Overcoming Self-Censorship, by Kelly Inglis
A few years ago, while I was living in California, I frequently attended a creative writing class. I learned many things from the class and from the instructor, but one quote in particular has stayed with me for the years since.
“Don’t be afraid of who might read your writing – write what you want!” (Linda Tacy, 2008)
This is something that has challenged me as a writer. Words are such powerful weapons, especially if they fall into the wrong hands. If that happened there would be a violent war, full of bloodshed and pain and death. I couldn’t live with myself if I was single-handedly responsible for all that death and destruction. Eventually, a peace treaty would need to be brokered, a torturously tedious process filled with bureaucratic baloney and endless red tape. Then the dead would need to be buried and mourned, cities and infrastructure rebuilt. Children would return to school and international trading would gradually resume. Billions of dollars and countless lives could be lost if I so dared to pen my deepest secrets and clandestine fears, and they were read by the wrong person…
Ok, so maybe that is a teeny tiny exaggeration, but there is still a grain of truth in it. For many writers, self-censorship is a killer – a killer of artistic licence and creativity. Now, in reality, there wouldn’t be any actual death or dismemberment if I wrote something that my father found offensive, but I have often dramatically censored what I write in case someone I care about reads it and either misinterprets my meaning, or finds the content distasteful. I’m not just talking about swearing or sex scenes here. A number of my short stories, and indeed the novel I’m working on, contain quite confronting concepts – infidelity, professional misconduct, drug use, abuse, murder – and I would hate to think that those close to me might think less of me for writing about these topics. I hate to think that my grandmother might read a story I wrote about corruption and think I had experienced it, or for my mother to read a story I wrote about infidelity and think that it was my personal story. As a result, I find that instead of writing the story that I originally conceived, I censor and edit myself before the story reaches the page. Then when I go back and re-read it, the story often sounds artificial and contrived and ends up in the junk pile. The true story and its true meaning never see the light of day.
My internal censor is very persuasive, but she wasn’t always quite so insistent. When I was sixteen, I had an English assignment where I had to write a poem of a set length that conformed to certain rules of poetry. A few nights later, I was horrified at a news article about a girl my age who had suffered terrible abuse at the hands of a trusted family member. I couldn’t get her story out of my head, so I wrote my poem for English about it, being sad and angry for her circumstances. After submitting my assignment, I was hauled into the principal’s office, then the counsellor’s office, and it took an awful lot of convincing that this was not my personal story, but this other girl’s story. And so a very strong self-censorship was born.
Many writers have similar struggles with self-censorship. So how do you censor your internal censor?
How on earth would a pseudonym stop you from censoring yourself? I hear you ask. This very simple concept has worked brilliantly for me, but may not be effective for every writer. Someone asked me one day if I was going to use a pseudonym when I started publishing my work. I hadn’t planned to, but the idea got me thinking. If I were to write a story containing these confronting topics under an assumed name, no one would ever know it was me, and wouldn’t be able to judge me for it. Simple.
When I start writing a new story, I immediately set up a header with my pseudonym, and I start writing. Any time I find my internal censor brandishing her red pen at me, I look back to my assumed name at the top of the page and remind myself that it is she who is writing this, not me, so she can write whatever she wants without fear. Sometimes we argue a little, and sometimes we argue a lot, but my censor eventually puts her red pen away, and the true story finds its way onto the page. Writing under an assumed name separates you from any potential or perceived moral indignation by others, allows you to maximise your creativity, and to tell the true story. Even if you end up publishing your work under your real name, you may find that by freeing yourself of your internal censor during the writing process, your story is powerful and refuses to be told any other way.
So keep an eye out for Esme Higgenbotham… 😉