Above All, Cause No Harm

toad warts“You can’t write the truth of someone without mentioning their warts and wrinkles as well as their angelic smile. And how can  you write about the warts and wrinkles without causing them distress?”

This question comes up in one form or another in every memoir and lifestory class I teach. Everyone hopes for stone tablet truth to guide them, but alas, there are no hard and fast rules. But take hope and use these tips to guide your decisions:

1) Write privately first.

It’s therapeutic to get angry feelings on the page, out in the open where you can see them. Sometimes simply writing the reasons for your rage focuses it, and the reasons may look ridiculous or blown out of proportion. Perhaps that’s enough and you can burn, shred or delete the words and all will be well.

If it isn’t well, think care-fully before sharing your thoughts lest you cause greater damage to self or others, or paint yourself into an unforeseen corner or difficult situation. I speak here of rage, but other emotions can be equally volatile. You can’t always know how others will hear or understand.

2) Go to the balcony.

The idea in this concept borrowed from negotiation texts is to rise above the situation and consider the points of view of all concerned in any conflict, misunderstanding, or emotional events. There is always another side to any story. Simply making the effort to look at other points of view may change the way you see things. 

3) Write from compassion rather than revenge.

Nobody wants to read whining stories, and those simply point fingers and write from a victim’s point of view are likely to be set aside rather soon. You may not understand why a person committed an evil or hurtful act, but whether it’s an “external” event such as failure to repay a loan, or an “internal” one like betrayal of trust, physical or emotional abuse, or other forms of pain, simply state what happened and how it affected you. Skip the name calling and judging. That will not gain you sympathy or credibility with readers, nor will it improve your state of mind and mental health. Give them the benefit of the doubt if you can and express empathy.

4) Get guidance from others.

Ask a trusted friend or writing group if your story is too judgmental or likely to cause pain to someone you care about – or worse yet, provoke legal complications. Ultimately it has to be your decision, but these advisers can help you tone things down or make decisions about certain story elements you may do well to omit.

5) Ask permission.

Many memoir writers mention somewhere in their books that they showed their draft to parents or others who might be offended or hurt by the material. They encountered surprisingly few objections. Requests for changes were often about things the author never would have expected.

However, few realize that their consent is no guarantee that no feelings will be hurt. For a variety of reasons, people may agree to allow you to publish something that actually is hurtful. To minimize this possibility, go back up the list to the point about compassion. Hopefully if your relationship is healthy enough that you were able to ask, you have come to the point of understanding and forgiveness, and expressing that that will surely blunt the pain for the offenders as well as gaining you points with readers.

6) Change names and details.

People who know you will probably know who you are writing about, but far fewer than if you use real names.

7) Write fiction.

You may have heard the adage, “All stories are true, some stories happened.” Some truth is best and most safely expressed in fiction.

Write now: write a personal essay on your feelings about showing other people’s warts and wrinkles in published stories. You may have someone specific in mind, or you may write more generally about people you once knew who are unlikely to ever read your story, but if they learned about it could be embarrassed.

Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowsky


Karen Walker said...

Wise post, Sharon. As you know, I waited till both my folks were gone before publishing my memoir. Then I also changed names.

Sharon said...

Karen, I appreciate the reminder about waiting. Why didn't I remember that while writing?

SuziCate said...

Above all, cause no harm-absolutely! There are some things I think would be excellent writing material but I dare not write at this time...as Karen said some things are better left to wait. And Sharon, yes, making it fiction is sometimes the only way. Even then some things I think are just too touchy and are better left unsaid. I always ask myself...what good can come from writing this? If it's simply for release, I write it and then delete it. Not everything is meant to be shared.

Sharon said...

Sometimes simply mentioning "a package" exists is enough to send people scurrying around to find it. If you truly want it to remain hidden, don't bring it up!

Thomas Williams said...

Great article!

Has any one tried SamEnrico for self publishing and creating digital magazines?

Sharon said...

Thanks Thomas. I just checked SamEnrico and many links seem to be broken. That's not a good sign!

Samantha M. White said...

Great treatment of a crucial subject, Sharon! Thanks for posting it. As you suggest in Point #4, I went so far as to engage legal counsel that specializes in literary property, and gave them manuscript to read and evaluate for potential liability. They cleared me. I also consulted a clergy person to evaluate the material for judgementalism on my part. In that instance, I was advised to remove some of what I had written that wasn't essential to my story. Some members of my family have not read my memoir and never will, because the story is too raw and "close to home" for them. We can only do everything we can to spare people without writing anything false. Making it fiction might have been easier, but would not have felt as authentic to me. I changed the names of people who had not given me permission to use their names. I felt permission was important, not for legal reasons as much as simple consideration for their wishes.

Sharon said...

Samantha, thank you for expanding those points. I love when people "write the rest of the post" in comments! I do agree that your story is more compelling for its raw truth that can't be discounted as "just a story."

Linda Austin said...

Such an important post, Sharon. There are always two sides to a story, too. If we can at least hint at the point of view of the "bad guy," we give him or her complexity of character that can only add to the richness of our story. I had to do this with my mother's memoir - against her wishes! People may feel better about being outed for bad behavior if they know they were treated with a degree of fairness and understanding.

Sharon said...

Great point Linda, and you lead where I wanted to go and didn't see the path: some of the "offenders" in memoir later mature and learn and truly change their ways. Showing that in the memoir validates their "redemption." Other times learning may NOT happen, but you can see that although their best wasn't very good, they did the best with life that they knew how. That they were coping with their own demons. That's not an excuse. That's forgiveness.

Sherrey Meyer said...

Sharon, a thoughtful post for those of us writing in our genre. I am attempting to show in my memoir not just the mother I remember as frightening and hurtful, but also the wonderfully compassionate volunteering she did and the way she cared for my father when he was ill for so many years. It is quite a contrast and I MUST share both sides of her as a person. This is easier now that I know the catalyst behind her parenting skills.