“Not Nice” in Writing
What do I mean by “not nice” in terms of writing? Certainly it’s a value of mine to be “nice,” in person and in writing; I want people to like me, to like my writing. And certainly I don’t have as a value “not nice” for its own sake. But I do find that I’m very interested in exploring with you the notion captured in the phrase “not nice.” It seems to me an important concept to consider. I’m sometimes aware, when I read student or client writing, of a feeling I have that the writer isn’t going far enough, or has more to express — more feelings and emotions — than are getting on the page. I feel a sense of constriction, constraint, convention perhaps. Other times I don’t think along these lines, because the notion of “not nice” doesn’t apply. It’s not an issue in whatever is being written. But I’m interested in our looking at subjects or places in our own writing where some internal censor pops up — either consciously or unconsciously — and shouts “don’t go there — not nice!” and the writing suffers for it.
In musing over this subject, I remembered what I believe was the first time I encountered (or maybe registered) “not nice!” as a reader and developing writer. It must have been the early seventies. The moment came for me in a story by a wonderful Southern writer whom I knew peripherally at UNC, Doris Betts. The story was about childbirth, and the protagonist hasn’t had a particularly delightful experience. In referring to having to have an episiotomy and being stitched up from it, she says something to the effect of, “They could just sew the whole damn thing up for all she cared.” I remember being both shocked and thrilled when I read that. Now such candor seems old news, but back then women were just starting to write honestly and openly about their experiences, feelings and bodies in a way we take for granted now. Betts’ story introduced me to the idea that you might be able to say things — you might develop a voice — that could do that: tell the truth about your own experiences or about the truth of your character’s experiences. You didn’t have to be nice. Nice to me meant the opposite of telling the truth; it meant saying what people wanted and expected to hear. I knew nice up one side and down the other, so I recognized very well when a woman was not being nice. It was great!
So the issue of not having to be nice was something I wanted for my own writing, perhaps because I had been so thoroughly indoctrinated as a Southern girl to be nice, to look out for other people’s feelings, not to offend, not to cause trouble. Nice is still a part of me and even a value to some extent, but in writing I want to be able to go where I want and need to go. I want to be able to follow my own thoughts — and I want you to be able to do that too. I admit to a lot of timidity in my life and in my writing (though I feel braver, I think, in writing than in life itself). But I find that sometimes when I “go” places that require some risk, some sense that maybe not everyone is going to find this very “nice,” I feel sort of invigorated and free. Sometimes that writing is particularly energized.
Now, no one wants to hurt other people (at least most of us don’t!). And being “free” or going places that are taboo for you or others can involve the issue of hurting or offending. But often people operate as if other people’s feelings and judgments — whether real or imagined — are more important than their own, or they’ve incorporated some super-ego that keeps telling them “don’t go there” long after it matters. They become children at some level not wanting to offend Mama or Daddy. Or else they’re so full of rage at having to repress so much that they know they can’t let that out without burning down the house! So these are hard issues, hard choices. There are ways of handling these things, but you have to deal with them on your own terms, you have to figure them out for yourself.
Of course “being nice” isn’t a problem for everyone. Some people avoid that trap from the get-go, due to their upbringing, their own personalities, their own values. But for a lot of people — women especially — being nice can be a problem, because it shrinks the range of possibilities, in life and in writing.
Have you had reading experiences where you’re excited to see someone being “not nice” in their writing and where you were in synch with what was being expressed? Have you had moments in your own writing where you surprised yourself by what you were saying — and felt that you were speaking the truth? Where you felt some inhibition or constraint fall away, where the voice that was speaking took over? Are you ever aware in your writing of places where you pull back, where you stop short of what might come out? What are your feelings when you do this? Are you aware of some other voice in your head that tells you not to go there? How able are you to give yourself over to the writing experience in the moment?
Of course, we all know people and writers who can be obnoxious or off the wall. We don’t want “not nice” for its own sake, but only where it feels necessary, authentic. And the reader will always pick up on the motives and will naturally want to defend anyone who is being treated unfairly (even the writer herself, if her view of herself seems too skewed or harsh). Vivian Gornick has a phrase, “the honesty of the endeavor,” which I take to mean one isn’t trying to get back at someone unfairly, you’re not writing with a chip on your shoulder, you have arrived at some state of mature understanding and compassion perhaps. You see the big picture.
Try to pay attention to places where the inner censor or some inhibition keeps you from following your writing or your thoughts where they are going. Be prepared to push on in those places. It might help to write down on the side what is stopping you, so you can see whether your fears or reservations are realistic and whether you want to honor them. Or are they simply reflex or loss of nerve? If you’re susceptible to certain messages, try to bring them to consciousness more. Maybe you’re sensitive to some internalized messages, such as “that’s not very nice of you,” or “you’re not being fair here” or “what will people think?” (my favorite). Do you really care what people think? Which people? Why? Who are you trying to please?
One distinction I want to make is between being free from certain inhibitions or restraints, and making good and conscious choices about how much you want to say or expose or reveal. I think it’s good and important to be able to follow your own thoughts, not to censor too soon, but to fully explore what you really think and feel about your own experiences and your relationships to other people and events. BUT — that doesn’t mean you have to use anything that makes you uncomfortable when it comes to showing it to an audience or publishing. You may very well not want to deal with the consequences of things you could write, or you may decide it’s not worth it in terms of the harm it would do to other people or the embarrassment it might cause you. I think you have to be clear on what’s going on with you and the writing. It may be that you decide that your truth and the values behind that truth outweigh the trouble and grief the writing might cause. Edward Ball’s book called Slaves in the Family traces his S.C. family’s involvement with slavery, and he’s related how upset some members of his family were about the book. It seems that the pain and shame he caused some family members truly upset and saddened him, but that he believes the truth he’s telling is more important. “…He is sure he’s doing the right thing.” I think he is too. In terms of your own work, you have to figure out where your own comfort level is, what your motives are, and whether your choices regarding censorship are good and legitimate, or coming from a part of you that is under someone’s thumb or society’s control or your own timidity. Your instincts about what is unacceptably “not nice” may be correct, after all. It’s just that you want to be in charge, make conscious decisions whenever possible, not be at the mercy of unconscious prohibitions that keep you from being the writer you really want to be.
Bottom line: Aren’t you glad when a writer isn’t nice, but real? Honest. Truth-telling.
Examples of Writing that Some People Might Consider “Not Nice!”
“When he beat me, I screamed and kicked and cried like the baby I was: But sometimes when I was safe and alone, I would imagine the ones who watched. Someone had to watch — some girl I admired who barely knew I existed, some girl from church or down the street…. In my imagination I was proud and defiant. I’d stare back at him with my teeth set, making no sound at all, no shameful scream, no begging. Those who watched admired me and hated him. I pictured it that way and put my hands between my legs. It was scary, but it was thrilling too. Those who watched me, loved me. It was as if I was being beaten for them. I was wonderful in their eyes…
I was ashamed of myself for the things I thought when I put my hands between my legs, more ashamed for masturbating to the fantasy of being beaten than for being beaten in the first place. I lived in a world of shame. I hid my bruises as if they were evidence of crimes I had committed. I knew I was a sick disgusting person. I couldn’t stop my stepfather from beating me, but I was the one who masturbated. I did that, and how could I explain to anyone that I hated being beaten but still masturbated to the story I told myself about it?
Yet…I loved those fantasies, even though I was sure they were a terrible thing. They had to be; they were self-centered and they made me have shuddering orgasms. In them, I was very special. I was triumphant, important. I was not ashamed. There was no heroism possible in the real beatings. There was just being beaten until I was covered with snot and misery.”
from Bastard out of Carolina, a novel by Dorothy Allison
“Our fights became more and more destructive. Several times that summer we were both awake all night fighting the most personally harmful battles of our lives. Jim began to tell me that I couldn’t trust my instincts, that really I was very ill, even though I may have thought I had begun to put my life back together again. I felt that somehow he had managed to insinuate himself into my deepest self, my most private mind and soul. But then I realized that I was trying to do the same with him. We had both begun to say things we had always considered off-limits. We began to make insidious and unfair comparisons between our two families, a dirty way of fighting which would have horrified us earlier and has ever since.
Even worse, we began to threaten each other with seizing custody of the children. “Now that you have been identified as an alcoholic, I can take the children away from you,” Jim shouted at me one night. Terrified, I flashed back with accusations about Jim’s past which I thought would equally disqualify him in the eyes of a divorce court.”
from News from the Border, a memoir by Jane McDonnell
The Pope’s Penis
It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate
Clapper at the center of a bell.
It moves when he moves, a ghostly fish in a
Halo of silver seaweed, the hair
Swaying in the dark and the heat—and at night,
While his eyes sleep, it stands up
in praise of God.
Poem by Sharon Olds
“It wasn’t the gonorrhea or herpes, and it wasn’t the hard strokes of the fuck Frank L—gave me. It was something he said to me when his penis was inside me.
Because I was dry, it burned each time he moved into me. It was like fire, it was like a knife—I didn’t know how to describe the slicing, burning sensation. But I lay still, thinking it would hurt less if I didn’t move
“Good pussy doesn’t just lie there,” Frank L—told me then.
And because I wanted it to be over, but mostly because I didn’t want to be a bad lay and a lousy fuck, I began to move with him. I participated in my rape.
And that was the thing: because I had believed I was going out on a date, because I willingly got in the truck, because I was convinced on that day when I was sixteen that my main worth in the world was sexual, I believed I had to please my rapist. Him of the stinking hair and infected cock. And in that way, Frank L—became king of my vagina, boss of my pussy, chief of my cunt.”
From Thief, a novel by Maureen Gibbon.
Experiment: Write a list of subjects or topics that feel taboo or scary to write about, for whatever reasons.
Pick one of these subjects and listen to the voice in your head that doesn’t want you to write about this. Write down what it says. Let it speak fully.
Now engage in a dialogue with this inner censor, and answer back from another part of you that wants to write about this and feels you have the right to do so. Make sure this part of you has the last word (Thanks to Jane McDonnell for these ideas.) Now try writing about that topic. Listen to hear the voice that wants to speak. It may have unusual power or energy once you let it out.
Think about something in your life that you know you SHOULD feel one way about but don’t. Maybe you KNOW you should love your mother, but your feelings are much different from that. Think about the complexities and complications of things in your life, and explore one of those subjects with the whole range of your feelings, not just what you want to feel or think you should feel or think about it. Try to write what you really feel and think. You don’t have to show it to anyone. You can shred it when you’re through. You may or may not choose to use it in a piece of writing.