Not My Secret — October Memoir Challenge
The theme for the next three posts in the October Memoir and Backstory Challenge hosted by Jane Ann McLachlan is Secrets. I fretted a bit about this theme, but I finally landed on a solution. For the first two posts, I’m going to tell you about secrets that I won’t divulge. For the third post, I’ll reveal a secret.
A broad category of secrets that I don’t tell are ones that don’t belong to me. This isn’t an iron-clad rule with me. Many situations are improved when people aren’t keeping secrets. If revealing something makes the environment cleaner and clearer, I’m inclined to say what I know.
I have made the choice, recently, while writing these memoir posts, to keep a secret that isn’t fully mine. Someday, I’ll probably tell it, but not today and not simply for improved writing.
It may shock some readers to know that I’m keeping secrets. People sometimes say “I can’t believe you wrote something so revealing” — usually, people who aren’t writers. I think writers know that once you’ve turned a secret into a crafted piece for others to read, it loses its ability to harm. Secrets make you vulnerable. Choosing the time, place, and manner for the revelation of a secret is an act of power. If the secret belongs to someone else, then it’s a power that must be wielded with compassion, or not wielded at all.
Last year, during the October Memoir Challenge, I had a lovely conversation with another writer about authenticity and honesty in writing. The question arose: does authentic writing require complete, honest revelation? It took us awhile and examples from both of our writing, but we eventually came to this conclusion: authentic writing requires that something be revealed, but not that everything be revealed.
For writers, what role do secrets and revelations play in your writing? For readers, what do you like and not like about how secrets are kept and revealed in the works you read?
Joy, thanks for your thoughts. As you mentioned, the topic of “secrets” is especially relevant to writers. I’ve done a lot of thinking about the dilemma over the years. The more I write, the more I realize readers relate better to admittedly flawed writers rather than those authors who only talk about their strengths. Authenticity and transparency allows readers to take the journey through the book along with the writer. But as you said—sometimes it’s not OUR secrets to share. If it could hurt someone, no matter how truthful it is, it’s just not worth it. And there’s usually a way a talented writer can craft a piece of writing to have the same impact and effect without making someone else feel bad or look bad. I’m learning ways to do that, that stretch me as a writer.
So, I tend to show the strengths of others in my writing, and the weaknesses of myself (other than the strength of my “aha! moments”). It’s sort of like doing a stand-up comedy act. If a comic makes fun of himself/herself, that’s politically correct and gets a great laugh, but if a comic makes fun of anyone else for the sake of a laugh, that’s just cruel.
At least…that’s my take on it.
One of the things I realized lately is that to reveal your own truths (including secrets) you have to reveal things about other people that they’d rather you not say. Sometimes, for me, the relationship is more important than the story I have to tell about myself and I don’t want to breach that trust. Other times, I wanted to write about the story. My decision was to reveal details but not the secrets themselves. Hinting at the secret, say, or alluding to something more under the surface but not actually spilling it. The interesting thing was, this seemed to irritate those included in the writing more in some ways. They didn’t complain that the secret was present, lurking under the surface. Instead, they complained I got a detail wrong. One, that struck me as really funny, was when my husband said, “You got the year of my truck wrong.” Really? Okay. Well, I want my details to be correct, so I changed the year of the truck. But the story wasn’t even about a truck, so it just struck me as humorous.
Ha! I wonder if (secretly) most people like to be written about — they just want the name spelled correctly!
Joy, you always write such interesting, thought-provoking posts and comments. I agree with you here. I was at a writers’ conference once, and the speaker was taking questions about libel/defamation charges. One woman said she had a story she wanted to write about her son who was gay, but he hadn’t “come out of the closet” – could she be sued? The discussion was interesting. My take, and the speaker’s, was thet that wasn’t her story to tell. Even though she was peripherally involved, as his mother, it was his story, and in terms of your post, his secret, not hers. For me, the issue goes beyond whether it will hurt someone – though I wouldn’t write anything that would hurt someone, that’s not my style, not what my writing is about – it’s a moral issue. If it’s not my story, it’s not my story to tell, even if I’d like to. The gray part comes in, of course, when it is your story, but also someone (or ones) else’s. But by now, we’re getting into a post, not a comment. Thanks for your interesting post.
I think there is power in secrets. To be a good writer I think one has to be vulnerable at some point and authentic. Sharing, but no one doesn’t have to share everything.
I do and always have used my blog as a way to purge my secrets and get them outside myself. As an abuse survivor, keeping those secrets all those years poisoned my soul. By sharing them I free myself.
I really like what you’re saying about choosing to reveal secrets. I’ve wrestled with that topic myself — if it’s a shared secret, does that mean either person can reveal it? I think you’re so right when you say that choosing the time and place for telling make a secret easier to live with. Thanks for giving me such great food for thought!
Pingback: Secrets Revealed — October Memoir Challenge | Joy's Book Blog