It’s My Story (And I’ll Tell If I Want To)

September 29, 2016 § 29 Comments

lesley_gore_-_its_my_partyRoz Warren writes revealing personal essays for a living. When she found out her partner had been cheating on her, intensely, intimately, for ten years, she wrote about it. Of course. At Broad Street Review, she addresses the obvious question:

Why? I’m a writer. It’s what I do. I write about everything that happens to me. It’s how I cope and how I understand my life. For years, I’ve been writing about how wonderful Mike is. He’s turned up over and over again in my essays. I told the world how funny and clever and loving he was. How I loved him. How much fun the two of us had together. I’ve even appeared on the Today show, where Savannah Guthrie interviewed me about an essay I’d written for the New York Times in which Mike was featured, being fabulous, loving, and supportive. When Mr. Wonderful turned out to have been Mr. Infidelity all along, why wouldn’t I write about that too?

Roz talks about the tiny voice she heard–a voice I’ve heard, too–when her partner admitted the affair.

“This is awful. This is devastating. And unbelievable. And hateful. And…this is amazing material.”

At moments of horrifying emotional trauma, part of my brain steps back and starts noting down metaphors. No, I’ll tell it like this–hey, remember that detail, the song you’ll always think of as the soundtrack to this moment…

Roz Warren’s partner was, not unnaturally, unhappy about her new topic. Furious, in fact. But one of her friends quoted Anne Lamott–“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people want you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

That’s how I feel, too. I also write personal essays. I also talk frankly about bad behavior. And I believe that not only is it possible to do so ethically and kindly–for a given value of “kind”–but that writing ethically makes better work. Recently, a friend who’d experienced a public, traumatic, but unintentional insult asked me, “What are your thoughts on writing something that might be unflattering to someone who will also likely read it (I’d keep them anonymous as much as possible)?”

I told her I was all for it. That I’d kept an anonymous sex blog for two years and at least three of the people I was having sex with, and with whom I shared my work, read some very unflattering things about themselves. My now-husband is the only person in my life whose privacy is more valuable to me than a story, and I still wrote a piece that included a line about our mutual pornography habits.

To my friend, I suggested some guidelines to remain ethical and kind while telling one’s own truth:

  • First write it. Always write before any negotiation with yourself or anyone else. Don’t sabotage your first draft. First drafts are private.
  • In a subsequent draft, make sure you are at least as harsh with yourself as you are with everyone else. How do you reconcile your own behavior with the situation or the end result? Is there anyone who deserves the benefit of the doubt? Self-hagiography is boring. Nobody wants to be told you’re the hero of your own story, and very few situations truly involve a wronged innocent.
  • Make sure you’re showing instead of telling–Is the person’s behavior clear through visible action, rather from your feelings about their character?
  • Figure out where you’re going to publish. If you want to maintain a good relationship, think about how much publicity may happen, and plan ahead. For example, I had limited consent to tell a story about a friend in a venue outside the friend’s orbit. The story was republished by another outlet (beyond my control) with a bigger audience. Even though it was one of my bucket-list venues, I didn’t promote it, because doing so would have brought it into my friend’s line of sight and been hurtful. Try not to publish the essay about your horrible mother in the magazine all her friends read. Shaming is for editorials.
  • Remember that sharing information is not asking for permission. If you choose to tell the person you’ve written about before publication, try, “I had some complicated feelings about X and I’ve written about them. Would you like to know anything about the content before I publish it, so that you’re aware of what’s out there?” You may or may not wish to add, “I value our friendship, and I’m not mad at anyone, but I needed to process how I felt in the moment, and this is a snapshot of a particular time and place.” Then, based on what they say and who it is, you can allow them to read the actual piece, summarize the content, or summarize just the part they’re in. Think of yourself at this stage not as the writer, but as the fact-checker. It’s hard and uncomfortable to share work that’s already close to our hurt feelings with the person who hurt us, but it can deepen the piece to ask the person, “why did you do that?” and see if their stated motivation belongs in there, too. If you are already estranged, you don’t have to seek them out. You’re writing about your world, not theirs.
  • Remember that not everyone wants to know. My husband has said, “there are a lot of books in the world, and that’s one I won’t be reading,” about my memoir. I’m OK with that. Respect boundaries.

A writer’s obligation is to the truth as they experience it. We should be fair, but we don’t have to stay quiet for fear of hurting feelings. As Roz Warren puts it: “I wish with all my heart that Mike had been the loving, trustworthy man I thought he was, and that I didn’t have this terrible betrayal to write about. But I do. So I am.”

Read her whole essay at Broad Street Review.


Allison K Williams is the Social Media Editor for Brevity and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.

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§ 29 Responses to It’s My Story (And I’ll Tell If I Want To)

  • N E Harvey says:

    Fantastic article. Both yours and Roz’s. There are many things I could write about but haven’t because of the people involved. I feel inspired to write about some of the more controvertial events in my life.

  • Roz Warren says:

    I’m glad (and honored) that my essay inspired this terrific piece.

  • nascentwings says:

    “Why? I’m a writer. It’s what I do. I write about everything that happens to me. It’s how I cope and how I understand my life. ”

    Can totally relate to it!

  • Amy Yelin says:

    Excellent. And perfect for a class I’m teaching this weekend so thanks!

  • You would cry too if it happened to you.

  • Jen says:

    Really great, practical, useful piece!

  • Thanks. Such a wonderful piece. I appreciate this too: Why? I’m a writer. It’s what I do. I write about everything that happens to me. It’s how I cope and how I understand my life. ”


  • Jan Wilberg says:

    Agree with everything except if the subject is one’s kids. Then I think different rules apply.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Great point, Jan–and I think there’s a larger issue in “punching down” that applies to kids and people who for whatever reason are not in a position to competently defend themselves, and when there’s a huge fame imbalance (i.e., the author’s media clout so far exceeds that of the subject, there’s no hope they could compete with their own story).

      Even then, though, I think it’s still possible to honestly tell one’s own experience, but there’s a higher privacy obligation for the subject. So a parent might need to write more concept-based than specific-child based pieces–or wait until the children are grown and write retrospectively.

      • Jan Wilberg says:

        I have written about my kids and sometimes gotten a little close to the line. I was advised by an editor, just like you advise, that it’s my life but I know it’s theirs, too. It’s tricky.

    • Diane Vacca says:

      I’ve been wrestling for years with a story– my story– that I would have liked to write as as a way to heal and impart the wisdom gained from experience. “It’s how I cope and how I understand my life.”

      But though my child was 30 when the saga began, and that was over 20 years ago, there is also a grandchild who is an integral part of the story. I don’t know how to tell it without violating their boundaries. I have held back all these years out of the certainty that these relationships would be irreparably sundered if I told my story, because it is their story as well. The mother comes before the writer.

      Baring a lover’s or a parent’s betrayal is different. Even if they aren’t able to defend themselves. “They should have behaved better.” Only recently have I been willing and able to reveal myself in my writing, to own my feelings and experiences in published pieces. Thank you Allison and Roz and the commenters. I value your insights.

  • Anyone who knowingly messes with a writer should be on notice that they and their transgressions might end up in print. Now that most of us can/do self-publish, this is not an empty possibility. Of course, the writer has to be prepared to deal with any emotional fall out even though truth is a legal defense to libel.

    However, I agree with Allison that there are some people to whom we owe a higher duty of privacy.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thanks, I’ve needed exactly this . . . which is also why I waited all day to read it.

  • Debra Eder says:

    I apologize on behalf of the person who unintentionally traumatized your friend. I’m a “blurter” who often thinks before I speak… The truth is I do feel mortified after I blurt something out that’s insensitive and sometimes downright clueless — spoken the spirit of being “honest” and “open-minded.”

    This could be the case with the person who unintentionally insulted your friend.

    I’d suggest your friend examine her motivation for writing. Does she want to “shame” the person who insulted her or will the piece have a larger truth that resonates for other readers? Since the insult was unintentional, I’d ask your friend to consider whether she wants to revisit the trauma. In the time it takes to write and edit the piece, will she be holding onto pain? There may be something else she’d like to write about that wasn’t imposed on her by someone else’s thoughtlessness.

    I hope this helps.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Great point Debra! As it happens, she ended up writing a wonderful piece about a larger issue that didn’t even include the awful event that made her think about it🙂

  • Anna says:

    Excellent piece, as are all the links. Just the kick in pants I need to write fully about a couple of old relationships. Oddly enough (maybe not so oddly), when I was leaving my ex I often used to sing “Cry me a river” in my head–or out loud, very loud, when alone. It’s a great song for venting. Thanks to Allison and all.

  • I disagree with the message carried by this well-written essay for the sake of newer, younger writers.

    Writers document countless charged moments over the course of a lifetime. It’s the raw cloth from which beautiful garments are made. However, punishing by writing about someone seems like a bad idea to me. It is short-lived, but mostly self-serving and reactive, the quickest way for a young writer to exact payback after being hurt. The writer takes the painful experience from yesterday into the moment it is read. If the story is traumatic, it can release energy for the writer, or work against him/her and make it harder to shake off.

    I caution young writers to think about the collateral damage their work might do and pause. Instead, jot down detailed notes rather than leap into story-telling. Give the incident space to be sure you are not using your gift with words to do harm or exact revenge. Family, close friends, lovers who made a mistake will continue to be in your life. They are the relationships that will support you when things go wrong. Writing embarrassing stories that shame someone in your circle or family will ensure you won’t be seen as a safe person to share with. No one in trouble will feel comfortable asking you for help. Is one story worth it?

    Ms. Williams writes: “My now-husband is the only person in my life whose privacy is more valuable to me than a story.” For new writers it’s not always that clearcut, so it’s important to extend your boundary of privacy until experience assures you that a powerful personal story is a worth writing in detail. Before you rush to publish it’s easy to ask yourself whom you might alienate and if you gain more in the long run by letting this idea go. Kindness to others can certainly be included in our writing process.

  • Here comes the dynamite: In a subsequent draft, make sure you are at least as harsh with yourself as you are with everyone else. How do you reconcile your own behavior with the situation or the end result? Is there anyone who deserves the benefit of the doubt? Self-hagiography is boring. Nobody wants to be told you’re the hero of your own story, and very few situations truly involve a wronged innocent.

  • […] You can read all her thoughts here: It’s My Story (And I’ll Tell It If I Want To). […]

  • I am truly delighted to read this blog posts which contains tons of helpful data, thanks for providing such information.

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