Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Self-Censorship

Last month, several people I follow on Twitter had an honest discussion about self-censorship. They shared stories of pulling back on their words and hiding what they wrote. I was struck by the honesty and the underlying sadness of the exchange and asked if one or more of them would be willing to share their experiences with my readers. I am very grateful to Michael T. Rusk (Twitter: @DeciduousTree) for rising to the challenge and providing today's guest post.

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There was a time in my early life when I wrote what I thought and felt in real time. Some came out as poetry, some as prose and some ended up as songs. The subject matter was either satirical, poking at the establishment and people in power or disturbingly dark sexual references and anti-religion. The first set of writings were somewhat acceptable in a public venue and our folk trio, including my soon to be wife, sang some of the songs at assemblies in our Catholic high school. A couple of the times there were audible gasps as I poked fun of the Principal, an imposing and feared nun.

I continued to write in my first year of college, feeding off the growing anger against the Viet Nam war and the simmering racial unrest. I never gave any thought that my writing was connected to real life in a way that could affect employment. I worked on a highly secure military facility at the time as a co-op student. Che Guevara and Malcolm X writings were common companions in my briefcase. I was oblivious to the uproar it would cause if I was discovered reading this on the base.

We got married between Christmas and New Years, 1967. Working full time, enrolled full time in college and starting a family took a lot of my time. I continued to write as much as I could but my wife was very uncomfortable with my subjects. She had a deeply ingrained mindset that a person should never write anything down.

She continued the criticism and warnings until my passive-aggressive personality made me put the writings away. They stayed away for a very long time. Until I heard Terry McMillan answering a question posed by a student regarding Terry’s concern about how her mother would react if she read Terry’s books. Terry’s answer struck deep in my heart – “I write for myself. I don’t think about how other people will react.”

Her 1993 comment was enough to unlock my pent up writing. I was suffering through very turbulent emotional times. Repressed hostility and hatred was festering in my brain. I wrote poem after poem spewing forth my emotions, draining the toxic venom from my body. The cathartic effect probably saved my life. I continued, underground, only a few close colleagues knew of my writings and offered feedback.

I changed jobs and started what would have been a modern day blog. It was written and printed with a strict rule of one page limit. I was one of the troops and I resumed my satirical, sarcastic mode of writing poking fun at the leaders of the company while delivering nuggets of real information. First issues had a circulation of 12 just for the people in the department. It wasn’t long before other people in the company requested copies and within a year the subscription list included most of the employees.

As luck would have it, I advanced rapidly in the hierarchy of the company until I was one of the Chiefs. Still pumping out my newsletter but it was becoming increasingly difficult to poke fun of senior management since I was one. Besides, I knew too much inside information and I had a hard time not telling the folks about it. It was extremely difficult to keep things light when I knew we were going to do a layoff. I suspended publishing for a couple of weeks prior just so I didn’t have to deal with it.

By this time, the delivery was through email and copies were being forwarded to family and friends. I decided to go public, remove the proprietary company content and target a general audience. There was enough material in the DC area that I could draw on to have a good time in the same style. My family became interested in reading my material. Not thinking, I added my wife and her friend to the subscription list. My wife was a frequent subject of some of my humor, “wifey-poo”, never in a mean way but just what I considered funny situations. She was immediately offended by these references.

I began to get a lot of orders of what not to put in my newsletters regarding “private” information. Turns out “private” was a very broad term which I couldn’t avoid violating at least once in every edition. The final straw was just after our first grandchild was born. I proudly announced the fact to the subscribers in my newsletter – not all the private details just name, size, weight – the normal things you’d see on a birth announcement. My wife went ballistic when I got home. Somehow, she felt I had stolen my son’s thunder! We had a rather heated debate, until I went silent.

That was the last issue of “Mikey’s Muse”, May 16, 1997.

Along comes Twitter, February, 2010. I started by following random people based on their tweet content (plus how cute the avatar was). The selection process favored authors, artists, creators and for some reason political activists. I felt inspired and started to venture back into writing, creating a blog and posting some short stories. But the old feelings of hiding, sneaking, being underground came back to me. I minimized screens when my wife would walk in. She assumed I was having an affair and hiding my conversations with my girlfriend.

I finally told her what I was doing so she could quit worrying about a girlfriend. In retrospect I should have let her keep on thinking it was a girlfriend. I got the standard lecture about how things written will come back to haunt you, what if your boss sees what you write, what are you writing about the family, maybe the family doesn’t want you mentioning them … on and on and on.

I went back to my computer, my Twitter friends, my Blog and thought about my life past and life future. Trying to decide if any of my writing was worth all this upset and confrontation. Here I was, either going to start self-censoring again or quit writing and find some other creative outlet. I had to consider 42 years of marriage, constantly being criticized for expressing myself, trying to avoid conflict, but look forward to our golden years living in our nice home, comfortable, status quo … it was quite a fork in the road.

So, I chose to quit … my marriage.

Epilogue: It’s been a little over two months since our separation and I’ve settled into a cozy one bedroom apartment. The setup provides the creative space I craved, the ultimate writer’s workshop. I converse freely with my friends on Twitter and can write behind the scenes on my book. However, I have felt very reluctant to post anything to my blog since the legal work is still in progress for the divorce. Ironically, I don’t want to post anything that can be used against me.

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Do you have any experiences with self-censorship? Have you ever been worried that what you write can be used against you? Have you ever had your words come back to haunt you? I invite you to comment below. And keep on keeping on.

4 comments:

Michele Shaw said...

Wow. Thanks for your honesty. I lost a close friend over a short story I wrote. It was fiction, but to this day she believes it was about her and that I exploited info (that I didn't even know at the time) about her. It really shook me and made me think, but I'm not sorry that I wrote from the heart.

Beija said...

"You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you" - Ray Bradbury

Ami Hendrickson said...

Michele and Beija, thanks for your comments.

Writing from the heart presents a double-edged sword. Dishonesty, even for the sake of saving someone's feelings, is immediately noticeable & taints everything it touches. But few people appreciate the blinding spotlight of unvarnished truth.

I think Shakespeare said it best: "To thine own self be true."

Ann said...

Wowie Michael that's quite the self-censorship story. Had I contributed mine had I not had a great big cast on at the time, my story would have been very different but certainly not as powerful - your story gave me a great deal of perspective. You're a brave man.

And it just so happens that the ring I'm wearing on my wedding finger says To Thine Own Self Be True -Shakespeare.

Regards
~Ann