The Risks Of Writing

Have you ever wanted to send an email, write a blogpost or even just a Facebook update, but decided not to? I once sat in a train across from a guy who was completely absorbed in the writing of a letter. It was clearly a love letter: the feverish focus on his face, the insecure scribbles crossed over and rewritten, and the first line that I could read from my seat:

Dear Martha,

(I love you)

I can’t remember the rest of the text but the first line struck me and I still wonder why he wrote ‘I love you’ in parentheses. Was he not sure he should tell the girl he loved her? Or were the parentheses to stay in the final version, meaning “I love you, but you already know that.” Did he write it at the start, knowing he would insert it at the best place once he’d finished writing the letter? I had a feeling the parentheses meant: maybe I’ll write that sentence, maybe I won’t.

I got weirdly obsessed with it and told the story to Nick and Andrew to try and understand why the guy had written the three key words of his letter in parentheses.


Nick said that the guy might have written ‘I love you’ at the top not to forget to include it in the letter at the most opportune point. His answer frustrated me: how could the guy ever forget the point of the whole letter? It’s not like he was going to write a mind blowing letter, send it, and then realise: “Oops! I forgot to tell her I loved her!”.

I asked Andrew through What’s App and he wrote: “He was leaving that space for a more eloquent, heartfelt version of ‘I love you’. Something not cliched.” I replied that I didn’t see how else you could tell someone you love them without just saying it. He went on to give me examples of how to say it differently: “You’re the apple to my pie”, or “you complete me”, or “if I could change the earth, you would be the sunlight in my universe”.

To both Nick and Andrew, it was clear that the guy would declare his feelings one way or another. I, on the other hand, think there’s a fair chance that the guy wrote a long confused letter and simply crossed out ‘I love you’ for fear of revealing his feelings.

I can understand why he might have decided to do so. Writing anything that will be read by anyone is like going on a limb. What if they don’t get it? What if they find it ridiculous? What if I hurt someone’s feelings?

My friends and family sometimes ask me how I can reveal so much of myself on my blog. It’s true I wrote openly about having taken Anti-Depressants, stealing drinks in the supermarket, and crying in toilets. But I keep total control over what  I reveal or not. I could and would like to write about many more personal topics, but I sometimes chose not to, usually because of one of these five risks:

  • Not good or interesting enough
  • Hurt someone’s feelings or violate their sense of privacy
  • Threaten a relationship
  • Make me lose credibility professionally
  • Potential judgement from other people, or worse, misunderstanding

The “Not good or interesting enough” sanction is a necessary filter for any piece of writing. I also find it important to respect other people’s feelings and right to privacy. However, the fear of what people will think or how they will interpret and react to my words should weigh less in my decision. So far, two of my friends got upset about one of my posts, my mum got mad when I mentioned her in another post, and some other friends got worried when I posted about feeling sad or moody. Over 95 posts, only 4 caused mild and manageable problems. But worrying about the consequences of what I write still makes me ditch one in five post ideas.

When I look back, the only pieces of writing I regret are the ones I wrote and sent or published while I was angry, sad, or emotional. They were confused and said things that were only true in the heat of the moment. Interesting material comes out of emotions, but time is necessary to polish it. I feel relieved not to have written certain emails, blogposts, or love letters. But I also feel like some of the stories or feelings I have in stock are worth being told.

As Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Keeping stories or feelings to myself feels like grabbing a smoking hot potato: it burns, and the only way to stop the burning is to let it go. Writing allows me to let go of all the hot potatoes cluttering my head to leave a serene, empty space… Until I grab the next hot potato.

When I think of the love letter guy, there’s no doubt to what he should have done: write the damn “I love you” and get on with the letter. In other words, be bold and say what it is you want to say. If the girl doesn’t like it, or laughs, or ignores it, it’ll be her loss. I can see that for him. But when I assess something I wrote, I don’t always go for the bold option.

Maybe it’s just a matter of craft. The more I write, the more I’ll find the right words to say what I want to say, avoid misunderstandings, and find the line between too much information and a valuable story. As Nick suggested, finding the right place in the piece to express your idea forcefully might be as important as the idea itself.

Andrew has a point too: finding a way to say ‘I love you’ to someone that’s so extraordinary and fresh and surprising makes it easier to say it. There’s no way to control how people will receive your piece of writing. But you can make it so good that it’s worth the risk.

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33 thoughts on “The Risks Of Writing

  1. Great post, Cecile! I’ve struggled with this too. I find, however that my best writing is done when I’m in a place that’s rich with emotion and my only choice is to try to describe my experience with language. I come up with the best metaphors during those times. However, I agree, there are many things I’ve had to censor on my blog, for fear of hurting others who might read it. I also don’t know if you’ve found this, but the more people that find my blog and the bigger the readership grows, I find myself sticking to “safer” topics more and more. Because, as the audience grows, so does the potential for people to be sad/hurt/worried or simply misunderstand. Good luck with school!

  2. I’m always concerned about others misunderstanding my writing. That’s one of the reasons I sometimes avoid the major conflict moments in my story until I have to write them. I think to myself, “People who read this story one day are going to think I’m a sadist for putting my characters through these things!” I also feel irrational sympathy for the characters themselves, like they’re asking me not to do it. Haha. It’s a weird process for certain. The risks are well worth it, though. =)

    • Now i’m curious about these sadistic positions you put your characters into :-) The risks of writing fiction never occurred to me, but I can see how people could judge you even for your fiction. You might lose really interesting twists in your stories if you worry about it too much though…

  3. There are many times I start to write an email or text and end up deleting it. Sometimes it’s therapeutic to write out your feelings about something, read, and then delete it. Sometimes it’s safer that way.

    Through my blog I am starting to reveal more about myself, but slowly and in a funny way.


  4. I think, perhaps, that you both are right about the “(I love you)”. I believe that he put the words at the beginning so that he had said them. It was to get it out of the way, so he could write the rest of the letter. However, as you stated, the () indicate that he might remove those words should he choose to when done. It seemed to me that she might be upset with him and he was trying to win her back?

  5. This is a great post and so true! I really consider strongly anything that I include that could be construed as controversial in a post and sometimes I regret taking it out afterwards – thinking that it might have ticked off a few people but was maybe my funniest line. It can be tough finding the right balance but I think the observations you have made are spot on! Loved reading this!

  6. The first thing I thought about (I love you), was that he was about to write about something negative/unpleasant/perhaps tell her he’d done something wrong or tell her about something she does that makes him crazy, so the (I love you) was like a “Before I get started, let me just say that I do actually/still love you”

    Nice post!

  7. I once read this study about how ‘crazy’ people (I have no idea what their exact definition of crazy was) make for better bloggers because they’ll say what others won’t and their blogs are more raw and honest.

    I sometimes worry I’ll regret posting something that I wrote in a fit of anger, sadness or another strong emotion, but then again they were all true. At least in that moment.

    I tend to read other blogs with that in mind, that people will sometimes say something they might not even necessarily mean when they are upset. Usually there will be some post a couple of days later where they address it and smooth it out a bit, and maybe that’s how blogging can be therapeutic in a way. Acknowledge feelings first, then put them in perspective… Or something, haha.

    Loved this post! Although it will take me a while to stop wondering why the guy wrote ‘I love you’ in parentheses :P

    • Crazy people are maybe more surprising too…
      It’s true that you could always write another post to explain yourself or smooth out what you said in a previous one. it might be interesting to read raw material as well. But I like to rewrite and edit until I feel like I have a finished piece of writing.

  8. Yes, I’ve backed away from publish, send or share many a time because I shied away from the risk of sharing what I wrote. Just like the fellow writing (I love you) it’s hard to put yourself out there not knowing how it’ll be received, and yet if you let others dictate what you write or how you write, you’re not the one writing anymore (and this too is the universal “you”). So often we’re expected to skip along the surface like water bugs, but I find myself when reading drawn to those moments in writing where I get a glimpse into the soul of the writer. For writers our writing is our unique expression; our fingerprint in time. Have you heard of Rainer Maria Rilke? I adore this quote from “Letters to a Young Poet”

    {Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.}

    If you were to die to not write, then the risk of hitting publish is much easier to surmount ;) I hope you’re settling into your new home well, Cécile!

    • I like the quote, thanks for sharing :-) I also look for and enjoy glimpses into the soul of the writer. Of course, it has to be subtle and polished. But I love to feel like I know the writer a little better after reading one of his or her pieces.

  9. You are so spot on, Cécile. I have the same problem of writing while in the middle of strong emotions, yet I rarely push that Publish button because I know my feelings will usually subside and I may regret what I’ve put out for all the world to see. There are so many post ideas that we refuse to develop because we are scared or worried about how others might receive them, but at the end of the day, who are we writing for? Is it a self-reflection or are we really focused on pleasing the audience? Great post!

  10. (I’ve missed your blog posts)
    I agree with what you said about blogging being a kind of controlled exposure – that because it’s YOU hitting the ‘Publish’ button it becomes easier to share personal or risky information. That’s why I often prefer to write controversial or intimate blog posts than have my feelings drawn out in a conversation or somehow “uncovered”.

    Last week I met up with a friend of a friend, who had only recently come across my blog, and immediately commented that it was “quite angsty”. At that point I wondered if I’d been sharing too much information: I *have* been worried about my grad school applications for some time, and the way I deal with the anxiety is to blog about it. My regular readers I think can appreciate those posts in the context of my “narrative” (and since they all live in different countries it doesn’t really matter if they form a negative impression of me from it); friends who stumble upon my blog this month and only read the past few posts might form a different picture. So is it wrong of me to publish 3 “angsty” blog posts in a row in case it comes across badly? Should I be thinking more about my different types of audience before I share information?

    Footnote. I don’t think I mind being identified as “angsty”, as long as it’s well-written angst…

    • Ha, funny what you did with the parentheses; I was just thinking that writing ‘I miss you’ would be a bit similar to writing ‘I love you’. I had never thought about replacement metaphors to express these words before writing this post.

      About your blog being perceived as ‘angsty’, I wouldn’t care too much about the friend of a friend’s opinion. If total strangers are able to understand and follow what you write, this guy should too, and if he can’t, then maybe you don’t have that much in common anyway. If you start thinking about your different types of audience before writing, you’ll end up with ‘boring, stilted crap’ as Rian wrote in a previous comment. It’s YOUR blog, your feelings, your anxiety. You’re the one to decide what is worth sharing or not.

      I didn’t think your posts were angsty. You’re just at a point of uncertainty in your life and you’re sharing it. But you’re also sharing your positive moments and realisations.

  11. A wonderful post – and for me, you highlight one of the issues that runs to the core of one of the issues that dog some of us in this ‘instant age’. Putting pen to paper (literally) can remain private. we can re-visit the page, tear it up and start again. But that can’t happen if we commit it by e-communication of some kind – we write, we send…and then we regret. Sometimes. Has the modern e-age stopped us having pause to think? Maybe.

    • Thanks Matthew. For me, pen to paper or finger to keyboard doesn’t make a huge difference. It’s easy enough to save a document and come back to it later. I can’t imagine what a pain rewriting must have been without computers. But maybe we get more tempted to press the ‘publish’, ‘send’, or ‘share’ button right away.

  12. You raise some good issues here and identify the one easy solution to most of the problems you mention: never write something and post it right away. At least sleep on it and look at the story with fresh eyes the next day. I usually have 7-10 things scheduled to post and I always go back and find better, cleaner, more efficient ways of expressing myself. If I had more time, I’m sure I could write really clever things in 50 words or less!

    As far as privacy, you’re in a different position than me as you write under your real name, but I think the root of the problem you mention isn’t what people are complaining about. I would guess that their anger stems from *other* people reading the stories about them, which is a completely different thing. Before you post anything about people close to you, you should verify that it’s okay with them or risk all kinds of pent-up feelings to greet you the next time you see them.

    And the letter writing guy: I agree with both Nick and Andrew. He probably didn’t want to forget what he wanted to say but wanted to come up with an original way to express himself. Don’t you prefer the personal touch in love letters?

    • Wow, 7-10 posts scheduled- that’s a lot! I never have more than 2 in stock. But yeah, I agree: never post right away.

      Now I verify with people before mentioning them. It’s easy enough to do so and prevents arguments and resentment.

      I do prefer the personal touch in love letters. Although sadly I can’t remember ever getting a love letter! If I did get one, however, I would like to be sure to understand that the guy loves me. If I had to write one, I’d definitely write ‘I love you’ at some point, and then go into more creative stuff.

      • What, Prince Charmnick ne t’a jamais envoyé de lettre d’amour? C’est une des choses qu’il DOIT faire avant le mariage, sans aucun doute ;-) Superbe article en tout cas, très émouvant et qui m’a fait beaucoup réfléchir pour mon autre idée de blog. Et chouette photo, j’adore ton stylo ;-P Bisous

        • Merci Aurélie. Ca me fait plaisir de savoir que cet article t’a fait réfléchir- j’ai hâte de voir ton nouveau blog!
          Nick m’a écrit de jolies notes et des emails pleins d’émotion, mais jamais une vraie lettre d’amour. Mais ce n’est pas le genre de choses que se réclament…
          Et oui, il est trop beau mon stylo, je l’utilise tous les jours :-)

  13. “There’s no way to control how people will receive your piece of writing. But you can make it so good that it’s worth the risk.” Ahh, I love this, Cécile!

    I definitely battle with the same writing demons, though I’ve mostly gotten them down to #1-3. The judgment/misunderstanding/credibility thing isn’t really something you can fully control. And I’ve found that if you try too hard, you end up with boring, stilted crap. Someone is always going to disagree with you/think you’re stupid/think your ideas are stupid (and, of course, I say “you” in the universal sense). When I started blogging, I definitely had to yell, “Shut up, you!” to that little insecure voice in my head now and then (okay, constantly). Now I just have to give the insecurity a good slap now and then and it settles down nicely ;)

    I adore your hot potato analogy. Such a good post!

    • Exactly, I can’t control how what I write will be received, but I can make sure it’s worth something. And obsessing about how people will react definitely leads to boring pieces. I gotta slap my insecurity more often, and hopefully it’ll settle down as well :-)

  14. I completely identify with this post! It’s scary to lay it out there. I always hope that being honest will encourage other people to be honest and maybe it will catch on like an epidemic. I get especially scared when I write about my spiritual beliefs, things I know not everyone believes the same. But you know, all we can do is be open to one another and hope others will be open in return. Thanks for this wonderful post!

    • I also hope that being honest will catch on like an epidemic. And we do participate in the process when we share personal thoughts.
      As I commented on your blog today, I’m not religious at all, but I do enjoy your posts because they’re well-written and you share about things you deeply care about. Thanks for your comment, Jane :-)

  15. You are a treasure. What a beautiful anecdote to illustrate your main thesis: revealing yourself through writing is scary.

    When I think about that guy, I can’t help but think that he was so in love that he couldn’t help but write it, even if he wasn’t ready to share it yet.

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