Fear of Offending

I have a dilemma common to most writers: I’m afraid to write freely for fear that I’ll upset someone I care about. I thought that once my parents died, this would no longer be an issue. But I forgot that there are plenty of other people I could offend, including my children and husband. For instance, I have four children: how do I write about parental favoritism without making it sound like I do have favorites? Or, when writing about my marriages, how do I write frankly about my marital satisfaction without upsetting the one(s) who come across unfavorably?

I realize that the chances of ex-husbands or lovers reading my work is not high (unless my work becomes well-known–which of course is something I want, but am afraid to expect). But my family is very interested in my writing–at least my husband is–and wants to read what I write. I also want to share it with them. But how do I do that and be completely honest about certain things? It’s no good to try to cloak what I have to say in fiction–in fact, that’s almost even worse: I might want to embellish something that happened to me in real life and the embellishment might be interpreted as something that’s real. If I write about a married woman who has taken a lover, or wants to, will my husband think that’s what I’ve really done or thought?

This reminds me of the joke about the one-hundred-year old couple who go to a lawyer for a divorce. The lawyer asks, “Why did you wait so long?” And they reply, “We wanted to wait until the children were dead.” Do I have to wait until every one is dead before I can write exactly what I want to write? Chances are I won’t make it.

One alternative is to write under a pseudonym. Donald Westlake writes about doing that in his essay “Pen Names Galore,” but he never says that he did it to protect the feelings of people he was writing about. His reasons were mainly so that he could write prolifically, or change his style, without spreading his own name too thin. He doesn’t address whether or not pen names are a good idea to protect the reader.

Some writers protect their loved ones and even acquaintances by disguising who they’re writing about. But how does that help when you’re writing about your husband and you only have one? Or one of your children? (As if they couldn’t tell which one you’re writing about.) Or the person you’ve been friends with since the sixth grade? Some people might not know who you’re writing about, but those you’re writing about probably will.

I guess the only answer is to write freely and the consequences be damned. I’m just not sure that I’m ready to do that. The problem is, until I am, I probably won’t be the writer I long to be. Because writing requires honesty. I can’t cheat by pretending to feel differently than I really do. The result will ring false. Writing also requires “opening a vein”–letting it all hang out. Not every little detail, but the deepest meaning of the details you do include. Otherwise your writing will be flat. Mine often is, and I’ve diagnosed my problem as fear of offending. I need to get off this fence, jump in the mud and get dirty. Worrying about what others think of me is only going to give me writer’s block. And it has.

2 thoughts on “Fear of Offending

  1. Hey Ellen. I just happened to stumble upon your blog and found this post extra interesting, as I find myself in similar situations with writing as you expressed. I am also a writer, though I have started to pursue a career in journalism instead of creative writing with the mindset that journalism is a lot more practical. But nonetheless, I still love to write fiction and have occasionally caught myself craving to write about loved ones in an unfavorable way. And like yourself, my closest friends and family are the ones who are most interested in my work, so how could I ever dig deep inside myself to write something truly meaningful, but at the same time not offend?

    I have written a few stories that shared situations I have been in and feelings that I have gone thorough, and while my friends have called me out on those facts, I tell them that my stories are fiction and so are all of the characters and events that take place. But who am I kidding? They see right through all of my disguises and they question my personal interpretation of the protagonist’s intentions… which I always decline to comment. And even as I sit myself in front of the computer, typing away at a new story with a mid-20’s, male hero who goes through the difficulties of growing up and taking on responsibilities, I do the best I can to leave myself out it. But what if I deliberately put myself IN it… the story would be pure, the heartbreak true, the tragedy meaningful… and surely it’ll translate onto paper as my most powerful work. Is it worth it to potentially upset our loved ones though?

    I opt no… One reason being my observation of other friends who have tried to write about themselves. I have been asked to co-write, proofread, and revise some of my friends’ life stories and I must admit that even though their stories are worth telling, it’s not worth telling 100% true. My one friend wrote about going through the ups of marriage and the downs of a divorce and the struggle with their one child… that sure sounds intriguing, but it wasn’t in my opinion. As I suggested possible ways to make the story more vivid and alive, he was tentative to change any of the details because it wouldn’t stay true to his life. This made me think that as interesting my life seems to me, MAYBE it’s not to anyone else. So maybe the product of coming clean wouldn’t result in the best work ever.

    I apologize for this lengthy response. I’m just venting and hope you take the time to read this and comment back. It’s just relieving to hear another writer going through a similar situation.

    By the way… great blog! Keep up the good work.

  2. I appreciate your thoughtful comment. You express many of my concerns perfectly. I don’t know the answer either, but I keep thinking that the more I write, the more I’ll feel comfortable with writing more honestly. For one thing, some things just scream to be let out and I think eventually you have to write about them or you become blocked.

    Good luck with your writing. You write very well and I’m sure you will be a success at whatever type of writing you choose to do–as long as you keep at it (which is a form of success in itself).

    And thank you very much for your encouragement!

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