blaming, judging, or in any way demeaning anyone else will only make the reader think negatively of you,the writer. I can't tell you how many drafts I wrote of "Following the Whispers," which originally came from journal entries, which included all my negativity. Intention in writing is so key.
Karen Walker

Ritergal said...


Well put. In my haste to finish the post, I negelected to add your book, Following the Whispers as another example of a twenty-year writing process. An earlier post and podcast tells more about your experience.

Jane said...

We come across this a lot in our video biography work - especially in relation to children. It often comes up obliquely - the parent extols one child and damns the other with faint praise. Our approach is to discuss the implications with both the client (who is often the "good" child) and the subject (normally the parent) then let them decide. In every case so far, the decision is to exclude the doubtful material from the video.