Should Writers Censor Their Books?

The author is plagued with scores of responsibilities, but no duty is more important, more needed than honesty. When we let censorship overthrow us, we can’t fulfill our duties.

“I can’t put my book out there, though, because my family would get mad.”

A woman with a Twiggy hairstyle sat across from me at a doctor’s office, coloring in her Secret Garden coloring book as she told me about her memoir.

“But it’s the truth,” she said, almost apologizing for her book. “I told the truth in my book, but I know it will offend them.”

The big question many authors are burdened with is: What if my book hurts someone’s feelings?

While censorship is nothing new, its weight on authors is getting old. When I think of censorship, I think about books that have been banned because of their content, albeit sexual content, offensive language, racism, or the like. Some of the greatest classics in the world—like Huckleberry Finn—have been banned because they had the potential to stir up controversy.

This kind of censorship is a whole other blog post, but the concept is the same: Should you censor your writing so you won’t offend someone? What will your friends and family think when they read your writing?

I believe authors should take an oath before they write their books, and it should start with a pledge to honesty. Maybe go old school, like:

I solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

But won’t the truth hurt the ones you love? Even if you change the names, what if there’s a story you have to tell that may be difficult for a family member to read?

You must tell the truth anyway.

Yes, discretion is relevant here. I’m not telling you to disrespect your whole family in your memoir and ruin their lives.

But you must tell the truth.

Some readers out there are probably terrified that I’m telling you to be so candid in your writing—that I’m telling you to forget about what other people think. That we should be scared of the potential harm we may cause if we bleed onto the page.

Do you know what scares me more than the repercussions of my advice?

Stifling the creativity of writers.

Telling us that we can’t say what’s on our hearts because we might make someone angry.

Stopping us from expressing ourselves, from boldly telling the truth, from writing something intense, something moving. Something that scares us.

It’s time to write without fear. Write honestly. Write boldly.

If you want to be an honest writer, then I believe this method can help you live up to your author duties while attempting (whether successfully or not) to pacify any family disagreements.

First, write the whole truth and nothing but it, assuming that you won’t show the words to a single soul. Pour your heart into it. Give it all you’ve got. Do not hold back.

Second, leave it alone for a little while. This can be a few days or a few weeks.

Third, look at it with new eyes and gently edit it. I’m not contradicting myself here; my hope is that you’ll see how necessary the truth is and delicately omit or reword anything that could ruin a family member’s life, for example. Most importantly, ask yourself: If I delete this, will I still be telling the truth?  

It’s up to you what you do with this information. You can hold back for the rest of your life and keep everyone happy, or you can bleed onto the page.

It’s your book. It’s your story. Tell it right.

“There’s just some magic in truth and honesty and openness.” —Frank Ocean