Tayari Jones says that censorship isn’t always evil, but it will seriously undermine your writing process

Self-censorship is not always a bad thing. I think we all have things that we would like to write about, but don't think it would be worth the fall out. The question of what's worth it is entirely up to you. That said; never censor yourself while you are still writing the story. Save the censoring for the final draft. Here's why.

Self-censorship isn't an exact science. While you're making sure not to write anything that will offend your parents, you may also be holding back some important emotional truth that will make your story rich and insightful. Don't block the creative flow. Write it all. Every detail that occurs to you. Until it's published, it's private, so be honest, frank, and free.

Many writers have a sort of signature greeting that they use when signing books. My friend, Natasha Trethewey, who writes about lost history often uses “this against forgetting.” Another writer I know has advice that she uses for people who identify themselves as “aspiring writers.” For them she prints, in big letters, STOP CENSORING YOURSELF.

Sometimes I meet young writers who are living in a special sort of artist-hell. On the one hand, they are anxious and are convinced that they will NEVER publish. But these same writers totally freak out and become blocked because they self-censor for fear of what people are going to say about their work. This is the worst of both worlds. Learn to let your insecurity work for you: If you really feel you will never publish, let that free you up. Cut loose! Who's going to see it anyway?

More importantly, remember that the writing itself is good for you. If your story is so close to home that you are afraid to write it, it probably means you need to write it. "What should I write about" and "What should I publish" are two really different questions. You should write whatever comes to your mind. Writing is personal, it is art. There are no ethical concerns. Again: it's private, between you and the page.

I chose this image (source) because it really shows the damage caused by self-censorship during the process of creation. When a book is censored by a library or school board, the book is already in the world. No angry committee can keep a work out of existence. You are the only one who can keep the work from every being done. Only you can effectively muzzle yourself.

Publishing is a different. The root word is that same as in the word “public.” Making anything public is serious business and it deserves your serious consideration. The first thing you must do is examine your fears. Are you struggling with shame about what you may be revealing about yourself? Are you worried that you will betray the confidence of a loved one? Figure out exactly what it is that you’re afraid of and decide if this fear is reasonable. Then, I recommend letting the story sit a while and then read it over carefully. If there is someone who knows your situation-- be it family or whatever-- ask that person to read it too. Consider your loved ones' feelings. Don't let them steal the show, but consider. (Also consider if they are ever even going to read your book in the first place.) If there is something that may be ouchy, but isn't that crucial to the story, take it out or tone it down. On the flip side there may be something that's freaking you out, but your reader may convince you that it's not nearly as out there as you thought. You may even find that there are ways to change small details while adhering to the larger truth.

There will be other times-- and this will happen to any writer who is challenging herself—when you decide that your are prepared to take the heat for what you have dared to publish. Maybe you are bearing witness and/or rebelling against some controlling institution. If you decide that sticking to the truth is more important than any personal consequences, more power to you. My only advice is that you do so only after thinking it over long and hard.

There are folks out there who disagree, who believe art is the only obligation of the writer. And I must admit that I have been very enriched by the work of the take-no-prisoners writers. I'm just not one of them.

Where do you stand on this SheWriters? Should writers care about what people think?

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Comment by Diane L. Fowlkes on September 30, 2014 at 11:45am

Tayari Jones, you must be sent from the universe! I am very slowly approaching such a place in my first attempt to write a novel. I'm going slow because I'm afraid--of hurting someone, of shaming myself, of making a hash of the whole thing. You have opened a way for me to keep going. You are especially helpful in pointing out that writing is not the same as publishing, and the writer can decide if she/he wants to push on with getting the piece published. Thank you!

Comment by Amanda Paige Beecham on September 17, 2010 at 10:17pm
I am still trying to write, but I would really appriciate it if somebody could come and help me out by telling me your own opinons...
Comment by Mona R. Washington on September 11, 2010 at 3:04pm
Thanks Tayari. I needed that. I'm in the middle of writing a play that takes place in 1862 and I have been self-censoring because I am so worried abt stereotypes. It's like you read my mind.
Comment by Sidney Williams on September 11, 2010 at 9:04am
Excellent post. I find myself thinking about censoring myself more now than I did as a younger writer. I'm reminding myself my books and stories are for the people who want to read and enjoy them, and they deserve to hear characters speak as the would, scenes described as they might happen and fiction interspersed with truth. Those offended should be encouraged to seek other works or places to be entertained.
Comment by Skipper Hammond on September 9, 2010 at 6:50pm
I was editor and wrote most of the news for a small town weekly newspaper for 10 years. Now, by writing a novel, I'm finding fiction lends itself to writing truth far better than non fiction does.
Comment by Linda Chavis on September 9, 2010 at 6:27pm
I so needed this..thank you
Comment by Surviving the Draft on September 8, 2010 at 2:41pm
@Kimberly, you can just tell them the truth.. It's not "them". It's just based on them. They inspired you, but I am sure that the characters are products of your imagination. One funny thing I have found is that even if it's not "them", they always think it is anyway.
Comment by Kimberly Wesley on September 8, 2010 at 2:16pm
This one hit home! My first novel I wrote sort of is based on me and my friends, and even though I changed it drastically, if they were to read it, they would know it's them. At first I wanted to change up everything, make it not so obvious, but those little quirks about my friends (one wants to gain weight so bad she eats everything in sight) actually was some of the most powerful images. So what she'll know it's her because no one else I know is that skinny and eats like her. And I used some of our personal stories in it as well. Since it's a "girl firend" type book, I wanted it as real as possible. Still afraid of what they will say...but we'll fuss it out after it's published.
Comment by Surviving the Draft on September 8, 2010 at 10:44am
@Amanda-- You can be brave. Write the story.
@Thomas-- I admire the take-no-prisoners type of writers. I'm not one of them, but I think that everone decides for herself the extent to which she wants to worry aboutt he feelings of others. I find that as I get older, I pull back less and less. When it comes to exposing others I often ask myself waht is more important. Sometimes people win, sometimes the art does.
Comment by Amanda Paige Beecham on September 7, 2010 at 7:43pm
I am one of those young writers. I am scared of what others think of my writing even though everybody who has read it has had nothing but praise for me

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