Share your stories, but protect your relationships

Written on August 12th, 2016

As writers, it’s common to hear that we shouldn’t be afraid to share our stories.

Utilizing our personal experiences to create engaging, innovative work is an accepted method within the composition community; even most journalists and fiction writers rely on their own lives for at least some degree of inspiration.

Each one of us is unique and has a wide range of memories that are specific only to us, and it seems natural that we should draw on these vivid personal recollections in order to connect with an audience.

But there is a tricky tradeoff associated with this long-accepted advice: sometimes sharing our stories involves hurting those around us.

No matter how harmless it might seem, writing about a personal experience will likely invade the privacy of someone close to you. It could present an opinion that you have been careful to hide. It could expose thoughts that, while deep or insightful, you don’t want your friends and family to see. It’s so much easier to be anonymous, to write to an intangible audience whom you don’t know at all. But when those you care about are also invested in reading your work, you are put in a difficult position of reconciling important writing with the preservation of important relationships.

No matter how vague you are in your recollection of an experience, someone is likely to notice the connections. And the less specific you are, the less clear the ultimate message of your writing becomes – and we write to illustrate points and concepts that we think are important.

How do we maintain our integrity as writers while still maintaining our integrity as friends?

The simplest answer is this: imperfectly.

We will all make mistakes in the name of our passions. Heck, we will all make mistakes, period. They might be small and insignificant, or they might rock the very foundation of our lives for a while. Regardless of their magnitude, we need to be responsible in accepting them, reflective in analyzing them, and proactive in avoiding similar transgressions in the future.

When it comes to mistakes in writing, we may not be aware of many of them right away. You might think something is completely harmless and okay only to realize later that it inadvertently hurt someone else. You may underestimate the weight of what you’re saying or the value it will have to someone else.

Perhaps most importantly, you will see things from your own perspective. Our memories are so specific to us because we all experience events differently, and this can color the way you tell a story later on…just as it will color the way that others interpret that story.

All of these realizations serve to make the task of finding a balance in honest storytelling seem pretty complicated.

None of us is or will ever be perfect, but I do think that there are two important things to consider in this regard: first, that your intentions are what matter the most; and second, that when in doubt you should always keep the focus on yourself.

I’m a believer in the idea that we should judge others on their intentions, not just their actions. We often only see the surface of what others do without being able to understand why they do it.

We have all experienced times where we do something with the best outcome in mind only to have it backfire, and I think we need to be understanding when the same thing happens to those around us.

In regards to writing, we need to appreciate that everyone will interpret our work differently, but that our intentions in creating a piece are the most important things to think about.

Are you telling this story to illustrate a larger point? Are you using these personal examples to further your audience’s understanding of your message? If that’s the case, then you should feel confident that you are not engaging in anything malicious, even if you do share things about your personal life and the lives of those around you. This is not to say that it’s okay to completely invade someone else’s privacy – you still need to exercise caution about how your work will affect others.

But if you can say truthfully that you are telling your story for a bigger purpose than exploiting anyone around you, you’re probably doing okay.

On the other hand, if your main goal is to make those involved in your story appear in a certain way to the public, you need to check yourself and your intentions. Writing should be about being honest and insightful, not about causing harm or achieving personal gain.

But good intentions are definitely not enough to make hurting someone else okay.

There’s a pretty simple way to make sure that your storytelling achieves its purpose without harming anyone else: keep the focus on yourself. If you are at all in doubt about your work, ask yourself if it focuses more on the details of your personal experience or more on the bigger message you are trying to present.

Good, reflective storytelling should be about how an experience changed or affected you – not on the technicalities of how those around you acted. If it is necessary to present some of those details so as to make your point clear, that’s okay, but the biggest focus should still always be on yourself.

Think of it this way: instead of talking so much about what someone did, talk about how that action made you feel. Focus on your response, your thought process, your perception of your experience. After all, the most honest writing will reflect the depth of your feelings – not necessarily the minute details of a given situation.

At the end of the day, writing is a complicated business. We all have things we want to say, and we all have things preventing us from feeling comfortable saying them.

I agree with the masses and strongly believe that you should tell your stories, but I also believe just as vehemently that you should do so in the most respectful and kind manner possible.

I myself have not been perfect at this in the past — nor will I be in the future. But if there’s one thing I’ve discovered about life, it’s that it’s a constant learning experience.

You can use everything that happened to you today to be a better you tomorrow.