Intertwingled: The Hazards of Writing Others’ Secrets

May 8, 2019 § 18 Comments

glennBy Joanne Lozar Glenn

The older I get, the longer I write, the more secrets I seem to carry.

Some of these secrets are mine. But the deeper I dig into the stories I want to tell, the more I realize that many of these dark places are hopelessly intertwingled with those of others.

Recently, for example, I asked a friend to give me feedback on a brief memoir piece I’d drafted. In it, I formatted certain sentences and paragraphs in grey ink—my code for text that might or might not be included. It’s how I keep the writing open, allow possibility. My friend read one of these greyed-out sections, said this is the heart, that it has to be included, that it is what makes the rest of it real.

Yes, that passage was full of drama. Night. Police. Search parties. That passage was also surely the most searingly painful event of a certain relative’s life.

I took it out. The piece is still unfinished.

And that is how my writing is going these days. It’s a road full of hazards, full of flashing yellow reflectors warning of danger ahead.

Whose reality do I accept: the writer who said all of us end up selling our families down the river anyway or the one who said “sometimes real love is refraining from telling some truths”? Trying to stand tall in the midst of so much tension—the need to write what I lived and felt, the fear of usurping others’ experience as my own, the battle between speaking truth in the service of the story and laying further hurt at the feet of those I love—is crushing.

Sometimes it seems the only option is to mute my pen.

Still, I build scenes. Erase them. Rise from the desk and walk to the kitchen. Return to all the secrets waiting for me in the dark, looking for even the smallest glimmer of light.

Joanne Lozar Glenn is an independent writer, editor, and educator who develops education- and business-related content and leads destination writing retreats. Her book Memoir Your Way: Tell Your Story Through Writing, Recipes, Quilts, Graphic Novels, and More (co-authored with five other writers) was published by Skyhorse Press in September 2016, and her work has appeared in the Northern Virginia Review, Peregrine, Brevity, Hippocampus, Under the Gum Tree, and other print and online journals.

§ 18 Responses to Intertwingled: The Hazards of Writing Others’ Secrets

  • It’s a constant conundrum Joanne, I agree. Lately though, as I get older ( and maybe wiser in some areas of my life) I am slowly choosing not to be as confessional as I once might have been. Perhaps it has something to do with legacy, and the leaving the ripple effects of one-sided truths behind me.

    • Joanne Lozar Glenn says:

      Ryder, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. Yes, definitely a conundrum in a genre that is so rooted in removing masks. I think you hit on the key to doing it well: going beyond “one-sided truths.”

  • waynetdowdy says:

    I read that if writing an autobiography or essay about issues involving others, to write as if the other person has passed on, but how does one do that when knowing the power of our words may sear into the life of that person, without concern of how those words may affect that person’s life?

    I was once accused of using words as weapons. True. I choose my words based upon my intent and ulterior motives, but sometimes I fail to consider how I may affect another person with the words I chose when writing about an emotionally-charged issue.

    When vowed to secrecy, I try to honor my commitment to keep quiet. When angry … the words I chose are intended to reap destruction or to cause harm. Many times, I regretted my choice of weapons, other times I relished in the glory of having struck the jugular vein from miles away.

    Words have power. So do secrets (secrets make us sick). Sometimes I’ve found it best to write openly and honestly, as suggested, but I do check my motive before choosing a weapon or elixir.

  • mjhowes says:

    Thank you for a lovely perspective – kind and true.

  • Kathleen Cassen Mickelson says:

    That really is a tough call when whatever the piece you’re working on arrives at its own truth based on the inclusion of experiences beyond your own. There’s often the option of talking to the person whose experience you find so arresting and asking if they are okay with including it; this is not the same as giving them any editorial authority, it is an act of courtesy if their experience has affected you, as writer, so deeply. For me, the main thing is to keep my eye on what MY truth is after any sort of experience or memory that involves other people (and don’t they all?), and what that truth means in a broader context. Can a truth be told without revealing a source? Can a truth be reworked through metaphor? Can the privacy of others be protect and, if not, then what is it about that story that is so important to write about? In the end, we all have to decide whether the relationship is more important that a single story that belongs to someone we know and love, or if the story has such broad implications that we feel we have to tell it. And then we have to take whatever the consequences are for that decision.

    • Joanne Lozar Glenn says:

      Kathleen, the questions you raise are on point and deep. Thanks for bringing out that the distinction you make between asking someone if they are okay with including an experience…is not the same as editorial authority. Thank you for taking the time to share your wisdom.

  • Abigail Thomas says:

    I think it depends on two things. The importance of this story as part of your own story, and your reason for including it. If you are writing for clarity, and it is key to who you have become (are becoming) and if this is in no way written for revenge, include it. it’s tough. sometimes there is a certain ruthlessness necessary in writing memoir. But it sounds as though you have very real reservations about the pain this will cause. maybe best to listen to your heart.

    • Joanne Lozar Glenn says:

      Thank you, Abigail, for reading deep into what was not said as well as what was said. Makes sense to keep the two things you mention–the importance and the reason–as lodestones.

  • stacyeholden says:

    I hear you! I am writing right now about midlife nostalgia, and, so I write (briefly) about a relationship I had twenty years ago with a good man. I will change the name, but anyone in my professional field will be able to identify the real “Lahcen.” It feels a bit uncomfortable, since he is married now with a family. But I need to parse that relationship since it was so fundamental to my journey as a historian and a fully-formed adult. Good luck to you as you work your way through this tangle.

    • Joanne Lozar Glenn says:

      Thank you, Stacy, for sharing your story–and good luck to you as well. I can appreciate how touchy that situation would be.

  • Anne McGrath says:

    I think intensions are key, but even words written with the best intentions have the power to hurt someone. That’s one of the (many)things that makes this memoir writing thing so difficult. Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Joanne.

  • It’s hard. I want what I write to do good. Sometimes, what’s good for me is not good (or not seen as the same) to someone else. At least we still keep on writing…Thanks, as I was encouraged that you share the same problem!

  • missnancy65 says:

    Thank you, Joanne. I read your last paragraph over and over and, as always, appreciate your openheartedness. “Returning to all the secrets waiting in the dark,” hoping for that “smallest glimmer of light.” How vulnerable am I willing, able to make myself as I seek words to convey how I felt at what was a pivotal, traumatic time in my young life? You inspire me.

  • Joanne says:

    You are so kind to read and to share your connection with the piece. Thank you, and all the best as you find the words you you want to tell your story.

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