You may be a fiction writer penning a novel or short stories or a nonfiction writer searching for the perfect way to give your life story to friends and family or writing books or articles you hope will influence readers.
Any kind of writing can get stuck when a hard decision arises. Whether you are struggling about deleting a character in a play or sharing your uncle’s lifelong alcoholism, these moments can bring up all kinds of discomforts.
You will probably question yourself. If I let Jim and Alexia marry, does it mean I’m promoting the kind of slipshod advice their minister gave them to proceed? If I include Dad’s mistreatment from his employer, am I attempting to excuse him for taking out his feelings at home? Is my article about childcare costs influenced too much by my choice to remain childless? Would I seem too biased in my letter to my siblings pitying our eldest brother’s crisis with addiction because he and I see each other all the time as we live in the same neighborhood? If I admit to letting a bias about my counselor’s politics or religion influence my perception of him, will I lose his help or turn him against me?
Hard choices with potentially large risks.
Approaches to making decisions in all these cases are fairly similar.
- Step back and promise yourself that you’ll consider this problem before acting on emotion.
- Make a list of what is at stake for you: Giving up an essential part of a story that makes it weaker, losing family support, having to pay for some choice, losing or gaining “face” or trust, losing a part of your “team” like doctor, lawyer, neighbor, family, etc.
- Make a list of what is at stake for others: Never hearing a family story that could make a difference—justifying or denying some belief, explaining a mystery. Clinging to an untruth. Losing a relationship with you or some other. Losing objects or finances. Even life or death can be at stake for you, or for others based on these choices.
- Clarify the viable choices. Are there some options you haven’t considered that might bring a better outcome. I often suggest that most stories can be shared less than entirely. In fiction or articles, for example, parts can be left out or given a delicate touch.
What brought me to this topic is that my second book about the ancient Egyptian girl, Secrets, has her friend giving birth to quite small twins. The main character has also given birth and the child has survived. In Egypt at that time, a high percentage of newborns and of young mothers perished. The friend and her children are less significant characters, so they can be used to demonstrate the reality of the times. If I allow all three of the babies born in these books to survive, it just isn’t an accurate portrayal, plus they already have the issue of being so small. Beyond that, the death of one or both, maybe the mother as well, brings more usable tension to the main character as best friend and to the husband as grieving spouse.
The emotional impasse that I’m coping with is that the mother is a really good character, she and her husband represent a really functional and fun pair, and that she is a midwife who is trained in helping others to give birth well. On an intellectual writer’s slate, all that simply makes a story twist of the loss of one, two, or all three a really useful turn of events. I have already spent some tears on this. I’m about 75 percent committed to sticking to the likelihood rather than building a fantasy based on sentiment.
Per life stories, I had to decide how much I wanted to say about my father’s problems with anger, probably based at least partially on an undiagnosed bipolar condition. My choice in the “portrait books” I did of him and of my mother was simply to use the words I did in the first sentence of this paragraph...“Problems with anger.” I followed the “undiagnosed” rule. It is always safe and undeniably fair not to speculate on those who have passed.
Beyond that, there was no need to dig deeper, make accusations, or look for fragments of proof, nor did I want to do those things. A portrait of him was soundly done without them.
Also, ignoring to share “problems with anger” would have left out something necessary—partly as it would call to question the honesty of my account and partly as that would deny that influence on me as well as on my mother and sister and his brother and sister.
Good luck with your “hard decisions” or do bring them to me in one of my ZOOM classes or one of my online classes.
Join ZOOM or online writing groups or classes with me at any time: the Edmonds Waterfront Center at 425-774-5555, or Frances Anderson Center at 425-771-0230 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Greenwood Senior Center at 206-297-0875, or reach me to register for Greenwood or individual work at email@example.com. Looking forward to meeting you.
Ariele Huff is a Washington writer, editor, and writing teacher who hosts Sharing Stories and creates Writing Corner for Northwest Prime Time.SHARING STORIES is a weekly column for and about the 50 plus crowd living in the Puget Sound region. Send your stories and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell local or personal stories; discuss concerns around aging and other issues; share solutions, good luck, and reasons to celebrate; poems are fine too. Pieces may be edited or excerpted. We reserve the right to select among pieces. Photos are always a plus and a one-sentence bio is requested (where you live, maybe age or career, retired status, etc.).
SHARING STORIES is featured on www.northwestprimetime.com, the website for Northwest Prime Time, a monthly publication for baby boomers, seniors, retirees, and those contemplating retirement. For more information, call 206-824-8600 or visit www.northwestprimetime.com. To find other SHARING STORIES articles on this website type "sharing stories" in the search function above.