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Censor Yourself Later (If At All)
Written by
Surviving the Draft
September 2010
Written by
Surviving the Draft
September 2010

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 She Writers? Should writers care about what people think?

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  • Diane L. Fowlkes

    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!

  • Amanda Paige Beecham

    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...

  • Mona R. Washington

    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.

  • Sidney Williams

    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.

  • Skipper Hammond

    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.

  • Linda Chavis

    I so needed this..thank you

  • Surviving the Draft

    @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.

  • Kimberly Wesley

    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.

  • Surviving the Draft

    @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.

  • Amanda Paige Beecham

    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

  • Thomas Wolf

    I agree with almost everything you have to say, particularly the dangers of self-censorship during the process of creating a draft. I'm mostly of the "take-no-prisoners" school of thought--if any thought, detail, or idea enriches a piece of writing, it should go down on paper, regardless of how someone else is going to feel about it later. The only exception: if someone has given you information, or relayed a story or anecdote, with the specific instruction not to repeat it to anyone. In that case, perhaps, a writer should be careful about what, or how much, of a particular event to divulge. I think this is roughly similar to what journalists do to protect a source.

    But in terms of writing fiction--and I'm assuming the self-censorhip we're talking about relates mostly to fiction--I think it can be very stifling, artisitically as well as emotionally, if we have to think too much about whether something should be included in a story, especially a draft of a story. For one thing, as Tayari points out, if you're afraid to write it, it needs to be written. And in the process of creation--the drafting of a story--it is important (and freeing) to be able to write anything, to make our characters totally free to act and speak as they jump around on the page. Freeing yourself to write anything also lets the mind, or creative force, go to new places. I think the writing of any piece of fiction is, ultimately, a journey of discovery. We are free to follow every fork in the road--to choose the wrong path as well as the right path, both metaphorically and stylistically.

    As Tayari points out, there is a boundary here: between the unpublished and the published. When we go back to edit, that's when we can self-censor, though I would urge that censorship even at that stage should be to enhance the impact and truthfulness and art of the piece of writing. If we worry too much--in fact, if we worry at all--about what friends and family might think of a piece of writing--especially fiction--we are giving away our power and our artistic license and our opportunity to create the finest and truest piece of writing that we can do.