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Not Everyone Wants to Hear What You Have to Say

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

There are always repercussions when you publish your work. Some of them will surprise you.

When Frank McCourt published Angela’s Ashes, his memoir about growing up poor in Ireland, a whole lot of people in Limerick, his hometown, were not happy at all. They accused McCourt of making them look bad, of distorting the truth, of hating the church, of all kinds of terribleness. Meanwhile, the mayor of Limerick, an admirer of the book, successfully lobbied to have Limerick host the film on the same day as its London premier. Fans (most of them younger than the detractors) packed the cinema.

McCourt expected none of this when he sat down to write about his childhood.

Years ago, I sat in an auditorium in Manhattan and listened as McCourt and the writer Mary Karr talked about their childhood memoirs. Karr had recently published The Liar’s Club, her memoir about growing up in Texas, in which she writes about her alcoholic father; she later wrote about her mother, who suffered from mental illness. I listened as both writers talked about the impact their work had on family members. Karr’s father had died by the time she published The Liar’s Club; she showed the manuscript to her mother and sister before it was published. I no longer remember with certainty whether she said she would have published the book over their objections, but the fact is, they had none. They supported her both before publication and after, when the critics surfaced.

When you are an independent writer, one who publishes her own work, there is no buffer between you and the reader. There is no publisher to take the heat if your writing offends somebody. This is true in a legal sense as well. You have to be fearless. And to be fearless, you have to first do a lot of soul-searching, and believe in your own words, believe that they have weight and worth.

It is not a journey for sissies.

Be fair, be compassionate, be accurate, be thorough. Above all, be honest. And then stand back and let the work be judged. Defend it if you feel you must, or not, as you choose. The words are out there. You cannot take them back. That is the risk you take.

Now, knowing that (a) if you tell your story as honestly as you can, attempting to be fair to all, some people will not like it, and (b) that some of the naysayers may be people you love, what do you do? Do you write the story? Do you share it with the world? Are you willing to bare your soul in front of all, to expose yourself, to be judged? Or do you elect not to be the one to shake things up? Do you elect to keep the peace?

This is the question that every writer must answer for herself.


Above: A book that traveled in my suitcase from Vermont to France.


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