What to tell and what to hide is one of the most puzzling questions we all face when writing life stories and memoir. Although few may have realized this, this sort of decision isn’t limited to writing. We make them on a regular basis, perhaps daily, maybe hourly.
My epiphany on this matter came as I wrote a recent email. The email included statements such as “Ordinarily I would not have mentioned this, but …” and “knowing the other side of this story may help you understand … more clearly.”
Rereading that email, I realized that even when I’m not writing, I constantly edit what I say for some or all of these reasons:
To avoid coloring person A’s view of person B. I realize that my perceptions and beliefs about any given individual reflect my experiences and values which may not pertain to others. Of course that’s most true of less favorable impressions. Favorable ones I share quite freely. When I was young, I often heard the aphorism, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
To help others avoid a pitfall or make sense of a puzzling situation. As an adult, I realize there are times when exposing the dark side of a situation or person may serve a valuable purpose in helping others avoid similar pain and pitfalls or to help them make sense of an otherwise baffling situation. But my personal code of ethics requires a compelling reason to do so.
To avoid embarrassing others. Children are taught (for better or worse) not to blurt out questions like “Why is that man all hunched over?” or observations like “Aunt Agatha sure is fat!” when that man or Aunt Agatha is within earshot. I could write an entire post about situations like this, but you get the drift.
To present myself in a favorable light. I admit it. I want to be liked and admired. I’m not eager to expose my many Achilles’ heels, though reluctance is crumbling with age and experience.
To express my thoughts in a way that makes sense to others. This requires a certain degree of awareness about the background and thought patterns of others and the ability to adapt to alternate points of view.
To keep others interested. How many times have you silently wished someone would get to the point? Excessive detail bogs down your story and causes glazed eyes and wandering attention in both readers and listeners.
Time limitations. I think at warp speed, about 16/7/365. There will never be enough time to report all my jumbled, overlapping, contradictory thoughts.
Filters and editing are an inherent part of effective communication in any mode. Most of us intuitively recognize the strategic importance of suiting both content and mode of expression to the purpose at hand as we go through our days. It’s no different with writing. Consider your reason for writing, what you hope to achieve, and the reaction you hope for from readers. Pair that with your best understanding of where they are coming from, and make you best call about what information will be most effective and helpful for them.
If you have brazen, inflammatory disclosures to make, you may feel safer doing so from behind the shield of print, but the issues involved in making that decision are almost identical to smaller ones you face each day.
Write and live honestly and boldly, with courage and compassion.
Write now: Think back over the last few days and identify situations where you chose to reveal or hide information. Use free writing to explore these decisions and the beliefs, attitudes and values that led you to make them. Then extend this reasoning to puzzling situations you face about disclosures in stories.