UNSOLICITED ADVICE FROM A NEOPHYTE WRITER
Updated: May 18, 2020
A mistake which makes you humble is much better than an achievement that makes you arrogant. -Adina Silvestri
I found an article on someone’s Facebook page and I don’t know where it originated. I just know where it resonated. With me. It had 20 biblical reasons for when you should keep your mouth shut. Only 11 were relevant to my first book I just published. Meaning I ONLY made 11 significant mistakes! How’s that for a first book? Well, maybe I can save you the same mistakes.
My book was receiving nothing but positive reviews when out of the blue it suddenly received a disturbing review that was instead a direct attack on me as a human being. It came from an estranged family member who hadn’t talked to me in 18 years. His rant was nothing more than an angry train careening off the rails. He accused me of being everything short of a crack whore and a pedophile. He began an online stalk, bullying, and defamation campaign. He mocked very dear confessions from my heart and called them lies. I don’t really care about his online terrorism as it only brings his small character (as a physical noun, not a judgment on his person) to life even more than the book. What I care about is how it was used to hurt people I love.
It had never occurred to me that this now stranger would read my book or anyone would ever know or care who he or any of the characters are. Truth is, they really don't care anymore than they care how many times a day I brush my teeth (which is two-three). No one asked who these people were in real life, not one person.
I had written my true memory of my childhood as catharsis while sitting next to a sick child in ICU for five months. I typed my thoughts as fast my fingers could hit the keys. Many people over the years encouraged me to write this “unfathomable to most” story of a dysfunctional family and a sometimes painful childhood. I thought this would be a good time to do it as I was tired of spending days on end playing Sudoku.
It turns out many people have shared with me similar experiences, said they could relate to my story and it helped them address things they had suppressed because they were painful or embarrassing. I thought I had done something good.
If you are a new writer, please take the following advice. Maybe you already know what I’m going to tell you. If you don’t, I hope this saves you heartache.
1. If you would be ashamed of your words later. All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse. (NIV) Proverbs 8:8
None of my words were “crooked or perverse” but I shared truths other people wanted to keep buried. Some because they had moved on, changed or were ashamed. Because it happened to me, it was decades ago and these characters are not a part of my life, I didn’t consider that I would be ashamed of my words. As it turns out, I AM ashamed of one or two things I wrote in my first edition because I never dreamed the story would affect the few characters who are important to me. The estranged family member who became livid was someone I can no longer spend energy on. That doesn't mean I don't practice "loving kindness" for him and all sentient beings:
May I/you be happy
May I/you be safe
May I/you be healthy
May I/you be at peace
The problem is that he possesses the anger and the venom to use my book against me to inflict pain on people I care about. This man hisses and spews like a baby snake, more venomous because he can’t control the amount of venom he spews in the way an adult snake can. As writers of nonfiction, we must be aware of baby snakes.
2. If your words will damage someone else’s reputation. Evil people look for ways to harm others; even their words burn with evil. (TEV) Proverbs 16:27
It doesn’t matter if your intentions are good. We need to consider if our content can hurt someone else’s reputation even if it’s true and people already know it.
3. If your words will be a poor reflection of the Lord or your friends and family. (TEV) 1 Peter 2:21-23
Oops, I wrote about things people I love don’t want to discuss, ever. Just because I don’t mind talking/writing about my history, I should have considered that they prefer not. Although I’ve been away from their insular world for 34 years and didn’t think what I said mattered, to some it did.
4. If your words will offend a weaker person – 1 Corinthians 8:11
This one’s hard. I don’t have the right to judge whether people I haven’t seen from 13-18 years are weaker than me. However, there’s the possibility they could be. I can’t say. As I write my next book, I carefully consider anything I write about someone else as if they may not be able to handle it. Keeping that in the back of my head makes me more confident as a writer. I highly recommend considering this advice twice.
5. If your words would convey the wrong impression. (NIV) Proverbs 17:27
I seek understanding in every chapter of my book and every day of my life without effort and as part of my soul’s anatomy. However, in this particular book, some things I wrote were subject to extreme misinterpretation. I recommend being meticulous with words when writing about what someone said or did. What you write is not always what they read…
6. When it is time to listen. A wise son pays attention when his father corrects him, but an arrogant person never admits he is wrong. (TEV) Proverbs 13:1
In the case of this very true story, the time to listen was decades ago when I wrote letters trying to explain myself while family members cared so little. However, I am listening to the criticism I have received post-publish. Embrace criticism. It makes us better writers!
7. When you are feeling critical. (NIV) James 3:9
In my book, I wrote what happened, just the way it happened and tried to include only details that were relevant as it related to characters’ words and deeds. Although my writing was no more than “stream of consciousness” pouring out my memories, they were perceived by a very select few as being critical.
8. When you are tempted to flatter a wicked person – Proverbs 24:24
If I confess to flattering a wicked person, I would have to judge someone I no longer know. Even though the online attacks seemed evil, they could instead be narcissism, some kind of psychosis or something more benign. I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist and don’t diagnose other people.
9. When you are tempted to make light of holy things. (NIV) Ecclesiastes 5:2
To some pure of heart, devout christians, I may have seemed to make light of holy things in my book in the way I expressed my spiritual doubts. Those who know my heart will know that was not my intention yet most readers of my book know nothing of my heart.
10. When you don’t have all the facts. (TEV) Proverbs 18:13
In my first edition book, I wrote ONE and only ONE thing I don’t know for sure. I mentioned that someone had an affair decades ago. It was common knowledge but I didn’t know for sure. What’s more important is this particular affair wasn’t relevant to the story. If it’s NOT relevant and you aren’t 100% factually sure, don’t include it in your story.
11. When you haven’t verified the story. (NIV) Deuteronomy 17:6
I verified my story with every character who still speaks to me and they were all actually quite impressed with my memory. This gave me the confidence to move forward with sharing my story.
I told my editor I was prepared for the backlash that would follow my book. What I didn’t know was a pivotal realization. People will do things to you that you would never do to them. People don’t always hear what you say or read what you wrote. They hear what they heard in their minds, not in their ears. Don’t ever be afraid to tell YOUR story. Just be careful and be prepared.