Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How Much to Reveal? How Much to Conceal?

by Susan

1992 selfie. Would you let your daughter run off with this guy? Seriously?
In 1992, I was 24, just back from a four-month job working at a hotel near Denali National Park in Alaska. I announced to my family that I was moving to Utah with a man I met over the summer to be a ski bum, and no, we didn't have any marriage plans.

You can only imagine my mother's joy...

When Mom died in 2013, I asked for and received her diaries. One day I sat on the floor going through the notebook from 1992, looking for bits of my life filtered through my mother's words. I finally found the entry from the day she met this man:

"Sue's friend Brian came by. He seems nice."

That was it. End of story.

I wanted to know what my mother had been thinking about it all, but, as my siblings told me, she was so afraid someone would be offended by something she wrote that she wrote very little, other than noting the weather and what they had for dinner.

Mom was not writing memoir, but the question of how much to reveal is a big one for those of us who are. We might need to protect ourselves from repercussions. We face ethical issues when writing about others.

Sometimes we need to tread lightly, but not risking exposure actually carries a risk. If we cut out everything that might distress or offend, we can be left with nothing that will move the reader, nothing that will connect with them. Intimacy with the reader requires vulnerability on our part.

I thought I'd offer a few quotes:
Linda Joy Myers on her blog:
"Each of us decides how much to expose our private self. Ask yourself: does the piece show a side of yourself that no one else knows? Are you writing about events you’ve never told anyone about before, exposing secrets? Are you afraid of being judged by who you were or who you are now? Do these questions make you move away from the computer? Remember, in a first draft no one will see the writing but you. Take a risk and write, whether in a class, workshop, or at your private computer, moments that you’ve been afraid to encounter, give yourself permission to discover layers of your truths, and keep writing to explore and expose yourself."

Ted Kooser in Writing Brave and Free on writing about others in our memoirs:
"In writing as in life, there seem to be many ways of looking at the matter of tact and candor. Some writers act as if candor were the same thing as courage, others as if it were pure folly. Some writers act as if tact were simple common courtesy, others as if it were cowardice."
Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird:"We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you'll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you've already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer's job is to see what's behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words..."
I often struggle with how much to expose in my writing. What I've learned is that the one person I cannot conceal things from is myself. If you have something you are writing around, write it for yourself only. Get it on paper in your personal journals. Write it fully and truthfully. You can decide later if it's worth sharing.

(For the record, 23 years later, Brian and I are happily married. Not every seemingly impulsive decision is a bad one.)


  1. You guys are adorable!! You totally look like ski bums. :)
    I don't have too much problem being honest about myself, but I'm a little worried about writing other people. I've had friends upset with me over how I portrayed them in stories (and I was being nice, I thought!). How can you be honest when the truth was ugly? Maybe that's when you should turn it into fiction.

    1. :D We were SO young, looking back at it now!
      Turning it into fiction is one option. Accepting that a relationship may be changed, or lost, is another. Tiptoeing around it is yet another one. It's a very personal decision as to how you want to handle it.


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