Start Your Week Off Write: The Dangers of Self-Censoring, Avoiding Controversy, and Writing as a Subversive Activity


image courtesy Cirt, Creative Commons

We had a great speaker at our local writers group last week and his speech really got me thinking. Charles Sasser is a prolific author and a terrific writing teacher. I might be a little biased since he was one of my writing teachers. His talk was entitled ‘Writing Controversy’. He shared his views on censorship in the writing community. He said writing things that MAY offend is part of the foundation of our freedom of speech. No one will write something that every reader agrees with, whether fiction or non-fiction. If there is an atmosphere of censorship or we as writers censor ourselves, how can we be writers? How can we write truth or fiction if we are concerned that it “offends”? The most insidious censorship is self-censorship. 

This idea of self-censorship is what struck me in Mr. Sasser’s talk. I’m not talking about revising your writing to make it better, I’m talking about making a conscious choice to not write about something or water it down or remove it in order to not take the chance of offending readers, editors or publishers. To be acceptable to whoever is deciding what is acceptable at that moment.

Check out Bret Easton Ellis’s take on it:

“Censorship in any form is the enemy of creativity, since it cuts off the lifeblood of creativity: ideas. – Allan Jenkins 

Many people have endured much to share their ideas, their thoughts, hopes and dreams in the written word throughout the ages.

Thomas Paine, who wrote revolutionary ideas in his pamplet Common Sense had his entire body of work judged to be offensive and subversive by whoever didn’t agree with him, whether it was English tyrants, French kings or French Revolutionists.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was arrested and began a long imprisonment in the Russian gulag system because of letters he wrote to a friend.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated for the words he wrote and spoke. Those words impacted a generation and changed a nation.

Globally, writers and other creatives work to have their thoughts heard without censorship. Ai Weiwei, Rami al-Said, and Zahra Kazemi are current examples of writers who sacrifice and sometimes paid with their lives to speak truth. These writers understood what was at stake. They don’t have the luxury of a First Amendment. Yet.

'6th Day, Close Your Shop, Like My Mouth' image courtesy Hamed Saber, Creative Commons

Censorship is not always so life or death. If Pat Buchanan feels he got a raw deal from MSNBC, he can list his grievances. If Jon Hamm is tired of the mockumentarization of American culture, he can say so. If Donald Trump wants to share his feelings about Rosie O’Donnell’s latest television project, he can feel free (I don’t think we have to ever worry the Donald will hold back).

Whether an idea or belief is currently popular or not, important to the cultural discourse or not, whether it’s to the left or the right of centrist thinking, the First Amendment allows us to share through the written and spoken word wisdom and stupidity. Others have the right not to listen.

image, public domain, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services

“The only valid form of censorship is the right of people not to listen.”                   - Tommy Smothers 

Writers need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you give in and let the fear of others judging your work have a hold, this is when self-censorship will creep in. Centuries ago, Pontius Pilate, when faced with an ultimate uncomfortableness in his life, asked the question “What is truth?”  Whether you’re a blogger, a novelist, a journalist, or you just keep a diary you have to ask yourself this question to engage in true writing.

If we fear our point of view won’t be acceptable and we start tinkering with it to stay under the radar of those who might perceive our work as offensive, or worse, we rewrite historical realities, we’ve just sprinkled another shovelful of dirt on the grave of free speech. An end to free speech is not going to happen with a mighty earthquake, but with little shovelfuls, bit by bit. That’s why it has to be talked about.

You might be thinking,”Wow, Kristin, this seems a bit harsh. This is not really my issue.  I don’t write things with big, fancy ideas. I just write blog posts. I just write little entertaining stories.”

But do you censor yourself?

Now I’m not talking about writing controversy for controversy’s sake. There’s enough people out there doing that from Bill O’Reilly to Bill Maher. I’m also not talking about censoring when it involves the boundaries of decency and basic morality. That fence is barely standing, and is a subject all its own.

I’m talking about holding back in your writing because you are afraid.

We worry what people will think if we said that or our character actually responded that way. We self-censor because we want everyone to like us, we’re afraid of reprisals, tweet campaigns, and flame comments on our blogs. We’re afraid to have real people say real things in our fiction writing. And of course we want the gatekeepers to like us and our work enough to publish it.

If you’re writing to be liked, you’re in the wrong business. I think everyone likes florists and bakers and those nice elderly volunteers at the hospital who are glad to show you personally how to get to the cafeteria. Otherwise, I don’t think most people are unanimously liked in their jobs. Welcome to the world. We need to get over ourselves and just write what wants to be written.

“Express everything you like. No word can hurt you. No idea can hurt you. Not being able to express an idea or word will hurt you more. Like a bullet.”   Jamaica Kincaid

public domain

I have censored myself many times on this blog. Sometimes it’s because the subject I wanted to talk about didn’t go with my blog ‘brand’ (Hello! – I am my brand, so if it’s something I’m interested in, how is that against ‘brand’?). Sometimes it wasn’t the scheduled day to talk about it (No cats on Write Anywhere day, you’re messing up the schedule…) Or it is something controversial that I am afraid may be pounced upon by the wraiths of Flameland. (example: ‘Book Reviews: Can You Trust Them?’… a blog post I’ve been putting off ). Or it was a subject close to my heart that would hurt too much if others rejected it (Don’t you talk about my mama like that! :) )

I think there’s a Sally Field inside of us all, wanting to scream to the world “You like me, you really like me!” But if we let Sally be in charge will our writing stay true?

Editors and publishers are afraid, too. They want consumers to like their products, and sometimes complaints are louder than praise when dollars are involved. My WIP contains a situation where a woman must choose whether she will use her body sexually to help her husband survive. Will editors and publishers be afraid this will offend and request it be removed? The men in her life tend towards misogyny, as did the times in which they lived. Will this cultural history have to be ‘rewritten’ to be published?

My protagonist is also a devout Catholic but questions her faith with regularity. This is in keeping with her personality and character. Should I ‘tone it down’ to make it acceptable to faith-based groups? The relationships my m/c makes involve people from all levels of the spectrum: many races, ethnicities and economic levels in a realistic historical setting. How can I accurately portray them without fear of reprisals in an age where everyone has a legitimate gripe? This story is her truth, and touches on universal truths. Should I be asking myself ‘What is truth?’

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know” –  Ernest Hemingway 

Writing is an offensive profession. You will not please everyone every time, but you need to be true to yourself and true to the ideal of the freedom to write what you want to write. Did I think that maybe I shouldn’t write this blog post? You betcha. But I want to be a writer, so this is the writing that comes out of me and I’ll let it. My mind works in ‘what-ifs’ and ‘how comes’. This is the result.

Don’t be afraid of offense. It is the scary monster under the bed that turns out to be only dust bunnies that crumble with the slightest movement of air. Just because you don’t agree with me doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to express myself. You also have the absolute right to disagree with me and put it into words on a page or screen.

What is scary is how disagreeable people have become in their disagreement. When truth is painted all in grays, it’s easy to choose the path of least resistance. When you don’t respect another human being enough to allow them an opinion, it becomes much easier to treat them less humanely.

Thanks, Mr. Sasser.

Interested in some other opinions on self-censorship and writing subversively? Check out these awesome links:

Question: Have you ever experienced backlash from your books or on your blog? Have you every backed off a subject because of potential backlash? Do you self-censor?

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12 thoughts on “Start Your Week Off Write: The Dangers of Self-Censoring, Avoiding Controversy, and Writing as a Subversive Activity

  1. Left-Brained Business for Write-Brained People

    Exactly right! I can’t count how many loud mouths have told me I shouldn’t have written or said something they don’t agree with–but their arguments go away when one quiet soul steps forward to thank me and add, “You said what I couldn’t.”

    Great post!
    Joan

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    • Thanks, Joan! I think it boils down to being comfortable in your writer’s skin. Sure, we may be insecure at times, but we should never be so insecure as to be swayed into throwing out what we want to write because someone doesn’t agree with it. Thanks for chiming in! :)

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  2. I wrote my Indian Rock Vampire series with a PG-13 audience in mind. Was I censoring myself? Maybe. Although not a traditional, blood vampire series, the characters are ruthless and no friend of religion either. I wanted to make sure my grandchildren would be able to read and enjoy the books by the time they were teenagers, which they are now doing.

    In 1999, I began publishing a car magazine in Oklahoma. I picked the name “Headlights & Bumpers” for obvious reason relating to the automotive industry and the less obvious, but much more suggestive reasons referring to parts of the female anatomy. Hooters restaurant was an early advertiser and I also put together two car shows at their Tulsa location. The early promo pieces I used to attract potential advertisers featured an attractive young woman wearing a bikini, posing with an old hot rod. I cannot tell you how many of those potential advertisers were NOT impressed by the promo piece which I reluctantly re-shot with a less provocative image.

    In this instance, my idea for the magazine didn’t match the cultural views of many potential advertisers. Long story short, I published the magazine for a year, having a lot less fun doing it than I originally envisioned. Between not being able to build a staff, or maybe I was just an SOB to work for, plus the cultural backlash, I fulfilled the advertising commitments and happily moved on.

    The recent move by PayPal to censor the type of material purchased from Smashwords reignited my memory of these issues. Although the companies quickly reached a compromise, it reminded just how close this country operates in the area of opinion censorship and moral conduct in this strange year of Presidential politics where long settled issues such as birth control are being revisited.

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  3. I have a book planned that I know may offend quite a few readers and, because of that, I haven’t decided as to whether I should write it as planned or tone it down to make it more palatible.Once it’s started, I’ll just have to rely on my instincts.
    Thank you for such a thought-provoking post.

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  4. I got to this post from Diana Douglas’ blog. This is an interesting topic for me. I self-censor all the time in my everyday life because I am conflict adverse. I’m working on expressing my true feelings with kindness and grace so as to minimize conflict and anger because anger scares me (old childhood issues).

    As for writing, my genre is the memoir. I have to censor some things as they relate to other people from whom I can’t get permission (my ex husband and his family, for example). I mask his name and identifying details, but remain true to the events as I remember them unfolding. He has read my stories on my blog and gotten offended–even tried to turn our son against me.

    When it comes to revealing the truth about my life, I withhold nothing. As Hemingway says, I try to write the truest sentences that I can possibly write. Why? Because those truths may help someone with their truths.

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    • Thanks for stopping by, Lorna. Memoir is very tricky to navigate. Staying true to your experience and not offending friends and family can be difficult. But in the end, if it’s the way you experienced it, it’s your truth.

      I think it’s great that you share stories to help others. Sometimes you can’t see what’s really going on in your life until you see it through someone else’s experience. :)

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  5. Thanks for the link love. And this is a constant balancing act for me–knowing where to draw the line, how much of myself to share, what to talk about and what to hold back. So basically I’ve used the yardstick of if I wouldn’t talk about something face to face with casual friends, then I don’t talk about it on my blog. Some things are private and should stay that way, but sometimes if we’re too afraid of giving our opinion it can have the opposite effect and make us seem generic or devoid of personality.

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    • You’re welcome, Roni! I love your blog, I think you do an excellent job of connecting with your readers and you’re always informative.
      It is definitely a balancing act on what to share. Sometimes I have a great rant that I bang out, but after I walk away from it for a bit, I realize it’s only really important to me and usually too personal. But then again, if things aren’t personal in some way, it might not be too interesting, either. :)
      Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  6. TheJackB

    I have been blasted on several occasions by people who were offended by my characters. It is impossible to write unless you are willing to let your words fly free and without regard for what people think.

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