Letting it all hang out

January 4, 2017

pretty-birdThere’s good writing advice and there’s bad writing advice. So let’s talk about that.

I know a lot of bloggers and some writers who quote writer Anne LaMott, who famously wrote:

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”  ~Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird

Well, not so fast.

Here’s what’s true: you own everything that happened to you.

Here’s what’s not true: you can write negatively about others without paying a price. If you’re willing to pay the price, ok. But just don’t expect a free pass.

I write a lot. A whole lot. And I’ve been writing a whole lot since I first put pen to paper.

We’ve all been wronged

Like everyone else,  I’ve been wronged. Bad things have happened to me. People have been not very nice at times. And yes, I’ve wanted to write about it. Because writing is the thing I do best and most easily. And because I’m good with words writing would be a very effective way to lash out at those who have hurt me.

Last year I did write a blog post about the bad behavior of some family: I’d been wronged and I wanted to go on record. I happened to mention it to a close friend who’s also a writer.

“Is it scheduled?” she asked. I told her it was.

“I think you should pull it back and sit on it a while,” she said.

I did. It’s been more than a year and I haven’t felt the need to hit publish.

Because I also remembered something similar I’d sent to my writing coach a few years ago. Her feedback was that it sounded like I was whining.

That can happen if you’re writing about people who have hurt you.

Learning prudence

Which brings me to my memoir:

While those folks are no longer in my life, others are.  If I finished my memoir, I’d have to write about some pretty embarrassing behavior: mine and theirs.  That is, if I wanted a story that had any meaning and wasn’t just a fairy tale.  Now, I know that I own what happened to me, just like Lamott says. But is it wise to take scorched earth policy?   I’ve been stopped dead in my tracks on the memoir for a couple of years because I just can’t be that cavalier about it.

You see, I really don’t want to write about my own bad behavior or even my own pathetic behavior. Nor do I want to write about anyone else’s, not if they’re still in my life. (Although, Lord, I’m tempted!) When I think it through I realize that the cost would be too high.*

There’s damage we intend and then there’s collateral damage. I’m just not a fan of letting it all hang out and letting the chips fall where they may.

In fact, I think it’s very bad writing advice.

What’s the cost of letting it all hang out in your writing?

*And of course, a few days after I wrote this, I got permission to write about that bad behavior. So who knows, maybe it’ll see the light of day sooner than I thought.






58 comments on “Letting it all hang out
  1. Jennifer says:

    I remember in college getting a C on a writing assignment (C’s ina writing class were like F’s in a math class to me!). I thought I was so pithy but really I was just whining about others. That stuck with me and makes me careful about how I present the behavior of others in my posts.

  2. I don’t think that telling the truth is whining–especially if we’ve learned something from our experience that’s worth sharing.

  3. Frances D says:

    I have held off publishing a substantial amount about some of my own (all deceased) family members. Every once in a while I go over bits, and I have found the unforgivable (for now at least), and things I have come to understand a bit better.
    One of these days I will hit “publish” too.
    Sending my best your way.

  4. Lynne says:

    You make a great point, Carol. It is tempting to unleash, as it is “our story.” We look at things from our own perspective. But what if I wronged someone – knowingly or unknowingly? Would I want something negative written about me? So, I have many things in draft form…therapeutic to write about it, but trying to balance “do unto others.” Really thought-provoking post!!!

  5. Diane says:

    I’ve been hurt and I have hurt others and I think I have learned from both experiences. I choose to present the lessons, not the learning curve. (Eeep!)

  6. Kim tackett says:

    I also refrain from writing about others (trained by having a teen when I began blogging… our deal was that she reviewed and approved every word and picture). While writing about everything may be fine writing advice for some, for me it isn’t good living advice (and I adore Anne).

  7. I have read a lot on how to write about negative or controversial aspects of life. My favorite advice was to be truthful, but kind. As long as it comes from a place of understanding and isn’t meant to just expose someone for being a jerk, then it is okay to discuss it in your book. I think that’s the important thing about a memoir: learn from it, teach others through your experiences and how you handled them, and don’t just air dirty laundry.

  8. Sapana V says:

    Very well said. Writing is expressing your emotions but not in a way that can hurt anyone.

  9. Mahesh Hegde says:

    Nice thoughts. At times it is difficult to control the emotions, but you did it in a great way.

  10. I think there’s a fine line you may not want to cross with truth telling. Yes, we have to say our truths. That’s what writers do. But I remember those biographies Kitty Kelly used to write. Scathing, allegedly truth telling biographies that were probably half fiction. That drove me crazy.

    So tell your truth, but think about the cost as well. It’s up to you what lines you want to cross.

  11. Interesting post. I have written about another’s behaviour and I have dealt with the collateral damage but it was necessary.
    On another note I wrote an apology to someone I had a terrible falling out once. I did publish it but not publicly on facebook and twitter. A year later I reached out to her and sent her the post. She was so gracious and accepted my apology. Truth is truth but sometimes it doesn’t need to be shared. Sometimes though my writing is blocked because all I can think to write about is the ‘incident’. Sometimes I write about it without naming names. People recognize themselves and usually call me to work it out. I don’t agree with Lamott – I don’t think public shaming serves anyone.

  12. Julie says:

    I feel like it is such a fine line when writing. I often feel like I’m complaining or whining and end up revising. But sometimes it’s just the fact that I’m writing about a negative experience, and it isn’t, in fact, whining. I’m usually able to tell the difference if I sit on it for awhile. I definitely think it is great advice to think about what we write about others.

  13. Ang. says:

    Yas! Well said. It is one thing to talk about an experience, a flood of self emotions, it’s a skillful art, something I’m not sure most adults have accomplished yet. <3

  14. Amber Myers says:

    Yes, I always try to think before I post. But most of the time I do post and I find it helps other people when I am the most truthful and open.

  15. Donna Hanton says:

    I agree Carol, there are some things that should not be written about for public consumption. I still smart from events in my past and have thought about writing a blog post (or 10, perhaps 100) about what happened. But I don’t, because it would hurt the people involved – and I don’t think it would solve anything. These are the things I write about, prolifically, in my diary!

  16. I believe it is all in the tone you use when writing. That being said trying to convey the tone can be very difficult and take a lot of edting to get it just right.

  17. Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD. And I have plenty of bad behavior in my life that I wouldn’t want someone to write about. I’m not saying never do it. Just be judicious about it, which is what you are saying. I agree!

  18. Loved your post. I feel like, we should learn to let go and focus on positives more.

  19. Chloe says:

    I think letting it all out can be important if it is an issue or topic that others could relate to/learn from but there needs to be a line. Sometimes what we write in the heat of the moment may not necessarily be how we feel a week or two later.

  20. Kelly says:

    Yes yes yes, all true! Thanks for making me think twice 🙂

  21. I think it’s important to let something “marinate” before hitting publish. Your friend was wise to give you her honest advice.

  22. julie porter says:

    This is a really thought-provoking post for me. I do believe our stories belong to us and if someone has hurt us we may want to write about it. However, I also have to stop and think about all of the times that I have hurt others, sometimes intentionally sometimes not. Either way, I know I wouldn’t want to have to confront my bad behavior in someone else’s writing.

  23. Anne says:

    I loved reading your post. Writing can bring a lot of change just not for you but for the society. Still we should focus more on positive aspects.

  24. Your right, there has been times where I have waited to send out a post to judge whether it was worth sending out. But then again for me I talk about bullying/ abuse but these are all issues that I feel need to be spoken about and I never name them.

  25. Jenni Petrey says:

    Whenever I write something for my blog, I usually wait a day or two to re-read it, especially when the post has sensitive issues in it.

  26. When I’m uninspired, I don’t feel the urge to write. I try not to push myself to write during such instances, as I’d end up frustrated at myself with my soulless, meaningless ramblings. 😉

  27. I totally agree with your friend, get it all out and sit on it. Just because we have a public platform to share our “grievances” it doesn’t mean we should.

  28. Our Family World says:

    This post influences me in a good way. I think I had a similar instance where I drafted something that should be a shout out to some people but i’m glad one of my friends advised me to hold back. That same article has been in my drafts for months now and I would’ve regretted it if I did publish it.

  29. Meeta says:

    WIse words. The written word is a strong. When I feel like I have been wronged I write in my journal and keep it there. If I think I can make a blogpost out of it without naming the person fine if not it stays in my journal. Great read!

  30. Shearly says:

    Ok, I love your entire blog! But this article is so well written and said, while I do love letting it all out, we don’t have to heart people when we do! Awesome post!

  31. I don’t share negative things on my blog at all. I actually write about marriage and decided early on in my writing career that I won’t ever write about my husband in a negative light.

  32. I got carried away sometimes especially writing about myself. I tend not to write about others except I get permission to do so. Editing helps a lot for a blogger in my opinion. I find posts that’s written in the heat of the moment could cause a high price to pay.Love reading this article. Well written!

  33. There is another quote, something about even though you can write, doesn’t mean you should.
    I started writing at a very early age. I was published when I was 9. I have journals all the way back to age 7 and I am now 41. I have 59 books published under a pen name and I started blogging 20 years ago. So, there are many words flowing through my fingers during my life. However, I have written about experiences and people in my life. And I own it. I do change names and things like that. But I am an advocate for writing about things in your life and people you know. It is therapy for a lot of people.

  34. Chrissy says:

    I don’t write about others, it’s not fair to me or them. I stay on neutral ground with my posts 🙂

  35. AMANDA says:

    Well considering my wife JUST did this on my blog…. lol I think it honestly depends on the situation and who is writing it and WHY they are writing. In the case of my wife, it has already helped in in the not even 48 hours it’s been published. However, what you said about whining i think is key. If you are just whining about something, or specifically someone, then there’s really no need to do that. That’s what friends/spouses are for. They can hear you whine, not the whole world :p

  36. Krysten says:

    I think there is a fine line between whining and telling the truth about a situation. If we are saying ‘woe is me, everything in my life sucks and everyone hurt me,’ then we are whining. But, if we are saying, ‘in 2014 this, this, and this happened,’ it’s not whining.

  37. Robin Rue says:

    You can totally share your story with all the wrongs and triumphs along with it. Being careful of how you word things and how you make other people look is key though.

  38. Heidi says:

    I totally agree with the friend who told you to “sit on” your blog post. Writing can be very therapeutic, but I think we have a responsibility for what we say about others. Sometimes just writing it down and putting it away is good enough.

  39. Laura says:

    My advice would be to write negative or charged posts in Word document. Save and close it abs then revisit in a week. Some if the things people blog about aren’t useful on a blog and would be better said in a conversation to a friend or professional.

  40. Elizabeth O. says:

    I would have to agree with you on this. We can’t just write about all out experiences and expect everyone to understand. Especially these days when everyone seems to be easily offended by what they see online and offline. There’s just a limit to how much you can say at least if you care about your reputation as a writer. I’m looking forward to that memoir!

  41. Rosey says:

    That was good advice for you to sit on it. Hurrah for hearty influences that give us a voice of reason. 😉

  42. kelly says:

    Great advice! It’s always a good idea to write it out when you are wronged, but never send immediately. I, like you, have many letters, blog posts, etc written that have never been sent. They have just been for me to sort through my feelings!

  43. Mandi says:

    This is terribly timely as I weigh whether to include some painful things in my memoir. It’s not a simple choice

  44. Margaretha says:

    Even though I no longer practice medicine, when writing, I still stick to the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.

  45. My personal blog is my therapy. It is public and so it is kind. It forces me to think positively of a very difficult situation, at least when it comes to the anger I feel towards other parties in the situation. Writing the positive helped my mind shift to seeing the more positive side of things.

    When I had an employee who I wanted to fire, or scream at, I would remember my anger management as a child (a part of the grievance therapy process when I lost my father) to not lash out but to allow myself time. Some people can just count to ten while I have to go home and write out all the vile things in my mind. And then I step away feeling relieved. I come back to the manuscript and take out the over the top. I place solutions where I had recorded problems. I take areas where I attack the person’s character and circle them to reflect “are these strengths or weaknesses?” How can we better focus the energy?. In the end it would come out an honest profile of the employee with a game plan of better assignments and goals. I would seek the core of the problem and realign their sights based off of that. It was my process, and it worked. 🙂

  46. Laurie Stone says:

    I’m very cautious about writing about others. If I write about my late father on my blog, my mother always reads it first. I know she’d be hurt if I said anything even mildly negative,,, and he was a great Dad. To me, spilling all (and potentially embarrassing others) is not worth the price of getting published. Everyone’s different, however.

  47. For me, I use a private diary to work out personal issues, and made a commitment when I started my blog that I want it to uplift people with humor and at times heartwarming stories. Doesn’t mean I don’t have ‘stuff’ that comes up, I just don’t wish to use my blog as my therapy. I’m sure those who do serve an important purpose for others who may be struggling with the same issues, so I do not cast judgment on their writing and know that it is important for everyone to use their writing and talent in a way that works best for them. I am careful to ask permission before I write about anyone else, and for the most part I have more than enough material just poking fun of myself.

  48. Stacey W says:

    There are days I really wish I had an anonymous blog so I can just vent it all out in writing and not care about that publish button. Oh well…

  49. Silly Mummy says:

    Yes, I completely agree with you. I will absolutely admit that I actually quite enjoy reading things from those people who do just reveal EVERYTHING – I think most of us do, don’t we? Curiosity about others’ lives is pretty powerful. But, much as I may be interested in reading it, I couldn’t do it myself, I don’t think.

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