5 Reasons to Write Your “Taboo” Stories

From Jane Friedman:

Writing memoir is always a vulnerable experience, but some stories are especially difficult to tell. Topics like mental illness, sex, and violence are often branded “taboo” and can be among the most challenging material to write about. In many cultures, we’re taught to avoid these topics, and that sharing them is TMI (“too much information”).

But at their best, these narratives speak to our darkest truths and teach us what it means to be human. Despite the challenges of writing about stigmatized topics, sharing our vulnerable, deeply personal stories can be incredibly healing. And not only that, but these stories can make for the most compelling writing for readers.

1. Writing about taboos can give our stories heat and urgency.

Emotionally charged, vulnerable experiences lend themselves to high-stakes storytelling. In memoir, we are challenged to answer the question of: “So what?” Why would a disinterested reader, who doesn’t know us from Adam, care about our lives? Taboo topics tend to be rife with conflict and dramatic tension, among our best tools for engaging readers in our stories. What’s more, when we lean into stigmatized topics, we invite readers to wrestle with the same complexities we’re examining in ourselves—this gives our storytelling urgency and nuance, which keeps the reader turning the pages.

2. Vulnerability can make us more trustworthy narrators.

In memoir, readers want us to tell the truest, most candid versions of our stories. If they sense that we are holding back, being evasive, or trying to present our lives and ourselves as rosier than the reality, we risk losing their trust. Not shying away from the thorny, messy truths of our lives sends a powerful message to the reader. It shows them we are willing to lay bare our most difficult truths—even when, and perhaps especially when, these are unflattering. Readers respect writers who come across as honest and authentic—facing challenging material head-on, without sugar-coating it, shows our ability to grapple with complicated memories. This kind of honesty can help build our credibility as narrators, while establishing a more intimate connection between the writer and reader.

3. Writing the “unspeakable” allows us to reclaim power.

Often, what is categorized as “taboo” or “unspeakable” has a lot to do with power dynamics. For instance, topics like sexual assault and racism have long been stigmatized; this is a way of silencing voices of dissent, those that might disrupt the established social order. Writing about taboos helps jumpstart conversations about some of the most important topics of our day. We can break through the forces that attempt to silence us, instead using our stories as a way of speaking truth to power. This is especially the case in marginalized communities, where voices have been systematically shut out—writing the hard truths can be empowering for the writer, and illuminating for readers.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

1 thought on “5 Reasons to Write Your “Taboo” Stories”

  1. Hadn’t realized how many taboos my novels take on – though I had to fight with myself to be absolutely sure there was no other way to tell the story for EACH of them, and then struggle to do it right, to make it real, to not dismiss the seriousness of the topics.

    She’s talking about memoirs and essays; it’s very true in fiction as well.

    I’m still amazed it has NOT made anyone hate me (yet).

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