At a recent writing workshop I attended, I read a short, painful piece about the illness and death of a high school friend to my fellow writers. For some time since writing the piece, I have been struggling with the wisdom of attempting to publish it because some of my friend’s family members are still alive, and much of what I wrote might be quite distressing to them if they saw it in print. The group told me to stop worrying about this, specifically because they felt that the essay honors her memory, and that the main goal of personal essay and memoir is honest self- expression. Still, I wanted to know how to draw the dividing line between genuine artistic expression and tell-all confessions that could violate people’s privacy, hurt their feelings, or even humiliate them. At one point, one of the much younger members of our group, a self-assured and accomplished writer, said to me: “Look, you have to be true to your art. Many well-known memoirists deal all the time with family and friends who don’t want details of their lives to be published, but honesty demands this of an artist.”
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about her advice. Certainly, artistic integrity matters, and at times we need to speak the truth even if it hurts; truth is redemptive as it allows for justice to be done. Nevertheless, I find the emphatic focus on expressive self-revelation to be rather problematic. It reminds me of an important story found in the Jewish tradition. Some wise men were once debating how they could fulfill the Jewish religious obligation to dance joyously before a bride and her groom at their wedding feast if the bride was ugly. Should they chant the traditional song praising her as a beautiful bride? Some of the wise men said no, for they would be lying. Should they simply dance before her yet withhold those words about her beauty which she and her guests would expect? Other wise men said no, for they would humiliate her and make her suffer. After much debate, the wise men decided that on her wedding day we call every woman a beautiful bride, with no exceptions. In a conflict between protecting someone’s dignity and complete honesty, dignity wins out.
My writer friends were not telling me to use my writing to purposely hurt others or that it is not all right to tell “white lies” to spare someone’s feelings. Still, this Jewish story makes the point that even honesty sometimes has its limits. Further, however noble it may be most of the time, my fidelity to a fixed set of principles must at times take a back seat to my compassionate treatment of other human beings, a matter about which I assume that God would be no less demanding.
I love to write, and I use my personal narrative to examine my life struggles as well as to teach by example. Spiritual leaders and writers have been telling stories about themselves and the people in their lives for thousands of years for exactly these purposes. Nonetheless, I cannot ignore the fact that my religion’s dictates about modesty, privacy, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself will at times have to trump my desire to fully express myself, even if it means that a great story doesn’t see the light of day. I still have no idea what to do with the story of my high school friend who died. Maybe publishing the painful truth about those terrible days would honor her memory. In the end, perhaps the best way to do that is to allow my own memories of her to remain in the private pages that only I will read. That way her loved ones can hold on to the truths they have woven around her life and death that bring them peace.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany.
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