Category Archives: how a writer builds a piece

On the Question of Writing as It Relates to Potentially Sensitive Material on This Blog

 

 

 

The following is an email of mine to a critic of a post of mine on this site who felt (inexplicably to me) that I had disclosed information in a post about someone from my distant past that I shouldn’t have.

The post is at

 

International Religious Fellowship (IRF)-Student Religious Liberals (SRL) Conference

 

The offending passage in my post (to me innocuous), which caused my relative to complain, was as follows: “There was a Scotch guy named Frank. And, a German guy named Joe, who, in retrospect, I thought might have been gay. He was a very nice man.”

 

 

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The following is the text of my email in response to the relative who objected to the comment in my post:

 

The entry I wrote about the experience at the conference was brief. But it could have been even more concise.

I could have simply said, “In 1962, I attended an international youth conference at Springfield College in Springfield, MA. I had a wonderful time. The people were wonderful and I enjoyed meeting them very much.”

How boring.

You objected to one tangential, retrospective comment in the article referring to a person identified only by his first name whom I met at an event over 53 years ago.

It was a sort of “extraneous” remark, but I do not feel it was in any way harmful.

In public posts of this sort — the case can be different when it comes to someone writing a book of a confessional nature — stuff about one’s sex life and uncomplimentary mentions of acquaintances and old friends should be kept out.

I believe in my blog I have said a lot of nice things about people and have made a point of emphasizing the good memories.

An exception might be one of my high school memoirs covering events of 50 years ago in which I said that two teachers, whom I named, were horrible teachers and that a popular physical education teacher and a baseball coach, whom I named, treated me poorly when I tried out for the baseball team.

In writing, I try to work in details that come to mind. I feel that that’s what makes a piece interesting. I rely on memory, intuition, and a mental process of association in doing this. It is a very satisfying kind of mental activity.

It’s the particulars that give the piece life. No experience, no person is quite the same as any other. That’s what makes life so interesting. And, most experiences aren’t plain vanilla, white bread stuff. People have funny idiosyncrasies. Funny things happen. Things don’t hew to the norm. There are all sorts of surprises, twists, and turns.

I feel that the little details make for interesting reading, make the piece credible, make it work, make it clear just what the experience was, make the story believable to the reader.

I regard the observation of mine which you objected to — a posthumous one — as interesting and worth mentioning because it involved experiencing some things that I hadn’t before. It was part of my adolescent development.

It is interesting for me to write about this because I had actually forgotten about practically the whole conference and experience. Then, someone posted a message that brought it back to mind and I decided to write my brief recollections.

In doing this, little things popped into my head, including one little detail which you object to. I think it is interesting to an extent (as much as the other details in the piece are), it is gratifying me for to relive the experience and somewhat therapeutic to write about it, and I see no reason why I shouldn’t do this as long as I don’t hurt or offend someone.

I would like someone to tell me, who could be hurt or offended by a tangential comment such as this?

Let’s leave aside for a moment discussion of the possibility that I may have somehow given offense by disclosing something about somebody. (This was not the case here.) What reader could be offended by reading something like this? Whose sensibilities are going to be offended? How? In this day and age? Is this offensive or problematic content that should not be posted? I think not.

I can see no reason why I should censor myself in this regard, and in this particular case.

I was not writing something meant to be confessional. If I were writing an exposé, or a confessional memoir, the ground rules would be different. A different (in fact more lenient) standard would apply. But I cannot see how I transgressed whatever standard you or any reader might apply here.

I was writing something like a mini-memoir, a little piece of autobiography. Little details bring this kind of writing alive, particularize it, make you (meaning, the writer) come across as an individual.

Yes, one must be careful. I am not just writing for family and friends. I am posting something on the Internet where anyone can see it.

I may have erred on occasion by posting something I shouldn’t have (though I have tried to avoid this). That is certainly possible. But in this case, I cannot imagine how anyone can regard what I wrote as offensive, hurtful, or inappropriate.

The individual was not identified. There are no graphic or prurient details; there were, in fact, none to include.

When one writes, one should feel some freedom to include what comes to mind, as long as it is not offensive to someone or in bad taste.

I firmly believe this. That’s my key point.

Otherwise, what is the point of writing?
— Roger W. Smith

   email to a relative, January 10, 2016

 

 

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addendum:  July 24, 2019

 

As I have stated above, nothing was stated or revealed in the “offending” post that should not have been.

It might be pointed out by me, though, that my befriending an individual, a man older than me, at a religious conference, who might have been gay — I was age 15 — was a not insignificant experience in my adolescence. I corresponded with Joe once or twice after the conference, but it was not a deep or lasting friendship. He went back to Germany and we never met again.

At that age, I did not know that there was such a thing as homosexuality, and would not have been able to define it. Yet, I felt there was something different here when it came to his friendliness — it seemed closer or warmer, more ardent, than usual. I did not perceive, consciously, a sexual element. But I did think, how should I respond? And — this happened only once — on the evening before the conference ended, as we were saying goodnight to one another, Joe reached out and patted my shoulder and (I think) rubbed my cheek. He said something affectionate, but not improper, and seemed to be struggling with his feelings. I told him it was okay, that I had warm feelings for my brothers and my male friends.

That was all. But it’s the kind of detail that might be in a coming of age novel. For the carping, pettifogging critic to complain seemed totally uncalled for.

 

— Roger W. Smith