Being A Writer Doesn’t Give You Permission To Be A Jerk

You still have the responsibility to be kind – unless you’re not, I guess

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

I have heard fellow writers talk about it quite a few times. Someone wrote a personal story and their significant other (or someone else in their life) read it and got upset.

They were asking for feedback from other writers about how they should handle it. Most often it sounded as though they were asking for people to tell them they were right and their “loved one” ridiculous.

Some of the advice was good, but some of the advice was downright bad. Well, I guess it depends on whether the person and their relationship were important to them at all or whether writing matters more.

Should you really write anything you want, and damned be those who have an issue with it? Especially if the offended reader is either discussed in the article or impacted in some way in their life?

Everything in our lives isn’t equal. We rank things in order of priorities. You have a choice. Your writing can be more important or your relationships can be more important. Not both. There is no tie. You potentially make a decision each time you combine the two.

That’s not to say you need to make any compromises or be less than honest in your writing. But if something you write will hurt someone else, is it worth writing about?

Sometimes the answer to that question is a definite yes. Tell your truth. Give the full details. Call them on the carpet or put them out there in the square.

Before you write something personal, though, maybe you should consider:

  • What will public knowledge of this do to your life?
  • What will reading this do to those who love you and those you love?
  • What will knowledge of this, now or in the future, do to any innocent parties caught in the firing line?
  • Is your message more important than the people who could be impacted?

If you write under your own name, or if those in question know your pseudonym, what can your words do to the people in your life?

Intimate relationships should be just that – intimate. The definition of intimate is not the same for everyone and changes from relationship to relationship, situation to situation. We don’t have the same sensibilities.

Generally, good intimate relationships are centered on strong two-way communication. They should be honest and open and trusting and respectful.

Frankly, the people you hold most dear are probably the best people to ask whether writing a certain personal article is right for you, not a group of virtual (but friendly) strangers who have baggage you know nothing about and absolutely no investment in you or your relationships or your life.

I have heard other American writers address this problem referencing our first amendment rights. The people espousing these rights don’t seem to know what the first amendment even says.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

All that says is that you can write about anything legally. But once again — should you? And are you really going to tell your significant other that you don’t care what they think because it is your first amendment right to write whatever you want? Does the constitution really rule your relationship?.

You may not care if details about your personal life are shared openly. Everyone doesn’t agree with your viewpoint. Sometimes I am amazed at the things people consider personal and believe should be off-limits for public consumption. As a relatively open person, some things others consider personal seem crazy to me. By contrast, I also am amazed at what others are comfortable sharing loudly in public.

For example, I usually talk about my colonoscopy every time I get it. So far I have been on the every-five-year plan. I may go into detail about it. Yep, it’s somewhat personal, but in my mind, it’s something that binds us.

I have lost two friends to colon cancer. What if I have other friends who are afraid or intimidated to get their colonoscopy, thus delaying a cancer diagnosis? Speaking openly about it may take some of the mystery out of the process. They may say “Well, Kim can do it and she is laughing about it— then I certainly can get mine.” The idea that talking openly about health-related things can save lives means I will always talk about health-related things.

I have friends and family members, though, who are horrified that anyone would talk about this publicly. Never would I ever write something about them getting their colonoscopy, even if they shared it with me and never said I couldn’t.

As another example, I have had friends going through relationship troubles who write explicit details on Facebook. The venom flows. People get involved and give their opinions (generally the other person is an asshole and should be shot). Two weeks later the couple has resolved their differences. Their friends who took sides don’t understand why they no longer get invited to their parties.

There are so many ways to tell a story. I often tell personal stories. I seldom use real names. I do this even if I say good things about people, Some people are embarrassed with public attention. Others are hyper-private. I could ask them if I could write about them, but often that means they think they get to sign-off on what I write. That gets to be a hassle and interferes with the point I want to make. Thankfully I know a lot of people who don’t know each other — shielding things this way works easily for me.

I’ve written about negative things done by the people in my life. I felt it was an important topic. Sometimes I only use their experience as an idea, sometimes I take common experiences of several people that I know and make a composite character, and other times I just camouflage the heck out of the unimportant details so no one would know it was them.

I am quite proud that I am able to do this well and usually even make the person in question wonder if I am really writing about them. I have had several friends ask if they were who I was writing about in a random article. It usually was not them, though I somewhat enjoyed that they identified closely with it. Usually, that means others do, too.

I recently wrote a story about two friends. I have told neither friend about the article. Will I? Maybe. They don’t usually read what I write on Medium, so I doubt they will run across it unless I do tell them. They are identifiable by some who read my writing and know me in “real life”, so someone could mention it to them. That wouldn’t bother me. There’s a part of me, though, that enjoys that I can write nice things about people in my life, put it out into the universe, and they may stumble across it one day — or not. It appeals to my whimsical side. It also appears to my sense of serendipity, If and when they need to read it, they will.

But writing bad things about people where others can identify them, or even if that person alone knows it is them? Writing in a way that makes someone uncomfortable, such as telling family secrets or sharing intimate details of your life they thought were private? Think before you write.

Does writing freely about a certain situation trump someone’s feelings? Once you answer that question for yourself, you need validation from no one.

Communicating with those you love and sharing your writing with them first is often a good idea. I seldom ask permission to write about people, but also always try to be kind to the people I choose to write about and write thoughtfully. This has meant it has never been a negative issue for me. I’ll even protect a jerk ex-boyfriend — because words can be a deadly weapon. I’ll fight fair and not use my writing superpower against them. Well, unless it is an email or a text or a conversation, and even then I hope kindness to other humans is the higher value.

Kim McKinney loves that she can put words together in all kinds of different ways, even when they become swords, but also thinks that gift comes with responsibility. Not much she could write would be deemed important enough to hurt the feelings of people — especially those she claims to love.

I write about people, faith, travel, adventure, justice & life. I love a good story. I blog for fun at kimberleymckinney.com; twitter.com/kimmckinney719

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