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.

The Angelic Spy

Jayne Anne Phillips, in her essay in The Washington Post Book World’s collection, The Writing Life (2003), calls the writer an “angelic spy.” Writers are entrusted with the secrets we spend our lives discerning and attempting to reveal as truth on paper. The tricky thing is to do so without betraying the trust of those whose secrets we carry.

I once wrote an essay about my then step-daughter and it was published before she even knew that I had written it. I didn’t reveal a big secret; it was about a gift she gave me. But even so, she was upset that I had written and submitted it without telling her first. I contended that it happened to me, so it was fair game (although I said it a bit more diplomatically). I defended myself more vigorously when my sister-in-law criticized me for using someone else’s life to further my craft. But if we don’t write about others–or what happens to us in our relationships to others–what do we have to write about? Every encounter has an element of secrecy to it. Everyone assumes that what they say and do is going to be kept sacrosanct by any witness. That’s not realistic. We talk–and write–about each other as a way of telling stories. Call it gossip if you will. It sounds better to call writers angelic spies, but it amounts to the same thing.

But there is a difference. Gossip implies a certain maliciousness. Most (but not all) writers carry no malice when they write. We are attempting to tease the truth out of what happens in life and reveal that truth through our use of language. But others may see us as outlaws, living outside the boundaries of accepted behavior: we tell on people. We spy on them and then reveal what we discover to the world.

Our defense is that we do it for “angelic” reasons. We do not seek to hurt, but to heal. Secrets can be poisonous, festering in the minds and souls of those who keep them. The sensitive writer is not trying to “out” her subjects. She just wants to help the reader make sense of his behavior. Perhaps the reader has had the same thing happen to him. Perhaps he has done the same thing to others. Reading about these “secrets” can be cathartic. It gives the reader a chance to look into the souls of those who have tried to keep them and to learn the lessons they learned–or should have learned.

Saying that what writers do is angelic implies that we are above the world, seeing all and carrying messages from God. Isn’t that exactly what writers do? There is a spiritual aspect to all writing, whether or not we are religious. There is a higher power of some kind at work as we seek to delve beneath the surface of a person’s soul. I have used the word “soul” three times in the above sentences. That’s not because I can’t think of another word; I just can’t think of a better one. Emotions, actions, thoughts, personalities all add up to the soul, that deeper entity that defies facile descriptions. That’s why writers spend their lives trying to unravel the secrets others, and we ourselves, carry. We know that no life is fully described without revealing at least some of its secrets.

And so we spy. We witness and we record. And we attempt to explain, either directly or indirectly through the use of parable, analogy, simile and metaphor. We have come to earth to speak to the hearts of ourselves and others. You could even say that we have a divine imperative to do so.

It’s not easy to be a revealer of secrets. It requires a certain sensitivity and discretion. We need to speak the truth in love. That is what angels do.

My Writer’s Block

I have plenty of time (I work at another job, but only part-time), a new laptop, an encouraging and supportive husband (who doesn’t expect me to do housework) and a certain amount of faith in my writing ability. So why am I having so much trouble writing?

It occurred to me recently that I’m not having as much trouble as I think I am. But I’m obsessing about how hard it is for me to finish anything, let alone submit it somewhere (which automatically means no publication). And I think the reason I’m obsessing is the same reason I don’t feel good about myself and my life in general: my clinical depression and anxiety. Not so much because I still suffer from those two bogeymen of the mind, but because I still act and think as if I do. I haven’t revised my behavior and thinking to correspond to the strides I’ve made in achieving mental health. I’m used to being down on myself, because mood disorders make you feel that way. You can’t control how you feel or think because your depression, anxiety or whatever is doing the controlling.

How do I break through the control that depression and anxiety have over me? One technique is to act “as if” I am no longer controlled by them, to step out in faith in myself as a new person. Easier said than done, I know. But imperative if I’m going to get anywhere with my writing.