Memoirist ethics, aka how to write your story without being a dick about it

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“Don’t be a dick” pin by Etsy seller craftboner.
When I read your “Scrubbing” piece today, I teared up at the vulnerability, and I was so overwhelmingly relieved when I saw the person you wrote about responded to the piece. As you write your memoir following the divorce, how do you write about yourself honestly while also protecting your son and (if you even want to) your ex-husband? -Ashley

This question is SO timely for me, since I spent most of last week dealing with some negative feedback on the Scrubbing post, and then spent all weekend working on From Shitshow To Afterglow, the book I’m writing about the process of healing from my divorce last year.

As for the Scrubbing article, I got a chunk of pretty negative feedback from a web community called Metafilter. The tl;dr of the feedback was that, based on what I wrote, people had concerns about consent, safety, me being “creepy,” and whether the whole situation was a gross abuse of power.

This feedback sat really, REALLY heavy with me… especially when some of my friends shared with me that they felt similarly. (One friend was like, “Uh, you should really read The Gift Of Fear.”)

First, I just had to sit with the discomfort of criticism. That’s a major challenge in itself, especially when what I was writing about was pretty emotional and raw. (And, honestly, I’m generally just more emotional and raw than I used to be.)

I had a couple writer friends who were like “Fuck those people, they don’t get it” which I felt like was a reaction that denied me the opportunity to learn something… and God knows I like learning things! I spent days considering whether it was that my writing missed the mark, or whether the experience itself was gross.

I found truthful affirmatives to both questions… which is uncomfortable! I could see where my writing had failed (by not giving more context, I made things look even weirder than they already were), and could also see where the situation itself was a little off (I over-extended myself, and my motivations may have been as much about my own need to feel helpful as they were about helping someone else). There was lots for me to learn, and I’m still processing all the lessons.

Focus on telling only YOUR story

With my book and the scrubbing article, I make a concerted effort to only tell MY STORY. This has always been my goal with my memoir writing — it is not my place to tell other people’s stories, nor to put words in their mouths.

My first line of defense is just generally not to write that much about other people, and then my second line of defense is to ensure that what I do write about others is nothing that anyone could argue with.

When I talk about my separation publicly, generally all I say is “I felt blindsided.” There is nothing to argue with there. Even the similar phrasing of “I was blindsided” leaves room for argument — “I felt blindsided” is just about me and my experience of my emotions.

You can argue that I wasn’t actually blindsided, or that I shouldn’t have felt blindsided (hell, I’d even argue that point myself!) but there’s no debating the fact that, well, that’s how it felt to me at the time. I own that reaction. I felt that thing. No one can say I didn’t feel that feel.

I’m extremely sensitive about this with my ex-husband — he’s not in Shitshow at all, and the book isn’t about our divorce. I don’t want to write that book, nor do I want to be responsible for someone else’s narrative. His story is his to tell.

Shitshow is a book is about my process of emotional recovery, which is MY story to tell.

I’m even more sensitive about stories involving my son, Tavi. Ten years ago, I watched many of my early blogging colleagues become “mommy bloggers” where their primary narratives were funny and often embarrassing stories about their children.

This always made me a little uncomfortable, and once I had a child, I had a lot of clarity about why. My son’s stories are his to tell.

I can share my parts of the story (for instance, I wrote about my choice to dress him in gender-neutral baby clothes), but when it comes to sharing HIS life experiences? Nope. Tavi owns those stories.

Tavi can choose to tell them when and if and how he wants. I’m not going to force that choice on him.

Err on the side of over-respecting other’s privacy

Of course things get really sticky when your story overlaps with someone else’s story. This was a significant issue in my marriage. 15 years ago, my partner asked me not to write about the fact that our relationship was open.

This also meant not writing about my other relationships, which were usually with women. Keeping my bisexuality private was a compromise I was willing to make for the sake of my marriage… but it was a sacrifice and it’s a huge relief to be fully out without feeling like I’m stepping on someone else’s story.

It’s worth noting that I’m still careful about this stuff: I talked with my ex-husband just this month about whether he was now comfortable with me acknowledging that our marriage was open. (He said he’s fine with it.)

Is that weird, that I’m asking my ex-husband about talking about my own sexuality? Maybe, but I always want to err on the side of over-respecting other people’s stories — and our stories overlapped for almost 20 years.

My ethics around not sharing other people’s stories involve all sorts of compromises — in the case of the scrubbing story, by trying to respect the scrubbee’s privacy, readers were denied some information, which I now understand may have contributed to me coming off poorly.

(Although some of the creepiness was all mine. I’m intense and odd in ways that can make some people pretty uncomfortable! I totally get it.)

In the case of Shitshow, of course some people will want to know WHY we got divorced and HOW it all went down, and, well: they’re just not going to get those stories. This denies readers some context, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make, and hopefully I can compensate for by clearly setting expectations about the book.

Furthermore, my unwillingness to tell my son’s stories means I risk looking like a selfish asshole — does Tavi even exist? Doesn’t Ariel have 50/50 custody? Why isn’t this book about single parenting?

It’s going to be a tricky balance. I don’t know that I have a good strategy yet, but generally speaking I’d rather risk looking like an asshole than risk selling out my kid’s privacy.

Integrity in storytelling

In terms of getting permission from people, it’s an interesting line. When I write about people, they pretty much always know. If someone voices privacy concerns, I always respect them by either not writing about that person, or making the story completely anonymous.

Some folks want to make sure I write about things in a certain way — for example, I have a chapter in my book about how I did a sound healing on my VW van (HA!!!) and it’s very much played for Portlandia-style comedy.

My friend who did the sound healing was like, “I’m fine with you writing about me, just make sure it’s clear that I’m extensively trained and skilled at non-silly healing work.” …Totally! Yes! Of course!

My goal with any storytelling involving other people is that the person I’m talking about could be sitting in front of me, and hopefully they’d be stoked at what I said.

If I know they’re probably NOT going to stoked, I try to at least make sure they’d have to acknowledge, “Well, yeah. I guess that’s how it was for you. That sounds about right.”

Part of how I work toward this goal is wording things carefully around “I statements.” For example, there’s not much you can argue with the statement “I felt surprised,” but there’s a lot to argue with “They surprised me.”

Separate from any special strategies, I also just generally try to be a good human when I’m telling a story. I fail sometimes (…we all do), but my integrity is my everything as a writer, so it’s critically important to me not to sell out myself or the people I care about in the interest of a good story.

Even if I’m upset with someone, it’s not worth getting my hands dirty. That doesn’t serve me, nor do I think it actually serves the story. When I read a story that throws someone under a bus, my first question is almost always, “Huh, I wonder what that other person’s perspective is?”

As for the scrubbing post, I’m pals with the guy I scrubbed, and we’ve talked about the reaction to the story. When the negative criticism came up, I was like “ACK! Did the evening feel creepy to you?! Were you uncomfortable at any point?”

He was like, “These people don’t know me, and they don’t know the context we had for the night. I had a great time, and part of that was that we were on the same page about the whole thing, the whole time.”

He recounted reading my article out-loud to friends, and how they all laughed through it all. He recounted telling the story to his mom, and how tickled she was. Sure, there are some things I’d do differently in terms of how I handled the evening, and even more things I’d do differently in terms of how I’d write about the experience… but what matters the most to me is how the actual person who was actually there feels about the story.

When I’m working on Shitshow, I try to imagine sitting in a room with my son and his father, reading it aloud to them. It’s a pretty solid guiding principle.

PS: My book is available for pre-order now! And if you’re interested in this kind of behind-the-scenes writing, I’d invite you to join to The Afterglow, my members-only platform.

Comments on Memoirist ethics, aka how to write your story without being a dick about it

  1. I noticed the slight over extension, despite the boundaries, as it’s very much something I’m trying to deal with myself at the moment so I’m quite attuned. I nearly commented about it but that seemed a bit of an overly obtrusive point for me to make to you, someone I didn’t know. It’s the kind of thing one really trusted friend can say to another in a safe space not to a stranger in a bloody comment box, at least that’s where my boundary lies.

    How truly delightful then (it’s sarcasm, I’m British) to have had this feedback in the way you did! I do love this piece as response to the whole experience though, especially the bit at the end which I take to mean remember that the people you are writing about (or not writing about) are real and think about their reactions. It’s so easy to forget that on the internet.

  2. :takes notes:

    This is very timely advice/thoughts. I am in the process of becoming certified as a peer mentor, and part of my healing journey has been healing from childhood sexual trauma and a repressed memory. The thing is, because the memory is so clouded, I’m not sure who is responsible for what. Even if I did know anything concrete, I wouldn’t name names or create a scenario that is too specific, allowing someone to make a guess.

    When I’ve written about it in the past, I’ve either tried to be vague, or blatantly changed names/genders/relationship titles and made that clear in the writing.

    On the one hand, I don’t want to suggest that someone did something when they didn’t, but on the other hand, repressed memories are a very real issue, and I don’t want to take away from someone else’s healing process or ability to empathize with my situation. Just because I have questions about exactly what happened doesn’t mean I shouldn’t share my story for the benefit of myself or others who have gone through the same thing. But the whole thing is definitely a learning process.

  3. I think for me, the thing that made that post weird was, to some extent, your absolute refusal to even attempt to tell other people’s stories. Because, in text, that tends to come off like an absolute refusal to even attempt to consider other people’s viewpoints. How did he feel about it? It’s largely unclear. That’s his story; it’s his viewpoint; there’s very little that’s meant to give the reader an impression of how he felt, because you’re doing everything you can to avoid “telling his story”.

    In person and in the moment, of course you could interpret his emotions much better than the readers can. As a reader, I was left with the lingering question of “but what did he think of it?”. It was clearly a good and powerful experience for you. It appears to have benefited him. But between the fact that he consented to a lot of the more intimate stuff while under the influence and the narrative’s lack of interest in his viewpoint, it did come off a bit weirdly.

    • “he consented to a lot of the more intimate stuff while under the influence”

      He consented generally before he came over, and consented again more specifically before any whiskey was consumed. I don’t want that clarification to negate your larger point, though: several readers and friends voiced concerns about the role whiskey and weed played in the evening. As a writer, I think I may have oversold that aspect of situation — I was trying to use gentle inebriation as a way to convey that the evening was lighthearted and fun, and instead may have made sound like we were wasted. We weren’t, but that’s my fail as a writer for sure.

  4. Kudos to you Ariel for being so respectful of other peoples privacy when doing memoir work. That is an incredibly hard line to follow. I’ve been doing some memoir style writing, buried deep in my computer files under misleading folder names for now, and it’s definitely hard to tell a story about say … how much I hated a certain gift from my in-laws, in a way that wouldn’t piss them off if they ever read it.

    I really like your advice about “I statements” and making sure that whatever you write can’t be argued with. When I’m writing memoir style I also tend to think a lot about perspectives too and how my perspective of a certain event might be completely opposite of other people involved in said event. Like the awful gift. My husband loves it, I don’t want it in the house. In-laws knew he’d like it so maybe they didn’t consider how I’d feel about it or maybe his liking it trumped my dislike? These are assumptions though and not something I can present as fact so they’d best be left out of that particular story …

    • YES! When I went back a couple years ago and re-read parts of the Offbeat Bride book (which I wrote in 2005), I was kind of aghast at how I wrote about my then-in-laws back in the day. It’s nothing terrible (I complained about how they served meat at a wedding shower, when their son was vegan), but it was out of line with my current thinking about how I write about other people.

      • Well, in your defense, that WAS kind of … insensitive? … for them to do 😉

        But, I know what you’re saying. I wrote a lot of harsh shit about my in-laws during my wedding planning and then when I read back through it I really strive to try to look at the situation (ex. no kids allowed) from their point of view (large Italian family where kids have taken an active part in every wedding ever) to try to understand and be less critical.

    • The annoying thing is that even if you take pains to leave out assumptions people will still make whole new ones! And what’s staggering is when people make assumptions exactly in the same breath as complaining about other people making assumptions! Not the least of these being the assumption that how they see a situation they were not involved in personally be in anything other than accurate yet the the viewpoint of any of the people actually involved or telling the story is totally up for interpretation. I think this is easier to do over the internet when people seem less real compared to your own perception.

      • Although that said, I’m sure we have all experienced face to face that annoying acquaintance or relative who we tell a story or experience to who then proceeds to tell us that we’ve got it all wrong!

      • Sometimes when writing memoir style I actually will write my assumptions because otherwise I just sound like a bitch! Like, I’ll write the thing, how I felt about or reacted to the thing, and then try to say “Well, maybe person did this because this reason but no matter what the reason it still made me feel (emotion).” It is super tricky to navigate and as you pointed out is ALWAYS up for interpretation by the outside audience.

  5. Ariel, you continue to impress me more with each post! I love this community because I feel like so many posters and commenters here are either going through or have gone through similar things in life, and at the same time, know how to not be a dick.

    I’m also going through a divorce and have written a lot about it (privately) and have considered publishing eventually. This post is really helpful to think about how to do that respectfully – I have been waffling on doing it at all. I majored in creative writing in college and listen to a lot of podcasts with writers talking about either upsetting or not upsetting people they write about (or choose not to), so I’m no stranger to the idea, but you’ve put it into perfect context for me here. Thanks again.

    Btw, I can’t imagine disliking the scrubbing story, but now I’m curious about the book your friend recommended. It’s always good to stay awake.

      • omg I don’t think I could read that one. I just nearly elbowed someone who got too close to me at the grocery store. I’m constantly vigilant, expecting to be shanked at any moment. I should work on that. Too much cortisol is no bueno.

        • The Rory Miller book was interesting because it asks you to consider your ethics with violent confrontation BEFORE finding yourself in a situation… so that you can think through how far you’d be willing to go, so you’d know. I’d never considered stuff like that before.

  6. As someone who is working through the divorce healing process I greatly appreciate your openness about your process. I haven’t had a good support system and I’ve experienced a lot of shaming. I didn’t realize how harshly people look down on a divorced woman. Your stories make me feel less alone.
    When I read the scrubbing story I honestly wished I’d have met some one like you when I was in the darkest depths of my struggle. Kindness and acceptance are not always readily available commodities.
    Thank you for telling your story.
    Thank you for putting kindness into the world.
    I look forward to reading your book.

    • I’m so sorry that you haven’t found a good support system. During the deepest season of my divorce grief, I was barely able to function — and that was WITH a support system. If it’s helpful, I know there are folks online who offer remote divorce counseling/coaching, and certainly there are many online divorce support groups. Also, try googling divorce support groups or even grief support groups in your area — you may also find some great resources.

      Most of all: hugs. I am so sorry you’re going through it. I wish I could make it better.

      • I’m actually on my way up. I hit bottom on Thanksgiving last year, I ended up using a online type suicide hot line. It was dark.
        The hardest thing for me has been having my family withdraw from me. I’m in a relationship and it’s helping but it also makes me feel like I won’t fit into a divorced group. Maybe that’s just me.
        I’ve been trying to understand how my marriage fell apart and build myself back up as an individual. The two things that have been most helpful are admitting that my ex was emotionally abusive and moving to a city far away where I have friends. I’m also reading Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel and it’s a refreshing take on relationships. Her TED talks are great as well.
        Hugs are always welcomed and returned. Seeing you being hopeful and positive has helped me believe that it can and will in fact get better.

  7. I think you have an interesting perspective about writing your story. I always wondered how to tell my story because I would hate for someone to be making assumptions about me or my family, some sort of wrong assumptions. From reading people’s comments it sounds like whatever one writes, unintended assumptions are always made.

    In reading the scrubbing story I thought it was beautiful.

    • I hope I haven’t put you off with my comment about assumptions, my point was not to say they are a reason someone shouldn’t write their or tell their story, so thank you for giving me an opportunity to say something about that! Whilst assumptions and criticisms are never great, I think they are much more bearable if you know you have set out your experience in such a way that’s its clear that you are offering just your perspective rather than the unilateral truth of the situation (because no one can do that, we all see through our own filter).

      I do think what hurts when someone misunderstands us is that we worry they might be right, if you know they cant be (because only you know your experience and they can’t argue with that, or they can try but they won’t win) then you’ve got at some armour right there. It’s not totally pain free but it’s definable worth having! Ariel gives a link about I statements which is kind of saying the same thing.

  8. And here I was thinking the worst thing about the Scrubbing article was the incorrect notion that dead skin is evil and must be sloughed off.

    • LOL! It’s funny you should say that because the biggest thing I took away from the Scrubbing article was “Where can I get those scrubbing pads so I can try this?”
      (Not so much because I have a vested interest in removing dead skin as I did for seeing the “brown worms” of dead skin — it was a bust anyway, I couldn’t raise any worms. :/ )

  9. Thank you for sharing insight into your process. It’s something I’ve wondered about with other writers I know.

    (Also – I enjoyed seeing your name pop up in a news piece about hotel bars!)

    • Oh ha! The article published today. Yeah, anyone who follows @offbeatbride on insta saw my pix from The Clift a couple weekends ago. Fun trip.

  10. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and process. For what it’s worth (and I’m really not sure how much that is) the scrubbing piece did not feel insensitive/creepy to me. Ya’ll seemed like two adults who got together and had a mutually beneficial experience. I actually summarized the piece for a new partner who responded with “Ooh, that’s cool.” Perhaps it’s because I’ve had similar evenings (in tone if not content) myself?

    Either way, I’m not trying to invalidate criticisms (I’m sure it could seem odd/squitchy to some folks and that’s totally valid) and I think it’s awesome that you seem so open to feedback. I love that you presented “dismissing critique” as “depriving ourselves of the opportunity to learn”. This is something I could get a lot better at. Ultimately, I just wanted to express my personal appreciation for the story. Hope all is well with you and yours.

    • For what it’s worth (and I’m really not sure how much that is)

      …it’s a lot, actually! As much as I try to stay gracious and receptive to negative feedback (because that’s where I learn), of course it’s always most gratifying to hear when a piece of writing lands well with someone. Big picture, that’s why I write my stories: in the hopes that sharing my experience will inspire someone else to live their own experience more fully.

  11. I found your Scrubbing story neither creepy nor weird. I just thought “Wow, Ariel has the coolest life”. Also, don’t people discuss great writing the most? Rock on girl!

  12. I love this piece. Your point about the privacy concerns when sharing your story when it is tied into another person’s story (eg. husband/ex-husband) is spot-on and very timely for me right now. My husband is hugely private and while I’m not a huge sharer of personal details, I am a writer at heart and I’ve been feeling a need lately to write some poetry and blog posts about my thoughts, my feelings, my life, some of which overlaps with his. I really appreciated your thoughts on this.

  13. Thanks so much for writing this, I’m going to print it out and stick in my writing journal and send to some friends. I write a lot of memoir stuff and it is tricky, in this way. How to be vague and make sure nobody in this reads this?! I really admire your strength and your choices, and that you own them.

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