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.