As someone who writes about spirituality, I often find myself telling a story that involves someone else, either because they did or said something illustrative or because my own experience was shaped by them. There are times when I choose not to tell stories that would be funny or interesting because I think to do so might harm a relationship I value. For example, my children got wind of the fact that I was writing about them on this blog and asked me not to say anything that might be embarrassing. Rather than checking with them every time I blog, I find myself avoiding the parenting stories more than I used to. We’re heading into the pre-teen phase, and nearly everything has the potential to be embarrassing, so I just steer clear. I want to keep their trust in the years to come. Still, I continue to write about my own experience as a parent, which is a slightly different topic. Having children continues to challenge me to be a more generous and patient person. Can I speak this truth without infringing on their desire not to be embarrassed by their mother? Is there a conflict between my need to speak my truth and their need to be protected by me?
Sometimes, instead of avoiding a story that involves someone else, I write a draft and then run it by the person, giving them the chance to edit. This is particularly true of people whom I love and want to remain on good terms with, though it obviously won’t work with my mother, who died two years ago. I admit I am less cautious about people I am no longer in touch with, partly because it seems less likely they will be associated with what I write. In these cases, I try to be really vague about the details so that the person is unidentifiable. I know the vague reference has its hazards, though. Once I vaguely mentioned an ex-boyfriend in something that was published. I later learned that someone I know read that paragraph, assumed that I was talking about a friend of hers, and got really offended on his behalf because what I said didn’t seem true to her. Of course it didn’t; it was about someone else! That was a reminder that you can’t help people reading into things. Who knows how many other times someone has misinterpreted something I wrote, and I never heard about it or got the chance to correct their misinterpretation.
Many other writers have grappled with how to write about real people who are part of their lives. Frank McCourt says that he couldn’t write Angela’s Ashes
until after his mother Angela had died (and if you read this wonderful book, you’ll understand why). Annie Dillard says she doesn’t say anything about anyone who could possibly sue, which is maybe why she writes so much about turtles and dead deer. Anne Lamont says you can say anything you want about a man, as long as you describe him as having a really small penis so that he won’t want to come forward and claim to recognize himself, though this advice doesn’t do me much good in my two main dilemmas, writing about my children and my Quaker meeting, which I also want to protect, though less fiercely.
I have sometimes read blogs that mention conflicts with other Quakers and wonder how the blog post will affect the relationship. It’s not that I think we should bite our tongues, necessarily. There are struggles within Quakerism that should be written about and behaviors in our meetings that should be challenged. I’m just not sure how fair it is to be specific in a blog post that the subject may or may not read, when what is really needed is a frank conversation. Sometimes when I read a Quaker blogger complain about another Friend’s behavior, I wonder if the person followed “gospel order” and first brought their complaint to the one who caused offense. On the other hand, Friends sharing their dilemmas across yearly meetings can help us see larger patterns that need to be recognized. Those stories about people experiencing racism and classism in our midst seem really important. This morning I’m wondering how other bloggers and writers draw the boundaries for themselves.
I should say that what got me started on this was the recent arrival of my Pendle Hill Pamphlet on parenting
, which is mostly about my experience, but which mentions my children. Although I had specifically told them what stories I was telling about them, and they gave their permission for them to be in the pamphlet, one of my children became very upset upon actually seeing it, fearing that one of the stories was too embarrassing. It made me very grateful that I never found a publisher for Imperfect Serenity
, the memoir I wrote about parenting young children, and for which this blog was named. I believe I was led to write it—I certainly was compelled to write it, recording my experiences as a parent in scraps of time over several years. But as I started getting rejection letters from publishers it occurred to me that when I started the writing, I couldn’t conceive that the children would ever learn to read. I noticed that the book included many stories about the children that they might find embarrassing, though the real purpose of it was to reflect on the spiritual lessons I was learning as a parent. About two years after I let go of the idea of publishing it, I realized that if I cut out all the quirky stories about them and focused on my spiritual experience, it would be about the size of a Pendle Hill pamphlet. Some other things occurred that made me feel I really was led to write a pamphlet on this topic, and when I did, way opened with remarkable ease.
So, here I was the other day with my upset child, remembering that writing this pamphlet felt like a leading, and yet feeling guilty about the pain I had caused, as well as slightly frustrated because I really had asked permission. After twenty-four hours of processing this, what I’ve decided is not to take down the link to the pamphlet (as I initially considered), but to ask people who read it and who also know us in person to not mention the pamphlet in front of my children. I really don’t think there is anything in there that is harmful to them, but they are at the easily embarrassed age, and I need to recognize that.
If you happen to read it and think you can guess what part upset whom, please don’t. Like the woman who guessed the wrong ex-boyfriend, it’s probably not what you think.