The Story You Do Not Write: How Helpful Are Creative Acts of Confession, Really?


The other day, I found myself making out a list of the rudest stuff men I’ve been involved with have ever said to me. And it was shaping up to be pretty darkly hilarious.

Pleasantly self-effacing, occasionally blistering—it definitely had some serious personal essay potential. (I’m tempted to include a few choice lines here, but I think we’d veer quickly off track, so, sorry. If you know me personally, ask me next time we see each other and I’ll gladly oblige.)

But then, as I banged furiously away on my keyboard, snickering and grimacing in turn, a question bubbled up in me. One that stopped me dead in my tracks.

What was the point of writing something like this?

What was the use of composing something that required me to revive old insults and embarrassments, to relive painful slights and brushings off, to feel indignant and rejected all over again?

Some of the things these men said read as pretty funny in the rearview mirror, in a sad kind of way.

And to rage against the crappy men I’ve known (and I’ve known many!) might feel cathartic, in a way, from my comfortable domestic throne.

And it’s always kind of relieving to just put those kinds of words to paper. All writers feel this way, I assume, or why else would they regularly undertake a task as completely insane and self-flagellating as writing?

But was writing a story whose working title was “Rudest S*** Men Have Ever Said to Me” actually helpful? Really, really helpful?

Amazingly, this thought—this question!—had never occurred to me before. Not once, over the course of 30 years of steady writing.

My word count is easily in the millions by now, much of it intensely personal and memoir-adjacent, and yet, I’d never stopped once in the midst of all that rehashing to ask what on earth I was getting out of these compulsive historical reenactments?

You write what you feel like writing, I always figured, and that must be good. It had to be!

You process the sad, bad stuff by writing it down, getting it out, working it into comprehensible form. Then you share it out, and there is something so bold and brave about just telling the truth to a general audience.

That feels deeply affirming, on its face.

And maybe somebody else will get something out of what you wrote, but even if not, you will, at least, right?

Of course you will!

I’d always believed this.

And then, for the first time ever, ever, yesterday, I found myself questioning that closely held axiom. What if this process of returning to the most debasing romantic moments of my life wasn’t healing or cathartic so much as just self-destructive? What if I was doing little more than feeding the fires of my disappointment and rage with the splintery tinder of remembered slights?

I have no idea what to do with this question. I really don’t. I certainly don’t know how to answer it!

But I do think it’s an important one for every writer to ask themselves: “Why in the hell am I writing this? What’s it going to fix or set right?”

If the answer comes easy, forge ahead.

If the answer does not come easy, step back a minute. Reconsider. And don’t begin again until you feel confident that you aren’t merely engaging in after-the-fact acts of metaphysical arse-kicking.

Don’t be afraid to toss bits of your history liberally down the memory hole!

I don’t care what anybody says; every story absolutely does not need to be told, especially if its telling will hurt you as the writer more than it heals you.