“The secret truths I’d left out of the book became larger than the confessions within.”
—Linda Joy Myers, from Don’t Call Me Mother: A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness
Remember the saying, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all?”—a message ingrained in us as children so that we learn to be kind and empathetic, not bullish, and (for most people), it works. We catch ourselves before calling the neighborhood kid names like retard or dummy. Our fingers, pointed amusingly at Aunt Bertha’s bulging thighs, were quietly tucked into our pockets for us, silenced into a protective form of kindness. But then we grew up to be writers. And now, this kindness is killing our writing.
As an editor of nonfiction, I see submissions, well-written and polished, but guarded. They linger just beyond the iron gate of acceptance. They are written accounts of things that happened and interactions between characters. But the true meaning behind the interactions, and their relationship, remains buried, and it cries to be let out, to be aired. Sometimes the author isn’t willing to let it out, and so the story continues to linger, mulling around in an air of protectiveness beyond the gate, never to be invited in. Other times, the author hasn’t yet discovered that something. I adore these submissions. One might say I like to call out across the gate and challenge them. Flirt a little with the possibility that the author—if he just continues to write within this passage, expand a little more—he might discover that something, that human truth.
In her memoir, A Three Dog Life, Abigail Thomas builds a new life for herself, and her dogs, after her husband’s brain-damaging accident. She finds her way, not seamlessly, but somewhat successfully. After rebuilding beyond what she had before the accident, she delves deeper into what is bothering her about this success:
And then one day I asked myself a terrible question. If I could make Rich’s accident never have happened, would I do it? Of course I would. Wouldn’t I? And instead of yes, I hesitated. But by posing the question I had assumed the power, and by hesitating, I put myself behind the wheel of the car that struck my husband.
You want to talk about guilt?
I lived with this shame for a long time before I could speak of it. Finally I told my sister. “But it’s not about Rich’s accident,” Eliza said. “You don’t want to return to unhappiness. That’s all.” I will never forget that instant of absolute clarity. And just like that, I was free.
But, LOOK AT YOU, I still say to myself. HOW DARE YOU. You built this on tragedy.
In this passage, Thomas is not simply sharing feelings about guilt. She’s getting downright raw in airing her shame. She’s humanizing herself as a character, and for that reason, readers will empathize with her loss, her guilt, and her shame.
Don’t say anything at all? Of course there are subjects, people in your life, and situations that you won’t want to share with the world. This isn’t about exposing yourself, as if you were tied naked to a tree in your hometown central park, and forced to tell your darkest secrets. Some stories aren’t ready to be told, and may never be. Others take on a life and weight of their own. Just ask Linda Joy Myers.
In writing her memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother: A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness, she deliberately left out passages involving one of her cousins for the purpose of protecting him and his family, in spite of his actions. This secret wasn’t part of the main storyline, so it didn’t hurt the book to leave it out. But it didn’t stay quelled either. Seven years later, in releasing a new edition of the book, complete with a 26-page afterword, including “Truth, Secrets, Denial: After the Memoir,” Myers discusses the reasons she wanted to protect him, and what finally changed her mind. Again, this information doesn’t change the book, but the idea that this truth could not stay hidden, years after finishing the memoir, attests to the weight of human truth on the shoulders of a writer.
No one wants to read guarded writing, so before you linger outside that gate of acceptance, analyze your story and the interactions of your characters. Are they hinting at a deeper truth? Are you, as the narrator, protecting something? If so, then it’s time to explore. Keep writing until you find it. And when you do, you’ll hear the creaking of the iron gate, and you too will step inside.