You Can’t Write About That

I was reading an article and the interviewee said this about the stories he writes:  When you’re forced into exile, you lose places, you lose people, but you also lose money, and nobody wants to talk about that because it isn’t a very elegant thing to discuss.

No.  Nobody wants to talk about that.

There are so many taboo subjects, and then there are even qualifiers on top of those subjects.  You can’t write about:

ABUSE.  Physical-sexual-emotional-or-any-iteration, especially if you’re going to name names and the abusers are still living.

MONEY.  Having too much or too little, as both are crimes infused with their own twisted swords of shame.

RACE.  If you’re a minority, shut the hell up, you’re complaining.  If you’re not a minority, shut the hell up, you’ve already had the microphone long enough.

RELIGION.  If you’re a believer, you’re preaching.  If you’re a nonbeliever, you’re preaching.

ACADEMIA.  If you’re a professor, you’ve sworn to abide by the code.  Students, you can never, never write about your teachers or fellow students or what really goes on behind the wall, lest you become the scourge of your community.

YOUR CHILDREN.  Shame on you for being a parent who would even consider, gasp!, writing about your children.

The list is long and there are so many fucking “rules.”

This morning a friend sent me a quote from this book:  I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven.

Taboo subjects are funny things.  Is nothing sacred?  Do we really need to know about this?  What makes you think it’s your place to ‘tell’?  What if your version is the wrong version?

I recently read a piece about racism wherein the author said, basically, please don’t respond to this with your own stories of racist relatives and the like, I don’t want to hear it.  What?  This admonishment to shut up (to the reader!) still, weeks later, bugs the hell out of me.

Years ago, when I published my first essay, people said, “Maybe you should change the names.”  When I first told a friend I was writing a book about growing up in Missouri, she said, “How will you ever go home?  What if no one ever speaks to you again?”  All of these people mean well.  They’re worried about me.  And they have good reason.  What happens if I break the rules, break the code?  What if I cross a bridge and can’t come back?

What subject are you avoiding?  And if you’re not avoiding it, how do you manage the pressure to keep quiet?

44 thoughts on “You Can’t Write About That

  1. CJ

    I try not to avoid anything. Else why write? Only the gods can intend and be simultaneously, that is true. We can only strive. But what beauty there is in that striving to understand.

    1. Teri

      I also try not to avoid anything. The key word being ‘try.’

      It’s sometimes hard to hear myself, what with all of that screaming coming from the netherlands…. And so easy to revert to the 5 and 10 year old self just trying to survive quietly under the radar.

      1. CJ

        It helps me to examine where the silencing is coming from–my own fears, internalized taboo, pick your muzzle, and question it. In my creative life thus far most urging on has come from men-and the questioning from women. In my life the women have pited me and patted me on the head with a there there honey keep quiet.

      2. Teri

        And I’m more concerned about the men, but only because most of the women are dead and gone. I remember in an interview with Charlie Rose, Dorothy Allison described the men in her family as some kind of bullying beasts.

        I heard her say it, and it sounded like the opening of a giant metal door.

      3. CJ

        “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
        ― Muriel Rukeyser

        Stubborn Missouri girl you can do it.

  2. LauraMaylene

    I have been avoiding the issue of my mother and how I lost her far too early. No one needs another dead mother story, I tell myself.

    Only recently, after reading Cheryl Strayed’s TORCH and re-reading some of her essays, have I thought about this more closely. Now that 11 years have passed since my mother’s death, I finally have some perspective on the time just before, during, and after her death. I can see the natural story and I can picture shaping it. I think that, as with anything, if it’s done really really well (see Strayed’s work, of course) then it will be beautiful no matter how overdone the topic seems at first glance.

    Once I started thinking of my own story so closely, and once I could actually face some of the most painful details, I thought: Why not write a memoir about all this? It was then that I realized I’d subconsciously trained myself not to bother writing such a memoir because in all likelihood it wouldn’t sell — I’m no big-name author, and there’s no crazy, earth-shattering plot to be unveiled (except, of course, how it all shattered me), so what’s the point?

    Once I realized I had internalized this “No sense in writing it if it won’t get published” belief, I felt ashamed of myself. I should write it because it’s there in me and is about ready to be written, and because it would matter to me. So maybe — if I can face it — I will do just that.

    1. Teri

      That was so beautifully and perfectly said, Laura. When I wrote my first essay about my mother, a boy my workshop said, “Oh great, another story about a dead mother.”

      Only now, years later, can I say, “Stupid, stupid boy.”

      It’s still a struggle to write it, but in different ways. When I first started I had no distance. And now, 10 years later, I see how important that distance is. I don’t see a dead-mother-story. I see a story. A very specific story only I can tell. And that has made all the difference.

      You’re right, Laura, the perspective of years gone by has been crucial. Now write that memoir and see what happens.

    2. amyg

      it sounds to me you’re getting there. i think it’s important to gain distance from any event to write it thoroughly.

      and your, “i trained myself not to bother writing such a memoir because in all likelihood it wouldn’t sell,” is right on spot. i’ve been trying to better understand my, “why write this? it’s not going to earn me any money?” which is kind of in the same vein, but a little different.

      i’m avoiding all kinds of topics. some because the topics aren’t resolved. the experiences are not complete. other topics because i don’t know what i want to say about them just yet. i know they’re there (there = in my head) and available to me when i’m ready to build a story around them, but i don’t know eactly what that story is.

      and of course, pain. i don’t want to hurt anyone. which i’ve already done and will more likely do int he future as these stories take shape. i’ve learned that these columns i write are practice for me. (i just turned in this week’s, “The Funny Thing about Birth Control”) i’m learning that these columns are me practicing sharing general opinions on societal issues to help prepare me for when i share specific opinions on familial issues.

      1. Teri

        I can’t wait to read this column. Oh yes.

        And I hear you on the practice. I think I use short essays for the same purpose. Kind of like tossing out your tinier pebbles and seeing how far the ripples reach. When nothing unsurvivable happens, next time you toss a bigger pebble. And so on.

  3. Averil Dean

    I write about sex in a violent way, because for me it externalizes the struggle between men and woman that’s gone on since the dawn of time and is no less a problem now than it ever was. I see it as a primal thing, not only physically, but in the sense of how men and women see each other and how they need one another but wish they didn’t. And because I’m naturally pessimistic on the topic, something always goes terribly wrong.

    I’m only able to deal with it because I haven’t been successful. Having a wider audience of readers who are not also writers would probably crush me.

    1. Teri

      “Something always goes terribly wrong.” That’s the constant tension I always feel in your stories, and I feel it from the first scene.

  4. Downith

    “What are you going to write about ? . . . Anything you damn well want. Anything at all… as long as you tell the truth”

    – Stephen King (and note to self)

    1. Teri

      Now that’s really the gist of it all, isn’t it?

      Sometimes I think I read, and reread, certain books because I’m trying to figure out how they got brave enough to write it, kind of an education for myself on courage. That you can tell the truth, make it into art, and nothing all that bad will happen.

  5. macdougalstreetbaby

    I write anonymously for exactly this reason. I don’t want to curtail my rants, or sugar coat my comments. I think if I came out, it’d stop me from being completely honest. I’d be too concerned with how I was being perceived.

    1. Teri

      I can’t tell you how many days of the week I wish this blog were anonymous.

      Who would Anonymous Me be? Now there’s a question to keep me awake tonight….

  6. erikamarks

    Yet again, Teri, I am in such, such awe of you memoirists. You are the brave ones. It’s easy to write fiction–it’s writing the truth that takes guts–and it seems wholly unfair to me that that kind of courage is so often received harshly. We should applaud writers who follow their hearts and write their truths. What does that say about us those of us who can’t allow that? I am starting to believe that it is the bottled-up truths of our world that are causing the most hurt and the most damage…

    1. Teri

      Maybe, but I hear similar issues with novelists when they try to disguise their whatever-they-can’t-say in fiction. A friend of mine wrote such book, shopped it to agents, and the minute it was out the door started hoping no one wanted to publish it. He wasn’t ready for the big reveal.

    2. Sherry Stanfa-Stanley

      Yep, much in agreement with Erika here.

      I’m an avoider, to some extent. It’s more comfortable and somewhat easier for me to write fiction. Even if a bit of it is thinly-disguised reality.

      Kudos to the rest of you. Seriously.

  7. Lyra

    This post is fantastic. And the comments…

    I avoid writing about my childhood. I avoid writing about my life before my husband with the exception of little tidbits. The times I have, I’ve wondered what I’m out to prove. The people who need to read it, will never, and if they did…one time I had a conversation where I was told without a shadow of a doubt that something didn’t happen. It wasn’t a big thing, but it was a cruel thing and it was just erased from memory. But I know.
    And because I know, if I play my cards right and work everyday to break patterns, my kids will never have to understand why certain things make me crazy. After a conversation (a different one), I hung up the phone and begged my husband to tell me the truth. I couldn’t breathe. I sobbed until my chest hurt. It was the first time he ever saw what all of those stories meant, he being one of the few who knew them.
    “You’re not crazy. It’s not you.” His voice was quiet and certain. He knew not to hug me, not to touch me.
    And sometimes that is enough.

    1. CJ

      The comments format, like email, is a very imperfect form for intimate communication. Sometimes in fact it seems for me at least to thwart connection and communication. So often Lyra yours have truly touched me. And this is one of those times.

    2. Teri

      Beautiful, my gosh, all the way to the last words.

      I can only write about my childhood because most of the people I care about are dead and gone. I wonder what I’d be working on if my mother were still alive, or if I had small children at home looking to me for stability and guidance.

      1. Lyra

        You’d be writing fiction trying to beat back themes that continued to assert themselves no matter your resistance.
        And you’d apologize to your kids every time you reacted out of habit, and you’d wonder at the stability and guidance they gave you, just for being loud and honest all the time. No secrets. Not ever.
        And sometimes you’d go quiet wondering how you got so lucky, and when the other shoe would drop.

        Just a guess.

  8. Sarah W

    I’m reading all this bravery and I still can’t share what it is I can’t bring myself to write about.

    It’s not that any of it’s any worse than anything anyone else has experienced—clearly it’s not—-but it’s mine and deeply rooted.

    I’m not sure what to place in the hole once I drag it into the light of day.

  9. Catherine

    For the first eight years after I left Ghana I did not write about certain things that happened there. I wrote around them, borrowing ideas, places, exteriors. But then last summer, or the summer before, it burst through, my story. I didn’t write about it directly, I used different people, different dynamics. But the trauma came through and I really felt unburdened. Now that first story is coming out.

    Another mother story, another kidnapped child story – I think these are stories that will always be told and retold. They need to be.

    1. Teri

      Sometimes I believe the working around a topic for some years is like training that leads up to running a marathon, that all the writing around “the thing” makes us write about it stronger and better when the time finally comes to unleash it.

      Like percolating.

  10. Bobbi

    Fantastic post and discussion. I always write the truth but not the whole truth. I never write much about my family not because I need to censor myself (although I am consciously avoiding having to deal with my mother’s reaction, self preservation is a healthy strategy) but because I’ve worked it all out in a way that suits me. There’s so much cold, dirty water under so many bridges and I’m done wading in it. That’s what works for me.

  11. girl in the hat

    Sex. (I tend to beat around the bush.) My father. (I write about fathers, but not mine.) My husband. (Just too close to home.) The first person perspective always makes me a little nervous. So far, I’m doing okay avoiding the elephants in the living room but probably, I’ll have to fess up soon….

    1. girl in the hat

      I think it’s interesting I chose the word “confession” when referring to my fiction-writing. I guess I feel that I can be seen between the lines, no matter what I’m writing.

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