In a previous post, I proclaimed, “Good writers allow themselves to be seen naked on the page.” I do believe that the best writers are able to express their vulnerability in what they write and that this vulnerability is what makes good writing so good, because it opens a window through which a reader can see parts of himself.
However, I also think that being “naked” on the page does not necessarily mean a writer has to reveal every little detail about a real-life situation. Even memoirists have the right to keep some things private. And I think that we who write about real life especially need to be careful to protect the privacy of those we write about.
It’s one thing to tell all about our own interior life. Our thoughts, feelings, reactions, etc. belong to no one else but ourselves. We should write about these things. We must, if we want our writing to resonate. But when it comes to describing events that have taken place in our lives that include things other people have said or done, we need to consider that even though, as writers, we’ve chosen to live in the public eye to a certain degree, others in our lives have not made this conscious choice, nor should they be forced to by the words we publish. There’s certainly no way to avoid mentioning the important people in our lives. They will appear in our work. But I think we can be naked on the page ourselves without having to rip off the clothes of our friends and family.
When people think of memoir, they often recall those tell-all style books that seem more like weapons of revenge than literature. Some authors seem to not care how their revelations about loved ones will affect those people’s lives. They feel truth equals telling what really happened and telling all of what really happened, including every name, word, and action. They think that if they leave out any small detail, their story will be a lie. I understand this feeling, because there was a time when I also struggled with how to tell a true-life story without telling the whole story, and the whole story seemed to me, at that time, to be made up of thousands of individual words and deeds that if altered would turn the story into fiction.
Then I had a revelation. What would happen if my true-life story did turn into fiction? Would it then be false? Would it no longer speak of the truth I wanted to convey? I realized that fiction can speak truth every bit as much as non-fiction can. I knew this was the case because of the many made-up stories I read that spoke to my own life. There is a difference between “the truth,” meaning exactly what happened, as a witness is asked to testify in a trial, and “truth,” which is the honest representation of a thing. In the years that I’ve been exploring my own intentions in my writing, I’ve come to realize that what I’m after is truth, and truth can be expressed in any genre. Which real-life facts I decide to reveal is my choice. I am not required to document every detail of my life in order to express my truth. This is why we call fiction, poetry, and even memoir “creative” writing. I write in all these genres, and in each, I tell my truth, even when the story that’s being told appears to not be about me at all.
Sometimes a loved one will say to a writer, “I don’t want you to write about me at all.” In my opinion, there’s simply no way for a writer to honor this request. Every person I come into contact with has an effect on me, and my loved ones are intimately connected to my life. I cannot write my truth without examining those connections. What I can do, though, is respect my loved ones’ desire for personal privacy by not naming them outright and by focusing in my writing on my own experience. That doesn’t mean I won’t still be taken to task by someone I’ve mentioned in a piece, but at least I’ll know that I did everything I could to respect that person while also respecting my own story.