How much should writers self-censor?

Jen Herron asks writers what factors could or should inhibit what they put on a page

Relationships, day jobs, responsibility, fear. There are many reasons writers hold back with their writing. Moreover, tackling subjects like sex, gender, class and identity is a minefield. Who wants to do it wrong?

Besides, I’m an English teacher at a secondary school. What would the kids think if they googled Miss and discovered she’d been spending her weekends writing Fifty Shades of Larne? (I haven’t by the way – I’ll squash that rumour right now).

I’d like to keep my writing life and job separate but, let’s face it, the internet makes it impossible. Writing under a pseudonym is difficult too when publishers, arts agencies and competition organisers like authors to stand by their work, particularly for marketing purposes. With no place to hide, I wonder how much this affects our creative output.

The realisation that my poetry and prose might get read often clips my wings, perhaps for good reason. But I question if my internal editor keeps me safe or suppresses me. As a rule of thumb, I tend not to post anything on social media that might paint me in a bad light with my boss, parents, friends or the public. Sometimes, the same mantra is harder to apply to my writing.

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Years ago, I watched Channel 4’s Teachers, wondering if the show’s creator, Tim Loane, based his writing on experience. Had he ever been a teacher? “No, I wasn’t. My wife is a teacher. I shamelessly plundered her stories and those of her colleagues – then went a bit wild with them.”

However, Tim infuses his writing with a personal touch. “It’s impossible not to have some of yourself in there too – the good and the bad. That’s one of the perverse pleasures in writing. You can fantasise what it’s like doing really bad things.”

I asked Tim if writers should stick to that slightly grating adage – write what you know. “Yes and no…The important thing is for a writer to recognise when their knowledge of a theme/character/culture/idea is limited. Then to research the shit out of it – to make sure, as much as possible, one is being respectful to it, approaching it with a broad mind.”

Perhaps it’s easier for full-time writers to be open. Employers might judge emerging writers in employment for writing something controversial. Should we be conscious of upsetting the apple cart? “No. If you’ve got something to say, you have to say it – or you’re not giving vent to your creative/political impulses.”

So, is anything out of bounds? “My experience is mostly in TV and theatre – and they are extremely cautious when it comes to profanity and sex, limiting swear words and the like. They will always be nervous about such things but never actually shy away from them in my experience.”

Sometimes, however, a production can loosen the leash. “When I wrote for Versailles, it was positively encouraged. Mind you; I was told to tone down the orgy scene quite significantly!”

Whilst I’m not writing anything super-naughty, I am partial to tongue-in-cheek humour, often resulting in massive self-editing. For example, recently, a ghost story gave me sleepless nights for the wrong reasons. It was first accepted by Lumpen, an edgy, working-class journal unafraid of pushing boundaries. I wrote to type, using comedy to propel a narrative underscoring class division. Then the unexpected happened.

My smattering of Ulster-Scots within the dialogue drew the attention of BBC Ulster’s Kintra, an Ulster-Scots magazine radio show airing on Sundays at six – to a largely conservative audience. I agreed to pre-record the story for their Halloween edition. Soon after, the anxiety kicked in.

After submitting the recording, I awoke that night in a cold sweat. I’d have to change the whole thing. I was sick to my stomach. What I’d thought was funny in the comfort of my own home was not so funny now. I messaged the producer immediately and told her I was changing the story. Thankfully, she agreed.

First for the boot – the title. The Ghost of Dickshire’s Mount might’ve made someone’s granny choke on their Sunday dinner. Googling a synonym for “mansion” and choosing “mount” was a poor decision on my part. I won’t tell you what else was cut, but let’s just say I had a solid week of sweating.

I contacted Lumpen, asking to re-edit the content with a new title. They, too, agreed. It became, The Ghost of Snout Hall. However, when the hard copy popped through my letterbox, I was in for a shock. They’d made my changes internally but forgot to edit the contents page, the original title bold and brazen for all to see. The Ghost of Dickshire’s Mount was back from the dead.

Now, I shy away from innuendo. I agonise over topics and tone for my more serious pieces, particularly my poetry. And as a teacher, I fear my experimentation with dialect, grammar, structure and punctuation make me look uneducated. But have I sanitised my prose too much? Or is it best to play safe? Clearly, I can’t cope with the stress of being edgy.

Fiction writer Chris Wright said self-censorship was currently a big issue in publishing. “Many big-name authors scrap entire novels for fear of an online backlash against characters not representative of the author and their background.”

Chris’s awareness has infused his creative process. “I like to write female characters but find myself spending more time thinking about misinterpretation for fear of someone thinking I’m trying to speak on their behalf. Diversity is important, and most writers want to ensure that representation is accurate and respectful. But the fear of doing it wrong is hindering progression.”

Yet he’s not afraid to gamble. “I recently wrote a story with a sex scene in it (my first, I believe), and it’s from a woman’s POV, which was tricky. I wanted to depict unwanted but agreed-to sex in marriage because it’s one of those things people don’t talk about. I debated removing it, but it was so essential to the character and her journey that I couldn’t bring myself to take it out.”

He workshopped his story during a creative writing MA class. “It got mixed reactions. One female writer thanked me for writing it. Another thought it was too much and I should take it out. I went back and forth and decided it was too important to the story. I took the risk because, in writing, you should take risks, otherwise what’s the point?”

I asked literary agent Paul Feldstein if industry rules scrap potentially good books because of inappropriate content. “I’m unaware of any industry rules, and I assume each publisher has their own internal rules/guidelines.” However, he added writers should tackle sensitive subjects “with care and compassion”. Paul’s publishing company, Dalzell Press, has published several nonfiction texts, the most controversial of which is Are you the F**king Doctor by Liam Farrell. What did Paul like about this particular work? “Its humour and irreverence.”

The book, categorised as medicine/humour/memoir, is “more than a collection of whimsical anecdotes…rather a compelling chronicle of a doctor at the coalface.” It also tackles Farrell’s struggle with addiction.

I asked Liam how he found the confidence to be so candid. “Old age is creeping up on me, so there were no career-ending implications for candour. I’m a morphine addict and always will be, but I’m over 13 years clean by now, thanks to the many good people who helped me when I needed it. I felt a responsibility to the still-suffering addict out there to describe in brutal detail what addiction was like so that non-addicts might perhaps understand it more.”

As a health professional, Liam couldn’t include every detail. “Conversely, I was only candid about my own addiction; the rest of the book is about my patients, so was constrained by confidentiality. This isn’t simply not using patients’ names but also not describing any circumstances where a patient might be identifiable. This required all sorts of mental gymnastics, ie lies.”

Perhaps there is another way around the conundrum of self-censorship. Bookseller and writer Jo Zebedee commented on the liberating effect of tackling complex topics in science fiction. “In a secondary world, the gloves are off. We can use that world to challenge our own. Its bravery and honesty are refreshing.”

Jo is concerned science-fiction works are often overlooked. I asked her if writers didn’t tackle certain themes and genres because it would prohibit their chance of success. “I admire those who can write to a market – it’s not something I can do. The thing about avoidance is that no one knows what the next big thing will be. It’s often the out-there stuff that sells well. I’m sure Pratchett’s original concept for Discworld sounded unsellable, but the uniqueness of his voice and ideas made it work.”

Maybe reading tastes have changed. Did Jo believe readers and publishers preferred certain types of writing? “I think there’s a reader for most books. Publishers, on the other hand, have gotten more risk-averse. Bookselling algorithms combined with changes to where books can be sold and at what price have impacted the midlist authors terribly. That’s a market that has shrunk.”

Jo said her next book tackles tribalism and closed cultures and was “sure many people won’t like what’s in it”. I asked her to elaborate. “I think people won’t like how I’ve presented the people in the story – not just those from Northern Ireland but others taking advantage of the pretty grim situation.” But Jo isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers, and her success shows a healthy readership for science fiction.

However, it’s not so easy when you’re writing in the context of the real world. I recently wrote a poem resulting from an honest discussion about sexuality – tricky territory. I thought about who might read it, grimaced, and wrote it anyway.

I asked poet and editor Paul Maddern if writers, particularly poets, should write about their sexual identity. “It’s not an obligation, but yes. Heterosexuals have been doing it for millennia, especially straight men. And they have held centre-stage for long enough, I think.”

What about writers who don’t adhere to a specific identity or race? Can they genuinely capture that experience? “I hate that adage; write what you know. It’s so limiting. There’s nothing a writer should be banned from tackling, or any limit put on the imagination. But if writers step outside of what they know and don’t understand the nuances of the histories and characters involved, then the tales might be best avoided.”

Perhaps there are issues writers shouldn’t tackle. “I’m not sure a white man from Ballymena should be taking on a novel about 18th-century slave narratives in Tennessee. If he felt a burning need to tell that story, then he better make damn sure the project is loaded with integrity. He better know that story inside out. If he doesn’t, then he should expect, rightly, to get flak for it.”

Maybe without experience, there will always be limitations. “Even if he is a brilliant writer and the book is ‘good’, he will never be Toni Morrison, Alice Walker or Colson Whitehead. He cannot possibly bring to the table their weight of cultural relevancy and understanding. So yes, perhaps there are topics that shouldn’t be tackled by Mr Ballymena.”

And although Paul dislikes the limitations of writing what you know, he highlights that it can, in fact, “produce extraordinarily powerful and beautiful work. And crucially that work is more likely to have integrity to it – and we’ll therefore believe we’re exploring truths that can only come from writers whose work is imbued with, and springs from, their cultures.”

If we should utilise personal experience for inspiration, it is okay to write about real relationships? “Yes, there are qualms about offending friends and family in terms of betraying private circumstances and histories. I’ve published two poems about my parents’ dementia. One only saw the light of day after my father died, and my mother never saw the poem about our living situation. It might have hurt her to know I was struggling.”

Yet Paul remains open-minded. “But that’s not to say we shouldn’t mine our lives for poems. Indeed, it’s impossible to avoid doing so, isn’t it? It would be a pretty dull (and false?) poetry landscape if we avoided including personal experience. We just need to be kind about the people we love.”

For me, writing relationships is a sticky wicket. Whilst I’ve never been brave enough to write about friends and family, I have threatened many an ex-boyfriend with a poem. In 2015 I was asked to compete in the Bard of Armagh’s Festival of Humorous Verse. My source material – you guessed it – past relationships.

I wrote a poem entitled Dogs are Better than Boyfriends. It’s a performance piece, pleasing to the ear and very, very funny. But after the event, I buried it. I only agreed to perform it if the poem itself or any recording was never posted online. Requests to read it from friends and family on Facebook were denied. I was reluctant to let the dog out.

It isn’t about anyone specific, and I hammed it up for comic effect. And though I didn’t want to post it online, it was bloody good fun to write. Feeling proud, I shared it with a past prospective boyfriend, thinking he’d fall in love with my wit. The poem was met with stony silence.

He didn’t like it. Gutted, I wrote a sequel to please him: Dogs Aren’t Better than Boyfriends.

(I was lying by the way). Momentarily appeased, we tootled along for a bit but eventually split up. He blamed my dog.

So, why am I writing openly about these private struggles now? Well, this year, I turn 40, and I am sick to the back teeth of hiding myself and my work. I want to grab my fear by the throat and bap it straight in the kisser. I think back now on a workshop I attended at the Cap Arts Centre in 2019.

Deirdre Cartmill gave a masterclass on the theme: free your voice. It had a lasting impact on me. She explained it’s essential to be authentic. “Write your truth – how you see the world, what you believe is important. Dig right down into your gut. Connect to your heart and soul, because when you write from your heart and your soul, your writing magically connects to the reader’s heart and soul.”

So, can readers suss a faker? “Readers spot dishonesty a mile away. What I’m talking about here is emotional honesty. You never have to disclose the facts of your life in your writing – but you do need to be emotionally honest. This is what makes writing great.”

Writing requires bravery. And I’m not completely there yet. Even as I drafted this article, I ruminated over personal anecdotes. Some remain; others got chopped. But I’ve also asked myself, does my work really need humour? Am I hiding behind jokes? Perhaps comedy is censoring my subconscious desire to tackle more serious issues.

Moreover, writing to entertain without any substance is equally inauthentic. It’s a delicate balance, isn’t it? I suppose, even at 40, I’m still trying to decide what it is I really need to write about. Let’s hope when that epiphany comes; I find the courage to write it.