“Other people’s stories. Other people’s lives.” **

I’ve been a writer for years already (level of professionalism or skill is not the issue here, but simply the urge to write). I’ve been a reader for a little bit longer (ditto). And I can’t even estimate the number of times I have read and heard other writers lamenting the sometimes crippling difficulty in writing about one’s life without implicating the people who share that life, for better or worse.

Where does “what I see” and “what inspires me” and “what story I have to tell” begin to encroach on “what isn’t mine to share?

Of course, there are degrees of ownership and consequence. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, I just met a man who abandoned a screenplay—already in pre-production—because of the immediate mortal danger it might pose to his family. He’s been living in America for 20 years, but a recent visit to his former communist country forcibly reminded him that his personal political views are illegal, punishable, and translatable to the family that still lives there. “It’s over,” he said of his screenplay. “I can’t take that risk for them.”

More often, and damaging on a different level, writers are hesitant to publish, or even to write about important, sometimes tragic and traumatic incidents that involve their family members and close friends. Rape and abuse victims are silent for years, waiting to tell their stories, fearing both the reactions of the violator and—even worse—people who simply won’t believe it.

(I think that may be the single greatest deterrent for writers, in tragedy, and in everyday observation. Yes, you create, yes, you embellish to make clear the details you find important, poignant. But to be told that your impressions, your view of “the way it was” is a lie? Heartbreaking, infuriating, and demoralizing.)

Even a simple family anecdote, completely void of trauma or tragedy, is subject to disbelief and censorship. Sometimes you just don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. “Maybe when he’s dead,” I’ve heard, dozens of times. “It’s a good thing my mother never reads my poetry, because this book is all about her.”

Continuing down the spectrum, farther from mortal danger, disbelief, and disappointment, you arrive at a different juncture. This is the constantly blinking Go-Wait-Go signal that keeps columnists, journalers, “light commentators,” and the ever-expanding community of blog-writers running in and out of heavy traffic: Where Something Interesting to the Writer meets Something Personal to Someone Else.

I’m guessing everyone who starts a blog has probably encountered this, and has already written about it. So I guess it’s my turn.

So far, and with only a few exceptions, I think I’ve managed to keep the “personal” entries in this blog about me. Sure, the husband figures prominently. But for the most part, he’s not heavily documented. This is, after all, my blog. My place to write about what’s important, or interesting, or amusing to me.

If anyone’s soul will be spliced and pinned open for public inspection of the enclosed inanities, it’s going to be mine.

That’s what I told the husband the other night while I reasoned my way to understanding and eventually agreeing with his objections to a particular blog-post. The subject in question wasn’t important. It really wasn’t a big deal, and it was a cute little blip in “my life with the husband.” At least, it was to me. To him, it wasn’t all that important, it wasn’t that big of a deal, but it WAS something personal to him that didn’t have much to do with me.

So I found myself again at that blinking intersection, hopping on and off the curb for a moment or two.

Not important—Go.
Cute story—Go.
Not much to do with me—Wait.
Really, not a big deal—Go.
Likely to upset someone for something not important and not a big deal—Hold it.

It’s that last one that really has to tip the scales. This is a blog, not a newswire. And it’s a preference, not a life-or-death consequence. But when the story clearly means more to someone else than it does to me—and when that someone means more to me than anyone else—well, I guess it’s just not mine to tell.

At least not without a blessing, or permission, or a contractual agreement… or whatever the scale of it requires. At least not today.

** “Other people’s stories, other people’s lives…” is the title of (and opening lyrics of) a great song I heard once, got stuck in my head (a lovely little tune), and never found again. Can anyone help? 


6 thoughts on ““Other people’s stories. Other people’s lives.” **

  1. Kevin and I have a standing blog agreement: both of us get mild editorship of blog entries. If he says something isn’t working for him and asks me to remove it, it’s done. And likewise. In 5 years (or so) he’s only asked twice. If I’m remembering correctly, the feeling was very similar to your story as well.

  2. I know Matt has been working on a screenplay for a year or so that’s been helping him with the grief over my Mom. Writing is so incredibly personal, just like other forms of art. The more you put your heart and soul into it (which is risky because you just might get hurt), the more the audience/reader/viewer/listener will remember and cherish the time they spent on/with your craft.

    • I think the difference of writing to say, acting, or painting, is that written words seem so permanent, so final. “So it is written, so shall it be.” Maybe it’s the same with photographs… even though we know how much crafting and perspective goes into a photo or a script or story, the fact that they remain as lasting artifacts of emotion…? Well, yes. Risky. I’m so glad to hear though that Matt is finding an outlet, and that you approve. Love to you both!

  3. Mind if I share this with my memoir class students? We’ve been engaged in this very conversation. Maybe your red light/caution/green light system will help them as much as it has me.

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