Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to teach at the San Miguel Writer’s Conference in San Miguel Allende, Mexico. San Miguel is a charming, old colonial town in central Mexico, popular with ex-pats from the US, Canada, and all over the world. The conference drew writers from all over North America and featured a variety of workshops for writers of all skill levels, on topics ranging from fiction to memoir to blogging, from marketing to science fiction writing. It was a great conference—you should consider attending next year.
One of the personal highlights for me was the keynote speech by Sandra Cisneros. I’ve been following her work ever since she published The House on Mango Street. As someone who lives on the border between cultures, she was a great choice as the keynote speaker.
One of my favorite things Cisneros said reflected my own evolution as a writer. “Writing begins from a rant, but it doesn’t end there. You write until the writing brings you to a place of light. You have to travel through the rant to the light.”
She continued, “When I was younger I did a lot of ranting. But ranting is uncomposted writing. No one wants to accept the coffee grounds and the banana peels, but they will pick up the flower. We have to learn to write with love, until the light shines through.”
As a younger writer, I, too, was famous for my rants. Whether it was a personal diatribe, putting someone who had wronged me “in their place,” or a political treatise, I loved to hone language into a weapon, a force to be reckoned with. I used words to educate, to instigate, to disturb, to shock, to provoke. I loved “being in your face.”
At that point in my writing career, I was absolutely certain that I had the right to tell the Truth, and if someone didn’t like it, too bad for them. This was certainly my stance when Ellen Bass and I were writing The Courage to Heal 25 years ago. My grandfather had sexually abused me and I was going to tell the story regardless of how my family felt about it. Predictably, they hated it. The publication of that book, and the fact that I continued to “go public” with my incest story, led to years of estrangement and bitterness. I paid a high price for telling the truth.
When I look back now, I am glad I was only 28 when I started writing that book, that I was 31 when it was published, precisely because I didn’t hold back. My story is only one of many in that book, but it was an important thread. The fact that I wrote passionately as a survivor, that I put myself out as a role model, and that I modeled courage and truth-telling is part of what made The Courage to Heal so compelling. For more than 20 years, our book has been an incredible healing force in the lives of people from all over the world, and I’m grateful I didn’t censor myself.
But fifteen years later, when I was writing my sixth book, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again, a book that tracked (among many other stories) my estrangement and reconciliation with my mother, the last thing I wanted was for my words to damage the bridge we had rebuilt between us. So before it went to press, I showed my mother the manuscript and asked for her honest feedback, something I’d never considered with The Courage to Heal. “Let me know, Mom, if there’s anything in here that you can’t live with.” I said to her. “I don’t want the publication of this book to cause a new rift between us.”
Waiting for my mother to read the manuscript was agonizing. I had no idea what she was going to say, but I knew I was committed to listening—and changing the book if necessary. When we finally sat down together, she only had two objections to the book. I’d mentioned her age and she didn’t want that information to be public. And then she said, “You didn’t talk enough about the things you appreciate about me.”
The rest of the book, which covered some pretty hard ground we’d covered together, my mother let stand. It was easy for me to make the changes she asked for. Her age was irrelevant to the story I wanted to tell, and there were so many things I admired about her, it was easy to find ways to slide a few of them in.
As I get older and the relationships in my life become more precious to me, there are more and more topics I find myself avoiding on the page. If I were a fiction writer, I wouldn’t have this problem. But I’m not. I write memoir. I write non-fiction essays. And there are now limits to what I’m willing to put in print.
For years, I wrote a column on parenting for Growing Up in Santa Cruz—until my kids reached puberty and their lives felt far too personal for public consumption. Reluctantly, but with clarity, I gave the column up.
In the years since then, there are lots of pieces I’ve written about members of my family and the people close to me. I might share them in a writing circle where I know my words will be held in confidence—but publish them? Not now. And maybe not ever. And that brings me another of my favorite quotes from Cisneros’ keynote lecture: “Write about things that can’t be published until after your lifetime.”
In other words, keep writing until the light shines through—and even then, use a discerning eye to decide what should and shouldn’t be public.