Being Naked on the Page vs. Tearing off the Clothes of Loved Ones

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.

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3 thoughts on “Being Naked on the Page vs. Tearing off the Clothes of Loved Ones

  1. I had a problem with Facebook and sharing too much information on my page thus hurting quite a few people who were close to me. I deactivated my account and find now that it’s kind of refreshing. I miss the interactions on Facebook but it’s been good for me. I’m a very “naked” writer and I’ve had to learn the hard way that you always have to be thinking about who your writing will affect. Thank you for sharing. I really connected to what you said.

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  2. AMEN! Some people’s blogs and FB are not only very needy but also rude as they do call out all others with their only regard being their own feelings. I unfollowed people because of this. I have dealt with selfish people in my life and I think those people are selfish as well, it is all about “me, me, me” and how “I feel.” it’s one thing to write about your feelings but another to make it look as though you are the only innocent victim in the world and everyone else in the world is the devil incarnate out to get you. So annoying.

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  3. As most everyone knows I like getting naked verbally. 🙂 I try my best not to bring others to the literary nudist colony, who don’t want to be there. The way I do this is by honoring their request to not reveal their name/identity in my writing.

    When criticized for what I have shared by those involved pertaining to MY STORY, I ask, “What have I shared that is untrue? If I have shared something that is untrue, please bring it to my attention. I will remove it.” I have not shared anything knowingly that has been untrue, and honestly, I’ve never had them tell me it’s not true, just that they are not happy that I live openly when they choose to be private.

    The tricky thing is that others are involved in our personal stories, because we do life with them. We have relationships. As much as possible I try to keep it limited to “my story” but obviously it overlaps with others because what I’m writing about is what happens to me in relationship.

    I love the Anne Lamott quote: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

    I believe our stories are really important, not only for catharsis for us, but understanding for others in the world who share like experiences to know they are not alone. A lot of what has been labeled privacy and discretion is simply pride.

    I love what you shared here too about being about to tell the truth without sharing all the details. If people only knew how much those of us who get naked hold back. For instance, when I wrote about my Feb 28 experience, I had originally shared it all, every detail before publishing and I cut and pasted time and again and then left the ugliest section out. My therapist and close friends who know the entire thing have said, “If the world only knew!!”

    Thanks for this important post. I appreciate you. Love you

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