September 17th, 2021

What If My [Insert Name] Reads This?

by Jenny Hansen

Many authors are afraid to let their friends and loved ones read their writing. They use pseudonyms, join Reddit discussions and fret endlessly about "What if my boss / mother / [insert name] reads this?"

Many of us started reading and writing as an escape from our everyday lives. I always joke that "writers are not born, they are made."

Life and love and trauma made us.

Shyness made us.

Abuse made us.

Loneliness made us.

For many of us, writing is the valve we open to take the pressure off when those feelings bubble up too strongly. Part of why writers are special is that they take those feelings -- good, bad, scary, ugly -- and translate them into a gift to bring others enjoyment. In other words, even if your writing is born out of a scaredy-pants place (especially if that's so), writing your story is an act of love and valor.

Would it be so terrible if friends, co-workers and loved ones DID read your writing?

Maybe. Maybe not. You know how personal your story is or isn't. However, I hear anecdote after anecdote of people who aren't in a book thinking that they are in the story. More often, even if they're in your books they don't see themselves at all.

It is actually quite rare for someone to recognize themselves because YOU see them in a way that's unfamiliar to them. This phenomenon is well-explained by the Johari Window, created in 1955 by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham.

That Blind Self quadrant, and even those in the bottom row, contain things about you that aren't readily apparent. And since writers are both observant and creative, we might watch someone's behavior and make guesses about their Hidden and Unknown selves. For many of us, that observing and extrapolating are our favorite parts of spending time in public. (Can I get an amen for "people watching??")

An interesting fact about the Johari window: The more self-aware you are, the bigger your windows on the left side of the pane will be. Conversely, the less self-aware you are, the larger the two windows on the right will grow.

When can it get dicey for others to read your book?

Pseudomyns are easy to crack and personal information is rarely private in today's world. The following situations could result in discomfort if when someone you know reads your book.

If you:

1. Are writing a memoir or tell-all book you didn't prepare them for.

Writing about real people can be a sensitive thing. Many non-fiction writers and memoirists get release forms from anyone they include in their book, worried that they will get sued for libel, slander, or defamation of character. Sometimes changing the name is not enough, and sometimes you have to wait until people die to tell your truth.

If you cannot get a signed release for some reason, change the person’s name. Change any of their uniquely identifying characteristics. This is okay, even in true stories like memoirs.

Example: I had an obstetrician treat my husband and I abonimably during the week I gave birth to my daughter, to the point that I was ready to change hospitals and medical groups at 41 weeks along. This person is absolutely in my memoir - they are an integral part of my story. But in the interest of self-protection, I've changed name, height, location and all the doctor's names, just to make sure I'm safe from a defamation suit. (It really was that bad.)

Great Resource: How To Use Real People in Your Writing Without Ending Up in Court

2. Invade someone's privacy

Sharing private information that is embarrassing or unpleasant is not necessarily an invasion of privacy. It was interesting to me when I read the resource above that "any conduct in public is not protected." With the plethora of cell phones with cameras, privacy is pretty hard to come by.

In the way-back, we could do all kinds of stupid things with no permanent record of it. Sadly, the world no longer works that way. I tell my daughter all the time: "Don't do anything in public that you don't want to share with your college admissions counselor."

You can still tell your truth, even about painful experiences like rape, abuse, illness or addiction, through a fictional character. That's the protection fiction provides. But you cannot do it in a way that identifies a living person, especially if it harms their personal or professional reputation.

What if my parents (or grandparents) read this?

My mother passed away in 2004, so I actually don't have to worry about this one. She would have loved any of my stories...because she's my mom, and she was awesome. But there are aunties. And cousins. And my bosses and clients.

Depending on your genre and what you write, there are reasons to be nervous about having people you know read your innermost thoughts your book. Perhaps they will read:

  • Swearing
  • Sex scenes
  • Deep twisty thoughts
  • Characters who could be family members
  • Something else entirely

Or, as S. Hunter Nesbit says:

"What’s the only thing worse than having a stranger read your diary? Having your mom read it!"

But the real reason most writers worry about these loved ones reading their work? What if they don't like it??

Y'all know I talk to a ton of writers and it is stunning how many of them show their work to no one. Seriously. No. One.

Matthew Turner did a post on Dan Blank's blog with some thoughts about why most writers would rather show their work to a stranger at a bus stop than with their mom. He listed The 5 Fs: Fear, Feedback, Future, Forgiveness, and Friendship.

It's a seriously great article - I recommend you go read it!

The Real Truth

Your family is probably dying to read your book(s). So many people want to write a book, but you are doing it. It's true that a few of them might be jealous, or irritated at how many family events you miss due to writing deadlines, but most families are beyond excited to have a bona fide author in their ranks.

Plus, we all need beta readers.

So, if your family asks to read your book, you're certainly allowed to say no, but how great would it be to say "yes?"

Do you worry about your family/boss/friends reading your book? How do you handle this? Do you have any suggestions for other authors who feel this way? Please share them with us down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Jenny

By day, Jenny provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Facebook at JennyHansenAuthor or at Writers In The Storm.


Source Links

  • Everything linked in the above post. Plus...
  • https://www.janefriedman.com/write-about-family-memoir/
  • https://wegrowmedia.com/fear-and-writing-do-you-hide-your-writing/
  • https://annerallen.com/2013/11/are-your-family-and-friends-sabotaging/
  • https://www.reddit.com/r/writing/comments/e22nl1/lets_talk_about_wellmeaning_parents_asking_to/
  • https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-nonfiction/how-to-write-about-family-in-a-memoir
  • https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/18-writing-tips-tell-stories/

Top Photo from Deposit photos. Caption: "How most of us feel when our moms read our book..."

20 responses to “What If My [Insert Name] Reads This?”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    I wish my family would read my books. My mom's the only one, and she reads them because her little girl wrote them. She did ask me once if I wrote the sex scenes from experience or had to research them. My biggest obstacle when I started out was worrying that people would think my characters were me.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I'm so happy for you that you still have your mom! I think it is a weird concept for most people that characters show up in our heads and bug us until we write them. I can't remember who said "Most characters are a combo of 'some of us' and 'none of us.'" I like that.

    • V.M.Sang says:

      I agree, Terry. I have a couple of friends who are interested enough to actually buy and read my books, but one lives in Ireland and I've not seen her in the flesh for many years. The other I do see. As to family, they're just not interested enough to even want to talk about it. Same goes for most of my other friends.
      One said her granddaughter wants to be a children's writer. I said I'd be willing to talk to her about writing and publishing in general (not specifically children's writing as I've no experience there) but she ignored me.

  2. My characters are all composites so if anyone ever saw themselves in them that's probably more on them than me. I also don't have relatives who are interested in women's fiction set in an alternative world. Maybe no one is. It's possible, but it's also what my brain produces so I roll with it. Most of my relatives are gone now, my mother since 2003. Regardless, I've reached a point where I don't care too much. That isn't anger, but me at a point where the stories mean the world to me. If I don't write the truth of what's inside then what am I writing? Even if my audience is small, what I most want is that those so seldom represented find engaging characters they can identify with.

  3. My youngest daughter offered to read my debut novel, and the chapters in the second book of the trilogy, but then never did read the current ones or provide feedback. I finally asked if she was reading, and she told me something: she said I had given her birth DAY to a character who died. I honestly hadn't noticed - and told her how I reached that particular day.

    She said that's why she's not reading, and that it isn't a problem, but she sees things in my writing, knows where they come from, that no one else not reared in our family would notice. In other words, it's not quite fiction to her - and I told her she doesn't have to read OR give me feedback.

    I never should have asked her!

    My beta reader doesn't know me from Adam, as the saying goes, and it is all fiction to her, and that works much better. To her it's not personal.

    Maybe it's better that way, because most of my readers will have no connection with me except through the fiction. I can live with that.

    It is HARD to completely hide your models.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      That's a fascinating story, Alicia! I wouldn't have thought about including a family member's birthday either! And really, you can't hide your story models, so I stopped bothering to try. But I do love that your daughter was honest with you.

      • I asked if she wanted it changed, she said no. I said it would give her a good story, and she laughed. I'm trying to decide whether to leave it at that - I need to make a typo correction on that file, anyway - or I can leave it as an Easter egg.

      • One other thought about using real-life models, one which I intend to use: have the model appear briefly in the book. In a neutral or positive way. So the character CAN'T be the model - they are separate people in the book.

  4. Barb DeLong says:

    Interesting post! I wish my husband would read my stories or other fiction books and appreciate the story-telling but he's one of those people who can't picture scenes in his head. He doesn't experience the richness of the settings unless he views them on the screen. I write paranormal/fantasy so my written words are lost on him. He's very intelligent, but there are folks like this that can't seem to recreate the scene in their mind. I rely on beta readers and framily. So far, no one has recognized themselves in my witches and ogres, thank goodness.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      My husband is also more of a visual guy. When he reads something, he is very plodding about it (he literally reads EVERY word, which makes him a fantastic proofreader) but it makes fiction kind of a slow slog for him and he likes the screen better.

      I love a good ogre, Barb. Keep on writing them, and your witches and your magic. 🙂

  5. dholcomb1 says:

    My parents didn't care when I told them I had been published. And by didn't care, they weren't interested. Indifferent. Apathetic.

    My mother-in-law made a comment about something in a story, I explained how she was wrong--what she had said was impossible--and she made a condescending remark.

    And some friends keep trying to attribute the hero in one story as my husband. No, not at all.

    People will think and say what they want, you just have to decide how you respond.

    Denise

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Why do people offer commentary about things they know nothing about??! I am sorry this has been your experience, Denise. And I'm glad you have a whole community of writers who will touch base with you and tell you that you're not alone (and that some people just suck). 🙂

  6. pp48 says:

    It's the sex scenes that are the thing for me. My mom is sadly gone, but she was a voracious reader and passed that down to me. I would be more than a little uncomfortable at her reading some of my work. Friends are definitely easier...
    very interesting article, btw, esp the johari window!

  7. jamesr403 says:

    Oh, man, what an appropriate essay! This comes up for me frequently. The only thing I have learned is that you have to remember -- it's a story. Your readers need to know it's a story. What if readers are offended? When I was writing my first mystery I remember asking my wife, "Can I say 'Butt?;" (Ok, I was shy.) Thinking of my parents and their friends. I did it and I guess it worked out because I never got any complaints. It's only a story!
    Of course, if I wrote "50 Shades of Gray Goes to the Beach Party" I might use a pseudonym.
    Thanks, Jenny.

  8. Piper Bayard says:

    What a great post! I've definitely shelved projects because of the What If factor. Still waiting for a few people to die before I start others. Thank you.

  9. immaculate says:

    .. I would be TERRIFIED if any member of my family read my book ... i dont know, as much as i would love to let them know that i am a writer i honestly cant let them read any of my stuff ..maybe it's a writer thing or something

  10. I wrote a sex scene once, by hand in a spiral notebook. I thought it was a really good scene. Then I thought ... if this gets published, my dad will read it. Because my dad loved to read. So... I scribbled out every single word and tore the pages in little tiny pieces. And that's when I decided the sweet romance genre was going to be my thing.

    He died in 2003, but I believe he's in heaven and see every word I write, and so I continue writing in that genre. And that's okay. I enjoy doing it. As for who else might read my books? Surprisingly, I have quite a few family members - my mom, a few aunts, an uncle, siblings, in-laws, cousins, and even some friends who have read them. Not everyone, of course. I don't have that many books that aren't sweet romance, and that's not something all people like.

    Honestly? My biggest slams have come from other authors.

    Sometimes, I'll put people I know/know of in my stories. Usually, they're based on someone I don't like, but not always. Heck, a physical therapist I had last year wants me to put him in a book - as a kids' superhero with an orange cape. And I probably will someday.

    Interesting windows. I think my lower left is more like a sliding glass door. 😀 😀 😀

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