In my undergraduate creative nonfiction workshops, I begin each semester with a writing prompt that asks students to interrogate their own silences as essayists. Make a list, I say, of all the things you would never write about. What’s too painful? What’s too new? What’s too private? After they’ve been jotting notes for a few minutes, I ask them to look back over the list and add because clauses to each item – why they would never write about each subject. This way, they can share their reasons with the class, without having to share the material.
The reasons for wanting not to write about something are always revealing, and after a few classes, I’ve come to think of them as falling into one of two categories: for someone else’s sake, or for our own. We may choose not to write an essay because it would hurt, or incriminate, someone else. We may choose not to write an essay because the story, compelling as it may be, doesn’t really belong to us.
But often, the only people we’re looking to protect are ourselves.