A Writing Life Without Lies

January 10, 2017 | 7 3 min read

In this third episode of Swarm and Spark, a new literary column at The Millions written by an anonymous NYC editor and an MFA professor with the goal of restoring humanism to the literary conversation, we consider memoirs, crushing doubt, secrets, and shame.  

Send in questions, comments, confessions, or complaints you would like to see answered, knowing your confidentiality will be equally assured, to [email protected].

Dear Swarm and Spark,

I’ve written a memoir which will be coming out from a major publisher in a few months. As with many memoirists, my life path has not been easy. I expose things in my book that most of my friends have no idea about. Throughout the editing process with my publisher, I’ve managed to calm down a lot and have come to accept that I’ve written this book for a reason and that I’ll just have to deal with whatever comes my way. That said, I do still wake in the night, in a panic, in a sweat, with crushing doubt. The world will know my secrets. The world will judge me. I feel completely overwhelmed most of the time but can’t let on, because I must maintain composure and be professional within this world of publishing. Might you have some words of wisdom for me? How do I deal with the exposure? How will I even speak about difficult topics while on book tour?

—Lucky Yet Fearful Debut Author

T​each​: Lucky raises the great question that plagues so many: how does one ever overcome shame?

E​ditor​: With honesty, I think; with belief that truth, however painful, is a curative. But it’s not easy. Do you think Lucky is more anxious about the reaction of her family or that of the outside world?

T: Maybe ​it is the projection of family onto the outside w​orld. One of the most common reasons I’ve heard new writers cite for taking up the pen is the need to bridge ​a​ perceived divide between their experience of interior versus exterior.

E: That can be a painful process — but often one designed to curtail the erosive pain of lifelong trauma, trading compartmentalization for an integrated life.

T: But if you say honesty acts as an antidote to shame, does the greatness of art ever  — or always — justify ​the ​human wreckage in its wake?

E: Well, I don’t think so — it’s a matter of balance, isn’t it? Privacy must be weighed against truth. But isn’t the cost of secret-keeping one of the great sources of human angst?

T: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” — Orwell. Since each project creates its own particular ethical fences, the borders crossed or left sacred and taboo, how does an author know if her art justifies the human risk?

E: Isn’t the important thing to measure secrecy against a matrix of pain and justice?

T: Maybe Lucky, soon to face the hordes, could measure th​e​ project’s revolutionary possibility, asking: what imagined reader have I summoned and helped by disclosing x or y? As if there might be an ethical offset tax​!​

E: Right: the example of honesty is often a source of a work’s lasting value. And those whose reactions are most feared are sometimes most forgiving. But to get practical: is there anything Lucky can do to manage others’ reactions? Is that ​the writer’s responsibility?

T: The vastness of any writing comes from​ the myriad of interpretations​ readers ​find ​in a​ given​ work. Here’s reader-response theory gone biblical: once you finish a work, you set your baby off in its cradle of river-reed bulrushes for the pharaoh’s daughter to find. Much as you ​might ​prefer otherwise, you cannot control a work’s reception — even if you are president-elect and your work happens to be  a sub-par restaurant! ​Alongside​ the concept of killing ​your ​darlings​ — ​surrender​ ​the baby. Many beginning writers have the belief that, nonetheless, they must work overtime to control how readers accept a work. Even if every writer uses​ some ​imagined community as a magnet for his or her own aesthetic, a particular discourse. or readership, outcomes​ like to play tricks​. ​Yet i​f Lucky’s work stays authentic to its ambition, its cradle will end up in the right bulrushes. Maybe! At least that’s the hope​, or is it not?

E: What you describe is what all art is: a radical act of faith. And faith always involves risk. But perhaps that’s why we invented art: to give ourselves something so beautiful that it not only inspires faith — but sustains it.

T: ​Though anyone who aim​s​ to have radical faith ​knows it entails intermittent digging of the self up from its roots.

E: And trusting th​at ​the internal rewards are worth the interpersonal risks.

T: ​The bravest writers I know, the ones I most admire, sustain the exact negative capability evident in Lucky’s letter: writers aware of the cost, neither heedless narcissists nor writerly sociopaths but rather considering humanity in their work and life. Or, as Audre Lorde says: “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be ​​spoken, made verbal and shared​.” ​So rest assured, Lucky: already you understand community, written and lived: all that makes up a writing life without lies, so essential in our moment.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

are an anonymous Manhattan editor, with lauded years in the industry shepherding both fiction and nonfiction (“Editor”), and an equally anonymous writer and professor in a well-established MFA program (“Teach”).


  1. I just think it needs to be said here that there are plenty of writers and artists who do not in any way agree with the highlighted quote from the article: “What you describe is what all art is: a radical act of faith. And faith always involves risk. But perhaps that’s why we invented art: to give ourselves something so beautiful that it not only inspires faith — but sustains it.”
    To say that ALL art has something to do with “faith” is reckless at best. Secular people have no use for faith. It is irrational and harmful. It seems fitting on a day when Jeff Sessions is becoming Attorney General and admitted under oath that he discriminates against non-religious people, and in a country that prints theist sloganeering on its currency and where secular lives certainly matter as little as black lives (there has been one black president, but a non-religious candidate would have no chance at that office whatsoever), to make it clear that faith is the enemy, and ally whatsoever to many creative people. I’ll just quickly quote two of the best, Nietzsche and Vonnegut, and be out.

    “‘Faith’ means not wanting to know what is true.”
    -Friedrich Nietzsche

    “Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.”
    -Kurt Vonnegut

  2. Tackling shame with truth is admirable, however it can and often is much more sticky when you have kids. I don’t know your particular circumstances, Lucky, so I’ll use my own.

    Years ago, in grad school, I read an essay I wrote as part of my graduation requirement. The piece frankly discussed a traumatic event and my related struggles. An editor approached me about publishing it and I politely passed.

    I said no because my own issues, though I’m not ashamed of them, even kind of proud of what I’ve overcome, could be troubling or even embarrassing to my young daughter. I am and was then divorced, and though unconcerned with my ex-husband’s reaction, I didn’t believe it was my place to put my ex-husband in a bad light in my daughter’s eyes. I’d like for her to draw her own conclusions.

    Though I am grateful the editor appreciated my story, he tried to convince me it would be fine because my daughter was young and “wouldn’t read it.” I know my daughter. She’d read it. She’s seven now and wants a YouTube channel.

    I believe there is a place for the discussion of ethics in memoir, not so much in being honest with ourselves but in how that honestly will affect those in its wake.

    Editors and publishers by nature are not incentivized to care about these things but writers should be. I don’t expect us to major in psychology but I’m reminded of a highly commercial visiting speaker/novelist/bestseller who read from a memoir that exposed interactions with an almost adult child struggling with mental illness and addiction. Her depiction was so incendiary, a friend and I later discussed behind closed doors how damaging that material likely was to that now adult. I wish I could have asked the writer how he/she dealt with that.

    This was not, at the time, anything we could have have discussed in an open forum, but I think it should be.

    Thank you for the series.

  3. In my past life as a trial lawyer, I was invited to live with an American Indian in Wyoming, who is a shaman of sorts. For three weeks, I lived on a cot in the old man’s barn. He came in each morning, and we spent the day revealing ourselves- beginning with our first memories. (There were 8 of us.) We sat around and lied as long as we could. Lying can only go on so long. Eventually the old man wrung out every true drop of embarrassment, of violation of mind and of spirit, of abuse done both to us, and done by us. Each of us. As you might imagine, these were long, tearful, and often shameful weeks. By the end, I realized that I was not so rare a bird. My sins and crimes were not unique, but hiding them had made my heart ugly. Finally, he taught me that there are things much worse than death, for example, living the life of a lying coward. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to pass on what I learned there. Good luck to you, Lucky, and I look forward to hearing your truth.

  4. As a writer who has written, and then had made public,very personal or shameful episodes of my life, I’d advise Lucky to expect mixed reactions. The best ones will be from people who say that the same things happened to them, as Bryan says above. Failing all else, she should try to renegotiate for posthumous publication.

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