This morning, Anne Lamott posted this on Facebook:
You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories.just change their height and hair color. No one ever once has recognized him or herself in my fiction. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.
So often writers say we don’t want to write about certain events or people in our lives because we don’t want to hurt those other people, that our truth will be painful to the others around us. I certainly think that’s true – some of the ways I see the people I love are not always pleasant or flattering, and to write those things down, well, it will be hurtful to them.
The same can be said of me. While it would be lovely if someone wrote about me like I was Mother Theresa’s successor and showed me as a svelt, 5’9″ with perfect coiffed hair, that would be a big, fat honking lie in a number of ways, which I will not enumerate here. I would – truly – rather someone write the truth about me than lie in some misguided attempt to spare my feelings and probably produce some pretty crappy writing in the process.
Good writing requires truth – and sometimes the truth is brutal (although I do believe as writers we can write hard things without being cruel). This is just reality, life on this earth.
When we say we don’t write about others because it’s painful, I get it . . . but I also believe that some of what we mean when we say this is that we don’t want to deal with the backlash of writing that truth. I know this is true for me. I don’t write about my grandparents because my view of them, well, it’s not all sugar cookies and rose gardens. They can be very, very selfish, cruel people (as can we all) . . . so when I say I don’t write about them, it’s because I don’t want to deal with them being disappointed in me; I don’t want to feel their pain when they see my perspective of them; I don’t want to feel guilty. That’s the truth of my reasons why.
So I don’t write about them, and I’m okay with that. But I need to be honest about why I make that choice and not make it holier than it is.
Plus, there’s the other thing Lamott points out here – we are not always loving to each other. We hurt each other in massive, deep, perseverant ways, and that is another reality of life on this planet. To pretend like the pain we have experienced is less important than causing a bit of pain to the people who inflicted it upon us, well, that’s just self-deception and, in some sense, false martyrdom.
To say that my grandfather (he’s not online, so no backlash is impending . . . I hope) was a kind, jovial man in all aspects is to deny the suffering my mother went through because he was basically an absentee father who still, to this day, really only thinks about himself. It’s to deny the pain that my mother’s damage caused for my father and my brother and I . . . it’s to pretend that life is all cookies and roses . . . it is not.
Now, I’m not saying that writers should go out and intentionally take revenge through their words – that, too, produces really crappy writing, not to mention a really vicious cycle of life. What I am advocating is that we own our lives, as Lamott says, that we own everything that has happened to us and that we accept that these are our stories to tell . . . whether we want to take the backlash of telling them or not.
What are your reasons for not telling some of your stories? What do you think about this idea that we own everything that has happened to us?