First Do No Harm.

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If you're writing a true story, sometimes you don’t know who you hurt. It's easy to say " I just share the truth," but sometimes that truth downright smarts.

So I want to look at how to write honestly and transparently about your life and not hurt the people in it. Having helped many write their true stories, I deal with this question a lot. Sometimes we feel badly for the people who's lives our past touches, wanting to protect them from the feelings back there. Other times, they’re the very ones who have hurt us, and we can't deny we've wanted to get back at them before, hoping to reverse the damage in some magical way. Make the clock run backwards. That makes us feel guilty, and then we have our justification for holding back and not being totally honest.

But we can’t go back. And we can’t undo what’s done. And maybe it’s because we know this so well, having tried so many things to escape it, that we’re so careful about what we say about the past. Because as truthful as it all might be, the deeper truth is, Once you stir that cup, you can't unstir it. When we write it, it will exist and the world, and our families, will have to reckon with it.

And is it fair? Who are we to make them face it now? We know what they'll say–"What were you thinking?" "Why now?" and "Selfish as always." Isn't it being selfish to reveal them and their weaknesses and mistakes to the world? It seems writing should be more about healing than damage, even if you have to break a few eggs to make omelets and all that.

And we heap on my reasons not to face what we know we must. When the past is too painful, sometimes writing about it feels more like returning evil for evil.

We know better than most how our words are full of interpretations. There’s no way to help it. No one can read the Bible as God intended without his help because it's always colored by our perceptions and experiences. This is why you have to help your reader and the people in your story who will read about themselves; you have to help them by being dispassionate about the whole enterprise and just saying what you know. Don't look for sympathy, pity, validation. But don't try to protect them either and think you can get away with not explaining. You have to share it all, the whole thing, and then extract yourself, like the best reporters of yesteryear, fair and equitable. Our prejudices and unexamined trinkets that got passed down will of course all come parading out. Our voice colors our own stories too, and our expressions characterize the people in them. Even if we’ve made peace with the past and forgiven all, the truth there still carries shame. How can it not?

So write and let your editor sort it out while you rejoice in this greater truth: “Love rejoices with the truth.”

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

For by grace we were saved from all of that back there. Through faith and not by ourselves or what we did. It was a gift from God, not our works or efforts. Writing about it will simply reveal how much love and forgiveness we've experienced in the light of truth. Therefore, there’s no cause for believing we have anything to do with the saving…or the healing…or the revealing. 

Us, or them.

It happened. It exists still. It matters. What was, still is.

If you're writing your story today, think about this. Even if those in your past haven’t yet believed, trusted that grace, or received that gift of faith, your writing about the past is a way to end the secrets and allow the truth to shine in and set them free. If you love, you can rejoice in that truth and forgiveness can free them from the past as well. By embracing the truth, you can embrace those who hurt you in the past, their warts and scars and all. And in that way you can show them how Jesus loves, not in spite of our deficiencies, but in them, through them and as part of them.

“And listen, I will be with you always and forever. To the very end of the world!”

Believe it. And trust in the power of truth as you tell your story.

For a practical discussion of the issues in writing memoir, check out Jane Friedman's blog and guest author Tracey Seeley's thoughts here:  http://blog.writersdigest.com/norules/2011/01/05/3ImportantPrivacyIssuesInMemoir.aspx


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5 thoughts on “First Do No Harm.”

  1. In reading GLASS CASTLES, and now Liz Murray’s BREAKING NIGHT, I am impressed with how both authors gleaned what they loved about their parents, but told the truth about what they didn’t get and needed from them. There is a sense of “honoring” parents, but acknowledging the truth of what happened–parents who chose homelessness, and the fallout of addiction. I believe as authors they were writing from a healed place and so it doesn’t carry any retalitory tone. It was what it was, and this is who they are as a result–this is what they’ve learned and how their life will be different…
    I was greatly enriched by their stories and the transparency in which they were told.

  2. Hi Mick!
    Shana here.
    I’m feeling one degree of separation from fame just by knowing you, since reading your name — and your lovely wife’s too {and then being led here} on Ann Voskamp’s blog today. Ann is such a blessing to me each day as I read her words, so clearly from the Lord. And being a mother-of-six too, has just endeared her to me all the more! Thanks so much for your part in what I fully trust will be an excellent, excellent book {I pre-ordered my copy MONTHS ago and am so antsy for it to arrive this week!} I also blog my own 1000 gifts along with her each Monday, which I have thoroughly been blessed by doing!
    So, I just wanted to say Hi and let you know what a famous person you are in my world today!
    Have a great one and hug Sheri and the girls from me!
    Blessings,
    Shana Stoll
    (Kirby and all the kiddos too!)

  3. Mick,
    I bought 6 copies (not to mention the fact that I talk about her ALL the time and have turned many other friends into Ann-lovers) so I’m doing my part! :) I think she’s fabulous. Have a great night!
    Shana

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