I just finished a really, really funny dating memoir, one that made me laugh out loud several times. But at the end, I didn’t feel good at having laughed at all these people, and I didn’t walk away with something useful for myself. Anyway, a more-personal than normal entry after the jump.
This is certainly a story about my own experience, and may be less useful to the general reader than the “wipe your counters!” kind of steps, but I think it’s something anyone who writes about their life — and the people around them — should consider.
When I was a freshman in college, one of the first “funny” things I ever wrote for public consumption was for a magazine that was known on campus for its funniness, but also its cruelty. After not really writing anything for them all year because I thought I couldn’t be “funny” (read: cutting) enough, right before summer break I’d written a piece about how much I hated the dorms. I didn’t use names, but I put a lot of the girls on my floor on blast. I mocked them for behaviors that were, in retrospect, just 18-year-old girls being 18-year-old girls. I was being an 18-year-old girl, too, all cruelty and no sense of consequences, of the fact that the people I were writing about were real, and would have strong feelings about finding unflattering portrayals of themselves in a campus magazine.
Sure enough, the story came out and they were furious. Girls I had been friends with, or at least cool with all year, were pissed and lots never spoke to me again. Others, whom I hadn’t written about, were cold to me. A few came up and told me that the story was spot-on and hilarious, but that was the minority.
I’ve regretted writing it ever since, and have never done anything like it again. I mean, I’ve relayed the occasional bit of bizarre dialogue with strangers, but I really try not to write unkind things about people I know personally. I did so in an entry awhile back, and one of the friends of the person in question commented on the blog, and then I was reminded all over again why these things should maybe be kept to myself.
One, being mean in print to people who are not powerful is just sort of tasteless. The girls in my dorm were not the Bush administration, and my publicly calling them out for the amusement of faceless strangers was unnecessary and wouldn’t accomplish anything. Two, anyone can tear others down. Anyone can pick out things people do that are unbecoming and hold them up for mockery. But that doesn’t feel good to the person it’s done to, and I’m don’t think it feels so great for the person doing it.
When you write about people, remember that they are real. They are not plot points or scenery in your life, and that writing doesn’t evaporate even if your feelings change or you forgive them for whatever they did to be worthy of the skewering. When I wrote those words, I felt small, like my opinion didn’t matter, so who would be hurt by it? But the unkind things you say to and about people resonate. People take your criticism and file it away, to pull out and relive when they are already feeling down. I know that’s what I do, at least.
So before you publish something — even if it’s funny — ask yourself how you would feel if it were written about you, and ask yourself if you need to add to the sum total of funny but meanness in the world.