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When Taylor Swifting Ain’t Worth It.


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I recently received this email from a reader. I’ve decided it was a really good question. And so I wanted to answer it here. I would so appreciate the experience of other writers in the comment section. I think there is much, much, much to be learned from this topic.

Hannah-
I know you must get a quarter million emails a day. Mine’s short. It’s so short but it is so heavy. How do you do it? How do you write SO honestly about all this hurt and not allow yourself to be silenced by fear? Fear of HIM knowing it’s about him. Fear of your family knowing that you were/are so hurt. Fear of hurting those who hurt you.
I don’t want any of those things.
How do you do it?

Diana—

I’ll start off by telling you two stories.

The first one happened nearly two months ago when I wrote the following lines:

“My brother has struggled with the grips of drug addiction for the last ten years but he is still the most beautiful fighter I know. It is the only reason I embarked on a faith journey in college. I watched my mother tumble in and out of rhythms with her little boy and I envied the foundation she stood upon.”

Those weren’t the original words.

There was no original line about my brother being a beautiful fighter. I had originally written the sentence, “I am the writer of the family and even I don’t have any more pretty words for my brother.” I had carelessly sliced into someone I loved and published it quickly for the world to read.

My mother stood in the middle of the door frame to my office a day later.

“That hurt.” I knew what she was talking about. I knew those words, no matter how pretty I could make them or how delicate they could seem while standing against a crowd of others, were always going to hurt my mother.

“I know they did,” I said. “I can’t help it though. They’re true.”

“I know they are.” We both stared off into separate corners of the room, waiting on the breath of one another. She finally spoke. “I think that’s why it hurts so much.”

I tidied up the line when the Huffington Post approached me and asked to republish the blog on their site. I gave my brother a sort of redemption with my words. I didn’t want my mother to have to hurt on national platforms. And I know my brother is a fighter, a beautiful one at that.

The second story happened three years ago. The short of the long of it was that there was a guy. Maybe he still reads this page. He always said that he would but I’ve known what it’s like to just want someone to disappear so I wouldn’t blame him if he has let this blog slip from his memory.

“I don’t want to become one of your life lessons,” he said to me. “I don’t want you to turn me into that.”

Still, to this day, those are the hardest words I’ve ever had to hear someone tell me. It was hard because underneath those lines, I knew he was really saying, “I’m fearful.” Fearful that we’ll stop playing in the lines of one another’s stories. Fearful that the only way to move on from this will be to wrap the whole thing up with some big red bow and a moral and offer it up to the world as a lesson learned.

I couldn’t promise him that I wouldn’t search the ground for syllables as a way to explain how I felt when it was over, and I was alone. I am a writer. Writers write about the things of this lifetime they’ve learned to love. Win or lose, we write.

I marveled at Taylor Swift for a long time. How she so effortlessly flings the names of past flings into songs that become eternalized on the lips of teenage girls. Taylor Swift was a realization, to me, that words eternalize people. They’re constant. They’re forever. Placed with a rhythm or printed on a page, we all hold a power inside of us to break someone’s heart with our own writing. By placing their name of the page or even just their likeness, we hold that power. It’s scary stuff.

You have to be really careful with that.

I want to be a good writer one day. I am so hungry to be better.

I think the best kinds of writers, whether they see it or not, are the ones who give grace that expands on the page. The ones who understand that writing about the life of someone else—no matter how boldly they touched you or how much they hurt you—isn’t just the maniac workings of a Taylor Swift burn song. If you aren’t careful, the words you write on a page will leave very little room for redemption. And us, as human beings, were made for some kind of redemption.

We’re going to mess up. We’re going to miss phone calls. We’re going to do some pretty awful stuff to one another. And we won’t always be in control. At some point we’ll learn, if we have not already, that we actually don’t get to fix people or make them better. We actually don’t get to shield them from the world. We actually don’t get to live perfect love stories all the time.

But I think being a writer is far more than just writing about other people and then being fearful of how they’ll respond. A good writer will put their own feelings on the page– ugly or not– but never pretend to act like they can even sum up or begin to discover what another feels in that moment. Being a writer is no different than being purely human: We are entitled to feelings but it truly, truly matters how we refine them when we step to put them out into the world.

But you should own your feelings. You should own every little of shred of emotion you feel. Maybe it’s jealousy. Maybe it’s joy. Maybe you want to jump the bones of someone every time you see them wearing that sweater with the patches at the elbows. Ugly emotions or not, own the emotions and don’t shove them into a box that makes you sorry for having them.

Find the root of them. Touch that with your hands. Dissect them on a page. Understand why you are so imperfect and why that is actually the most awesome thing you’ve got going for you.

Explore them. Talk to someone about them. But please, don’t just throw them on a page when you’re angry or upset or you want to make a moral out of someone else. That’s a life. That’s a character in your story. That’s someone who can change at any moment. Just because they are a character, an integral someone to the someone that you are, does not mean you get to write their life story or that you get to eternalize who they are for the world to read. You only get to write about who they’ve been to you. I think smart writers slip grace beneath every door their characters stand beside. Because we all need so much grace.

The hardest part about being a writer, especially a nonfiction one, is that the whole, wide world becomes your syllables. You notice people. You memorize their dialogue. You carry them with you. You staple their hearts inside the lining of your sleeves. And you don’t know how to let people go sometimes, or wrestle with all the impact they made, other than putting it down on the page and walking away. Writers will always deal with the repercussions, with the realization that thick skin must be an attribute to ones who live their lives finding words for the stories they’re swept up into. People won’t always like it. People will not always appreciate the viewpoint. People will get hurt because we’re all sensitive, and scared of so much, at the very root of us. But how silent can you stay? How long can you edge around the words that you’ve needed to say for so long?

I’m writing about him. In my book, I’m writing about him. But first I needed to know my reason “why.” If ever my reasoning for putting him on a page was bitterness & resentment & jealousy, then it wasn’t time. I had to mature to a point where he became a staple in my journey. Where I knew he had changed me. Where I knew, without question, that the character who walks up to meet you on the first page and the same character who waves goodbye as she watches you drive away on the last would be different because of him. To burn him, to be bitter with him, to spit fire at him– all would be a selfish agenda that the world has never needed. The world is full of dagger-throwing, angry people; I’d rather my words be light. Not fire.

Here’s my final advice (and it might not be any good): Don’t write about people just to write about them. Don’t write about people because they’re juicy. Or because you think you need a love story floating on the page. Or because you want some kind of revenge. Write only, and only, if someone changes you. If you see the world differently because of them.

Write about the things that change you. Harvest the emotions. Don’t just spit words out like fire. Fire burns up the ground and destroys the pretty things that used to be. Rebuilding is so hard. So very, very hard. Figure out a way to grow from the people who have hurt you. No matter your age, choose to grow up. And don’t be so quick to place down a period and walk away. A good writer will write with a grace that sprinkles commas and semicolons around the story and says to the reader, “I’m not perfect. They’re not perfect. No one here wins or gets the final breath.”

Growing up means letting go. Giving grace. Owning emotions. Leaving room for redemption. Harvesting something for someone else. And then walking away from the page.

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43 thoughts on “When Taylor Swifting Ain’t Worth It.

  1. Melissa Boles says:

    I think it’s so true that you have to be careful; you have to make the tough choice of when to write about someone and when not to write about them. I am still learning the appropriateness of this. I want to write about some of the experiences that I’ve had, but I don’t want to hurt the people that I know it will hurt, so I have to make that decision. And it’s hard. But I think, ultimately, you’re so right. It shouldn’t be about tearing into them and making them hurt for hurting you, it needs to be about sharing that part of your experience and giving them the grace they deserve. That’s something I definitely need to remember – that it doesn’t have to be about winning, it needs to be about grace.

  2. BG Poole says:

    This is a wonderful tip about writing and how to act in real life with people we love and come in contact with. Honesty is honest but sometimes so brutal, I find this to be one of the most difficult things to do; be honest but not cruel and hurting, I have found most people can not take brutal honesty anyway and the clique better to be kind than right is usually a good road to travel.

  3. It’s one of the reasons I start to type and press backspace so many times. Sometimes I have to stop myself from venting and take a second to realize I just might hurt someone or put out in the universe that I’m really angry so I try to really write from a neutral standpoint. I believe flaws are beautiful but I take into consideration that many people aren’t comfortable with sharing those layers. It’s still a struggle from as a writer because I believe in integrity and staying true to myself but the bigger person in me remembers that there is always a diary for me to recollect, a friend to share the things I might not get right away and my blog to heal and shift perspectives.

    Thank you, this post was beautiful. I just started my blog and this post definitely helped me feel more comfortable with my thoughts.

    xo Goldengirl

  4. I so appreciate your advice and your stories, Hannah. I had a similar experience that involved my father telling me he’d been hurt by something I’d posted on my blog. I don’t know that I’ve felt worse in my life—I was a writer, I was supposed to know exactly what I was doing with my words, and yet, I’d accidentally used them to cause someone I loved pain (and in such a public realm as the Internet!). That experience really forced me to learn caution in my nonfiction writing—how strange, to begin to think of people in my life as characters in my story to be handled with care, and how sad that it took a tearful conversation with my hurt loved one to teach me grace. Thank you for putting that lesson into words so delicately here.

  5. Beautifully said. I would add Compassion. Which you really spoke about even if unnamed. EVERY one deserves compassion; all those struggling, those who have hurt us, they are hurting too. We can all do our Best to see ourselves and others as Tall Children; so when we write (or in my case Tell) a story about an experience or an encounter we remember to be gentle to that person too. And gentle to ourselves. Thank you Hannah for sharing your heart. I share my real life journey too, and I am very careful about the words I choose so as to illuminate but Not “conflagrate”. Love to you from my heart to yours.

  6. Kristin Smith says:

    Hannah – my own brother struggled with heroin addiction for a little over 10 years and we lost him to that battle 6 years ago. When he was here, we always planned on writing our story together and now I feel it’s up to me but I have struggled with how to put the whole story, with all of it’s beauty, ugliness, horror and even laughter on the page knowing how the words could hurt my family or even my brother. I want his story to be the truth but I want others to know that he was a “beatiful fighter” and he was also a tremendous source of pain, for himself, for his family, for anyone that loved him. I felt like you were speaking to me today…thank you for your words.

  7. I walk a thin line with my writing career in this regard. As a kid, I was raised in weird church cults and had some horrible abuses done to me. My mother was neglectful and irresponsible, and I harbored a lot of resentment toward her and the adults who hurt me as a kid. I want to write about it… I want to write about my mother’s depression and how she speaks religious fluff in reaction to every real thing that exists, how she doesn’t take her medicine. I want to write about how I deal with not knowing who has molested me and who I suspect. I haven’t figured out if there is a way to do that. Not only would those individuals be devastated, but our memories are not always accurate. Fear and loneliness and isolation change things in our child minds. And people who know the people I write about, their opinions would change about them, too. Some people have suggested I wait until these people die, and then decide if I can write about them then. I suspect that will not be the case, though. So instead I have to learn how to walk the fine line between being raw and being vague. There are other truths I can tackle. There are hurtful things that need to be said that don’t ruin a person, things like my sexuality or viewpoints being like a sword in my mother’s heart, but I can’t keep pretending I’m the little girl she always thought I was. My entire career and personal experience of writing will encircle this for me, whether or not I can openly spill all the hurts and memories for others to learn from and grow from.

  8. This is beautiful and explains exactly why I haven’t written on my memoir in awhile. I’ve been too angry with my dad to see him as anything other than a 2 dimensional figure… instead of adding a 3rd dimension, the compassion that Kristin mentioned. I so appreciate that you clarified this. Thank you Hannah.

  9. Having just come to this blog at a terrible time in my life, I also think there’s a gender issue here. Men (boys) possess the ability to compartmentalize, to block out, to somehow forget — and women do not. It is by writing and singing and yelling and crying that we move on, but also because part of us hope beyond all reason that there is hope. There is hope that we are not alone in our pain, hope that maybe he’ll hear us and come back, hope that this is how we grow, hope that this will help us somehow become better. Having just lost a man I though I loved, I have used angry words and compassionate words, public words and private words. They are a woman’s best friend in times of pain. To the other comments, yes, we should be compassionate — but we must also not restrain ourselves out of fear that we might say something too true. As others have said, our stories deserve to be told, even if most of us don’t say them quite the way Taylor Swift does.

  10. Dearest Hannah,
    This is a great post! I also agree with Kristin P (a colleague) above. Now comes the difficult part, where I must write and try to emulate the philosophy you espouse. So I will frame it in the form of a question: From your point of view as a writer, is there a deeper meaning that I am missing in your sentence, “Don’t write about people because their juicy.” Can you help me understand it more?

  11. Hannah! I’m a writer. It was beautiful, I relate to you and feel comfort in your words, I too have the lonely gift of feeling my emotions and expressing them with ease. I took a crack at beginning my own blog this year because sifting though my word docs is getting to be a heavy task. I’d like to read your book. Thanks for all you say. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

  12. Very nice post. I will say this, about your boyfriend’s line, “I don’t want to be one of your life lessons.” Isn’t everyone we meet one of those, really? Every person you come in contact with each day, is available to teach you something. Those we are in a relationship with more than most. Isn’t that the point? Whether to write about those lessons is a personal choice, that you have to weigh carefully. For me, I try to recognize the lesson and write about it in another context. Also I am not sure about the Taylor Swift stuff, you seem to write much better than her. 🙂 Have an outstanding day!

  13. If I ever have a post that I am writing in response to some emotion I hold off on posting it until after I, and my emotions, have calmed down enough to re-read it in hopes that I am writing it from how I am viewing the situation. It’s not always easy though when there is that ONE person who makes your emotions raw.

  14. Beautiful, and well put. Writing is something like a superpower. Words can be weapons or balms, depending on how we use them. But as writers, we don’t always get to decide which they become. That being said, I absolutely agree: compassion, humility, and grace should breathe through every word. They should be the things written between the lines. That’s not a writer rule, that’s a human rule.
    I think we can compartmentalize the written from the spoken, and act like one has more weight or power than the other. Though, I agree that writing is it’s own kind of animal, the things we say can be just as powerful. The written word may seem to have more permanence; after all, it can be permanent. But the spoken can be just as long lasting. There are things that we say, that people say to us, that never go away. If anything the written word has at least the option of erasure. Time and tide and a rubber nub can all “fix” our mistakes.
    I completely understand the fear. Wondering if what you want to say is the right thing. Is it what needs to be said or has it been colored through all with your perspective? Maybe you weren’t as much the good guy as you think, maybe as not much the victim. I can tell you, the fear never goes away. I don’t know what to say to Diana, because there aren’t hard and fast rules, what we should and shouldn’t say. It’s an art, not a science.
    But I can say that few things have been as therapeutic to be as writing. Sometimes, you just need to let it go. Let the words bleed out in that wild, stream-of-consciousness, there’s-no-way-this-is-going-to-make-sense-later way. You have the right to do that. You might have the right to publish it. But that’s what journals are for. That’s what second drafts are for. Not everything that you say needs to make it to the final copy. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be in the first. It might do you good, just to see it on the page, and see it for the bitterness that it is.
    Words can hurt, yes. But it doesn’t always mean it’s our fault. It doesn’t always mean that we shouldn’t have said them. Sometimes, things need to be hurt, especially if they are things that never should have been allowed to grow and fester. Try your hardest to be kind, considerate, humble, and graceful. But then let it go. Send the words out. And let what happens, happen. Take it from somehow who’s spent a lot of time working the delete button. Don’t let the fear rob the world of your voice. Because it needs it.

  15. “If ever my reasoning for putting him on a page was bitterness & resentment & jealousy, then it wasn’t time. I had to mature to a point where he became a staple in my journey.” I think these two sentences sum up perfectly what needs to be the outlook of one when they write about others. I have struggled with this in my own writing and I never want to write something so permanent (especially on my blog where all the world can see it) about someone’s character that it makes me blind to repentance and redemption and grace. Well put, Hannah.

  16. Love this post. The Internet makes putting your vulnerability available for public viewing a badge of honor … but there are very real reasons (both personal and artistic) to show restraint. This becomes especially true when writing about other people. Because while you own all your experiences and feelings, that doesn’t mean you have to give them away.

  17. mcpmoss says:

    Can I just say that you are amazing? And so honest. Thank you for writing the truth that is in my own heart as well. ❤

  18. I totally agree with you Hannah! And the question is brilliant, as it talks about fear of being honest, true and feeling vulnerable not only to the public, but also to HIM…or her, depending the situation:) My addition to what has already been mentioned, as I have been thinking the same over the recent past, is that writing is not just a hobby, being a writer is an expression of ourselves, it is actually the way we communicate and also the way we let go. Instead of just writing in our diaries, we prefer to publish some of these thoughts not because we want to harm someone (hopefully) but because we feel we are not the only ones in this struggle…that there are some other people that will find our words like medicine to their souls. Now, fear is a very normal feeling to have, but the question then is; Are you afraid to show who you really are? If so, why? Assuming that you write beautifully, for light and not darkness, then, there is no reason to let fear guide your life and your choices, is there?

  19. Kathleen F says:

    I agree with the idea that writers need to be respectful & vigilantly aware of the privacy rights of others. My rule of thumb is to write only my story, because that is the only story I have permission to tell. How relationships/experiences with others impact me is fair game, but their personal details of their own narratives are within their sole discretion of how/when to disclose. Hannah: I wonder why you write with the theme, “when I become a good writer. . . “. You are already there. Your writing is so thought provoking & authentic.

  20. So glad to have found your blog and looking forward to reading more. My favorite line from this wonderful post: ‘ I think smart writers slip grace beneath every door their characters stand beside. Because we all need so much grace.’ Just love it. Thanks.

  21. Jennifer Crow says:

    Nicely said. i believe you nailed the realization that you must be careful and write when you have been changed but never when you are striking out. It takes maturity and understanding and insight to know when that time arrives. Sometimes it never does.

    I believe also that we all have our stories. Each one of us. I am the main character in mine. You are the main character in yours. Should we ever connect and our individual stories intersect, your story will still star you with me as a minor character, just as mine will star me with you as a minor character. It took me a long time to realize that this means important, intimate companions, too. We each see our relationship through separate eyes. My story. His story.

    This is the heart of my approach to writing. I can tell you the story, but it’s just my story and my reality, my approach and my interpretation.. I never forget that. when I write about others, and that means my writing is never about them. It’s about my situation and my life changes and my aha moments — in hopes that they might speak to another in some way or at least be a cathartic release for me.

    Someone in these comments mentioned compassion. Oh, that, too. That is so crucial.

  22. writerchick42 says:

    This could not have come at a more appropriate time. Tears were streaming down my face. This is your best post. Breathtaking

  23. Emma says:

    I don’t even know what to say. This is so good. I am a writer, if only because I journal avidly, and this was incredibly perfect for me to read. Tonight especially. Thank you. I have been reading your blog for about 2 weeks now and I cannot get over HOW well I can relate to what you’ve written! I have sent your blog to my friends and said “This is what I’ve never been able to articulate to you about xyz…” 🙂

  24. “And us, as human beings, were made for some kind of redemption.” That is beautiful. I’m not sure it all resonates with me though. Writers write to write – I don’t think we need a pre-meditated reason.

  25. One paragraph (I can’t remember which) I can so relate to though. Or maybe the whole thing. There is a very very painful very wrong situation in my past that I don’t write about YET (except in secret places, and even then never finished) because of some of the reasons you mentioned. I wait. I wait until I can work it into allegory. Until I can write about it in a way that heals more people than it hurts. So maybe, after all, this resonates with me.

  26. This is definitely what I am currently learning. As a writer, it’s so hard to filter what I’m saying whilst still being honest. And yes, I have so many times felt the fear that he would know it’s about him… Recently I found out he actually did read and realize it was about him – but I guess that’s the chance we take…. I think it’s important to just own our feelings, and realize if we’re going to write it and publish it, then we have to be willing to admit it… But I so appreciate what you said, Hannah, about thinking about why we’re writing something, and making sure we do it for the right reasons.

  27. Pingback: Gratitude | LittleLionBlog

  28. This might be the real difference between writing gossip and writing true life. If the story gives grace to you and the other person, whether you’re on the same team by the end of the story or not. Thanks, HB.

  29. This might be the real difference between writing gossip and writing true life. It’s whether or not you and the other person walk away with grace, whether you’re on the same team at the end of the story or not. Thanks, HB.

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