All Write Now: Writing about loved ones is delicate
By STEPH AUTERI
For Montclair Local
“All Write Now” reflects the writing life. Steph Auteri is a full-time freelance writer and editor who has written for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Pacific Standard, VICE and other publications. Her memoir, “A Dirty Word,” is due out in October 2018. She is a member of Montclair’s The Write Group. For more, visit stephauteri.com.
When I wrote about my chronic depression, and about going off antidepressants while my husband and I were trying to get pregnant, the internet berated me.
“DO NOT HAVE CHILDREN,” one commenter pleaded, morally outraged that someone with a mental illness might want to procreate. “Bringing a child into your chaos would be unforgivably selfish. You WILL damage them.”
Other readers echoed this sentiment, while still more predicted that my husband would leave me “sooner rather than later.” In writing about the ugliest parts of my life, I expected comments like these. But because I was laying my marriage bare on the page, what concerned me most was my husband: Was he comfortable with what I had shared?
A writing professor of mine once said that we should write as if our loved ones are dead and gone.
Only then are we able to share our stories without holding anything back. And there’s something to that. But for those of us concerned with how those not-actually-deceased people might respond once our words are out in the world, it’s not so simple. Will they be angry? Will they feel exposed? Will they remember things differently? Will they look at us differently?
As someone who writes about sexual health for a living — often weaving in my own personal story with research and interviews — I know that the struggle is real. Luckily, I’ve sidestepped most obstacles I might experience as a nonfiction writer by marrying someone shameless, someone who gets a kick out of seeing himself in my writing. But beyond that, I’ve set two ground rules in how I approach my work.
For one, I am always sure to cast a more critical eye on myself than on anyone else. I am not the savior of my story. I am not the victim. I am the flawed center. So while I don’t portray others as faultless, my lack of focus on others’ shortcomings versus my own does often leave readers assuming the best about them.
My other rule is to be honest with myself about whether a loved one might be troubled by what I’ve written. If a subject matter sets off alarm bells in my head, I ask that person for permission to write about them within the context of that particular story. Not all writers will agree with this — after all, isn’t it my story, too? — but life is rich with material. Why write something that will hurt someone I care about — someone who never asked to be placed in the public eye by dint of merely living their life — when there is so much else to explore?
Should you let your subjects read a draft of your piece?
Some writers do. But the fallibility of memory ensures that they will never remember events in exactly the same way you do. And because it’s so impossible to come to a consensus over our pasts, there’s really only one question you can (and should) ask yourself when it comes to anticipated push-back on your work: Can I stand behind this account of my life without reservation?
As for how your loved ones, and the rest of the peanut gallery, react to what you’ve shared — whether with horror, judgment or condemnation — it can help to remind yourself that they’re making assumptions based upon only a partial picture. After all, when we write about ourselves, we don’t put every part of our lives on the page. We give readers one tiny sliver of our life. One tiny piece of who we are.
If that doesn’t make you feel better? Well, you could always change names to protect the not-so-innocent!