Writing through Secrets, Family Relationships, and More

painting of books on table
Nadia Colburn // August 31, 2023 // 31 Comments

A family of writers:

I was in college when my father published his first novel. It was a novel about a man similar in many ways to him. It was upsetting to see the novel’s depiction of the oldest daughter, who bore more than a little resemblance to me. Both the ways she appeared on the page (too much like a stereotype) and the ways she didn’t appear (hardly any pages were devoted to her) hurt me. Did my father see me this way? Did I not play a more important role in his life? I know, then, both what it’s like to be written (imperfectly) about, and also not be be written about enough.

These, though, are problems that can be relatively easily healed. If my father had simply talked to me about the character in his book and told me that, if she was inspired by me (as she clearly was), she wasn’t me, and if he'd simply told me how important I was to him and that he didn’t have space in the book to explore that, that could have gone a long way to heal the problem. 

But my father couldn’t do that because the book had a much bigger problem: The man in the book (who, as I said, was very similar to my father) was having a series of affairs, and my father had just had a long-term affair with a woman who resembled the main mistress in the book. My father insisted the book was 100% fiction. And though my sister and I knew he was having an affair with his colleague, my mother still seemed to be in the dark about it. 

So the book broke secrets at the same time that it tried to keep them. Confusing. 

And when I asked my father about it, he got furious. 

My solution at 21 was to move forward. My parents’ relationship was their own problem.  Like many young adults, I thought that my story, my experience was my own, that I could leave behind the complications of my past.

But moving forward isn’t all that easy.

I wanted to have a voice, and so I soon started writing myself.

My early poems explored failures of communication. Though I took my writing and craft seriously, and though I began to publish with some regularity, I couldn’t quite get my mind around being a public writer. Who was I writing for and why? And did I really want to share the innermost workings of my soul with the world? 

Now, looking back, I understand that I was trying to break secrets that were too dangerous to break. Over many years, I came to realize that not only was I holding the secret of my father’s infidelity, but also the secret of sexual abuse that itself was clouded in unknowing: my family at first said that I had had a strange babysitter as a young child and then, taking the same line they had around my father’s affair, they took the babysitter story back and simply denied that anything could have happened. 

Why do I share this now? 

People often ask me what to do with secrets, how to address or not address them in their writing.

In my own experience, writing can be a pathway to truth and  liberation. But it needs to be treated with the right intentions. 

My father’s writing perhaps revealed some truths, but it also led to greater confusion and mistrust. I do not believe that art necessarily heals. I do not believe that great art excuses hurting people. And there are plenty of writers who have not been healed in the writing process.

But I do believe that if we approach our writing with authenticity and honesty, it can lead us to greater freedom. 

My own experience writing:

My poems helped me express what it was forbidden to express; they knew before I did that there were things I knew that I couldn’t say. They knew before I did that even if I couldn’t say these unknown things directly, there was a language of poetry, of dream, of imagination that could get at the body’s and psyche’s deeper truths. 

If you have secrets that you are worried your writing might reveal, if you are worried that what you write might hurt people in your family, people you might even love, don’t stop writing. 

Those things that have not been expressed often propel our writing, and to hold them back can literally make us sick.

Write. But write first for yourself with full authenticity before you even worry about publication. 

Don’t rush to publish.

Often, we think of the most serious writing as the writing that is published, but I disagree. When we prioritize publication, we prioritize writing for others, form over function, the mask over the deeper truth. 

For me, the most serious part of creative writing happens between the writer and the page. If that relationship is sacred, then the audience can come later. If that relationship is not sacred, then what is being offered to an audience is not worth much. 

If you worry about what other people will think, you will not be able to have the freedom of discovery that the page can offer. Remind yourself that no one will read your writing until you are ready to share it. 

So many of my students had their diaries read as children or teenagers by family members. That betrays trust and invades the sacred relationship between the writer and page. Keep your writing where only you can find it. Keep the page a safe space. 

If we have the safety of privacy in our writing, the page can be a place to hold the pain, confusion, and secrets that our body otherwise holds. Some of the trauma, tightness, tension that our body holds onto can literally be released when we express ourselves on the page: the page gets to store it instead of our muscles. 

Don’t hold back. If you think that you’ll write everything except just one little secret that energy of holding back will permeate the whole project. Give yourself the freedom to put it all on the page. 

Don’t worry at first about form. Don’t worry if your writing is “good enough.” 

At the same time, allow form itself to guide you. I find that making art instead of simply journalling can be more healing and more revealing than a brain dump. Often, when we journal, we write from the same place that we often go to in our mind—we stay in the same loops. 

By contrast, when we make a piece of art, when we try to make something beautiful, surprising, original, we tap into a greater wisdom that our writing often carries, we surprise ourselves, we go into that altered space of the creative, intuitive mind. 

Revise as authentically as you write. 

Go back and re-read it. Listen to it. Aim for greater precision, greater insight. 

Connect your writing with your body. Connect it, also, with spirit, with what is greater than you. 

Does this mean that you should never publish? Absolutely not. 

When you have at least a second draft, you can be realistic about what you want to do with it. Before this point, it’s impossible to be realistic because you don’t even know what “it” is.

What should my father have done with his novel? I think that if he needed to write that novel and share it with the world, he should have had honest conversations with the people in his life about his own actions and their relationship to the subject of his book. The main problem was not that he wrote, rather it was what he did and how he handled it.

We live in a world that urgently needs to face up to difficult truths. Not expressing the truth is not the solution. The problem is often not the message-bearer but the action itself. Pay attention to your actions and live in integrity. The writing and expression will follow.

If and when you’re ready to publish, I recommend doing an inventory of the people your writing might hurt and having some conversations.

Do you want to continue to have a relationship with this person? If you do, are you willing to edit the work? What is the cost of doing that edit? What is the cost of not doing that edit? 

If you have a close relationship, you can always show the work to that person and get feedback from them in the editing process. This is a way to maintain trust. 

But if someone has hurt you, it is usually not your responsibility to protect them. As Anne Lamott says, “if people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” 

Remember that you have control over what, when, and how you share.  You don’t need to share your writing until you’re ready. 

How other people respond, of course, is out of your control. Sometimes other people’s responses can be surprising—often the things we least expect people to react to elicit the biggest responses. 

In my life, it’s been a long journey to write my story.

In my forthcoming book of poems, I write more explicitly about abuse, trauma and healing than I have in other of my poems. I am at a  point in my writing that I don’t feel I have many secrets to protect, but it took me a long time to get here. Interestingly, some of my most explicit poems didn’t make the final manuscript—in the end, it was important that I wrote them, but I didn’t feel that some of them were as well crafted and didn’t feel that they were necessary to the book itself. 

I have written many things that I wasn’t ready yet to publish in the past. I believe not publishing was, for a long time, the more empowered position for me to take. In writing, I partly healed myself. My body literally got healthier. 

I have shared my poems in my forthcoming book with my husband and children, but I no longer see my parents. Will they read my book? Perhaps. What will they think of it? I don’t want to hurt them. I still love them. But at a certain point it became clear that their narrative and my narrative didn’t have enough points of intersection to continue to communicate. We went in the same circles again and again and continued to hurt each other. I don’t want to hurt them, but it’s also not my job any longer to protect them. I tried to do that for a long time, and in the end, the toll was too great on my body and psyche. 

The cost of not writing.

It’s common to worry about what our writing might expose, but I find that the greater concern is the cost of not writing. 

What is the cost of not expressing yourself, of keeping those secrets bottled up, of keeping them stored in your body, your muscles, your inflamed immune system? What is the cost of passing those secrets down from generation to generation?

What is the cost of keeping your voice to yourself because you can’t express the full truth, the cost of giving up on your voice and creativity?

When you let your voice have freedom, what you often find is that behind it, bottled up, is not just our pain, but also your enormous wonder, your joy and full range of emotion. 

When you allow yourself the freedom of expression, you allow yourself the freedom to make something truly beautiful, to be bold and experiment, to have fun.

And once you’ve done that, you have a great gift. Then you can decide what you want to do with it and how, when, and where you want to share it. 

Leave me a note below. I love to hear from you! 

  • I love your essay. It's something I needed to hear at this time. Your style reminds me a little bit of Natalie Goldberg's essays and voice. The Anne Lamont quote was priceless. It's one of my favorites. This gives me some food for thought. Thank you.

  • I graduated from Columbia University as well with a Master's degree in the teaching of English Literature and Language. I would like to know the name of your book (s) of poetry and whether or not you consider them Memoir Poetry.

    I have many poems that I have written at different points in my life as well as journal entries. I have never explored writing a poetry memoir, and I wanted to know how you framed your poems to tell your story as well as other decisions that you made.

    I realize that this may be asking for a lot, but anything you can share would be greatly appreciated.

    Sincerely,

    Angel Rose

  • Nadia,
    You are so generous with your thoughts, deep reflections, and advice,

    Even when things are difficult to share, you present yourself as you are. You follow your own advice which not all writers do!

    Thanks for being such a guide for so many and sharing your truths.

    We are all better writers (and people( from having experienced your courses.

  • Thank you for sharing your intimate experiences, Nadia. It's inspiring to read about your journey in releasing difficult feelings and thoughts through writing.
    And the potential pushback from family! One of my sisters attacked me with great vulgarity on social media in response to my work. I was shocked and devastated, but it woke me up too. Not everyone wants to explore ways to heal. Or hear you.
    I really appreciate your focus on the healing power of maintaining a sacred space with writing. Your presence on the page validates me. I'm delighted (+ relieved) that I've connected with you! 🙂

    • I'm so sorry to hear that you had that experience, but I've found that when some people don't understand us, other people do, and we can learn to bring more compassion to those spaces of misunderstanding and the hurt they cause in us, and also move towards the spaces we have more supportive people around us.

  • Every single word you've written here makes a ton of sense to me. This is exactly how I would have written this article, had I had your talent.
    It brings me – again, and again – to the same conclusion: If you are not honest with yourself, what's the point?

  • Nadia – thank you so much for sharing and for the ongoing emails that you send out. This keeps my internal writing coals glowing in the ebbs and flows of my writing journey. I no longer have a lot of secrets I’m protecting. However I’m mindful of protecting the privacy of my children and those close to me. For myself I find that going into my core and being very present with myself at the moment of writing that I see pictures that connect to words that come out on the page. This allows me to go deeply into the feel of any situation without necessarily connecting in actual people. At this point I haven’t published. If I were to publish there possibly would be some pieces that connect closely to those I love. Again, thank you for helping me to keep going.

    • I honor that you do what feels right and respectful to you! Keep writing–there are many ways and paths. Thank you for your message!

  • I have had so many experiences in childhood with sexual abuse and a mother who was very self absorbed and not very supportive. I have been in therapy for years trying to make heads or tails out of all these experiences. I want to write about it because it could be helpful to others, so they don't have to feel alone with all of these thoughts and repercussions of a very young life having lived through these experiences. How do I start. Right now it feels like I don't know how.

  • Thank you for sharing this. It is inspiring me to keep writing my story how it is meant to be written. Thanks for sharing about your father's novel and how it made you feel.

  • This was beautiful, Nadia – and just whst I needed to read this morning. Thank you so much for sharing this glimpse of your journey.

    Karen

  • Hi…i'm in your Poetry class but i just forwarded this to a friend and to a former therapy client of mine, both published authors, both very stuck in their writing.
    Meanwhile, thanks for saying what you did about your parents. I grew up in an alcoholic family, dad had affairs and there was domestic violence. My parents have passed and my only sibling and i are estranged as of 2020 .When you said, "I could no longer protect them" that really resonated. I tried for so long to acclimate to her and understand her and it wasn't working. It is a grief i have learned to make room for and to hold . The challenge for me is to curb the impulsive moments when I am overcome by nostalgia.
    Jack Kornfield was once asked what was the hardest emotion for him to deal with and he said sentimentality. The same is true for me. I guess I should write about that!
    Thanks for your openness and transparency. It helps me to clarify the complexity of estrangement and to know that I am not alone .

    • That's really interesting what Jack Kornfeld said about sentimentality. We sometimes want to sugar coat our own stories. Thank you for sharing <3

  • “What should my father have done with his novel? I think that if he needed to write that novel and share it with the world, he should have had honest conversations with the people in his life about his own actions and their relationship to the subject of his book. The main problem was not that he wrote, rather it was what he did and how he handled it.”

    Thank you for your very vulnerable sharing around the subject of how we handle writing about our lives and the people that we touch and who have an integral part of forming our stories.

    A lesson I’ve learned is that we all just do what we can do. Your father did what he was able to do. Unfortunately, we can have expectations for others and that can lead to disappointment. Expecting honest conversations from someone who had problems with honesty is asking for something he was unable to do.

    I think you took a situation in your life and found a way to right the wrong. You have used your story to teach others that authenticity is what will make our stories shine. Shine in a way that they are able to because of our honest intent even if we are writing and telling secrets.

    Thanks. This has answered a question I had around how to write our stories when they may not reflect everyone in a positive light.

  • Hi Nadia and thank you for this article. I used to write a lot and found myself going around in circles. It was simply a source of frustration, just trying to write for someone 'out there'. Then I found out that I had dissociative disorder and writing has finally become about finding the language for the part of me which has no vocabulary. The road to integrity and integration, inside, is the journey now. Thank you so much.

    • Dear Jacqueline,
      Thank you for sharing that. I relate. I find that writing poetry is a beautiful way through those spaces where language has, for now, at least, been exiled–to slowly re-enter narrative. <3

  • Hi Nadia,
    This is Karen Nance from Poetry of Attention. I hated to miss the live Revision workshop yesterday but had an unavoidable conflict. Now I feel behind and a little lost. Will the live session recording be available for me to watch and listen to? Also, I don't know if we are switching from Google Classroom to something else. If that was discussed or explained in the revision workshop that I missed, could you bring my up to speed on that? I did see the Google form with a list of some of the people in the course and their emails. I added my name and email address to that. I hope that I was supposed to.
    Anyway, any way for me to access yesterday's session would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

    karensuenance2014@gmail.com

    • oops, I think I put my reply to you on a different issue here and it's in the wrong place! Please delete my reply if you wish!

  • Thank you for this. I immediately feel lighter upon reading it. I have often considered writing a book about my life. I worry about telling my truths and who it will hurt. I have started to journal in the past years, and sometimes, just brain dumps all the traumas I am holding onto. It has helped me so much in my journey to healing. Knowing that I am not alone in these feelings and how to proceed really helps. Thank you for putting into words what I have been feeling for quite a while. I have not put any writings out there for fear of hurting loved ones. Now I know that I am only hurting myself by doing that, and if by writing and publishing, I can heal myself, then maybe I can heal generations. You have to face it to heal it. So, thank you for putting me on this journey of not being afraid to share my truths and possibly publish them someday.

  • Nadia, thank you for sharing your story.
    I feel there’s no perfect family, and most her dysfunctional at different levels. The relationship between my father, and I wasn’t a very healthy one.

    It touched a lot of areas in my childhood from early teens and on.
    I had a reoccurring nightmare, which eventually healed thru time with spiritual practice.

    I am contemplating whether these past experiences would be beneficial to re surface them again or let them rest. A good part of me tells me to let them be. As for my father, I forgave him on his deathbed, and he left with a slight smile.
    There was an understanding, and a heavy weight lifted, and felt a lightness within myself.
    After my father died I was drawn to the book or more read interested parts of the book.. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying»by author Sogyal Rinpoche, which gave me a better understanding of death, and experiencing a close one.

    Warmly
    ❤️🙏

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