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Why You Shouldn't Worry about Friends and Family Reading Your Book

A client emailed me the other day to send the latest work he's done on his book, which I'm helping him with. In his email he added that he was probably going to lose some friends over this book, once he's done with it and it's out in the world. He went on to say, oh well, true friends won't leave you for telling the truth.

This person's book deals with some pretty heavy subjects, namely racism in the American South in the era of Jim Crow. So, you can imagine how his book might anger some folks for telling the truth, as he put it.

As a professor, I can't even count the times I've had students who had amazing stories to tell, but they were too afraid to tell them for fear of retribution from friends and family members.

For anyone who finds him or herself in a similar situation, here's the unfortunate truth: most people don't read. They don't read books. They don't read magazine or newspaper articles. They don't read Wikipedia entries. At most, the majority might glance at an amusing Tweet or Facebook post (if it's not too long), or memes. Most people you know won't read even when they know you well, and they know you're the author of the book, and even when you tell them that they make an appearance in your book.

On top of that, most of the people who do actually read, don't really understand how writing works, or how memory works, or even the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, or what the difference is between, say, memoir and a researched history.

In other words, chances are, if you write your personal essay about the trauma you experienced at the hands of your uncle when you were eight years old, and you're worried about what your mom might say if you publish that piece, she probably won't read it. Neither will your uncle.

And if they do actually read it? Yay, you have readers. And if they're upset? You have done your job of eliciting an emotional response from your readers. Will your mother disown you for telling your story? Depending on your relationship with your mother, it's unlikely. Will you alienate your uncle? Probably. And why should you care? You're the victim in my hypothetical (although, try not to forget that readers aren't usually too interested in stories that are pure victim tales; they typically want a protagonist who has some agency, or at least shares some culpability in their predicament, even if it's nonfiction).

I've published books that could have, or should have, alienated me from a lot of people. My good friends and my family have never abandoned me, and they understand that I write my story so that I can give something to others. I have lost some friends. But those friends weren't worth keeping around in the first place, and you can deduce that from the stories themselves.

This is a long way of saying, Don't be afraid to tell your story, to be yourself, to do you. If your story is good enough, people will want to read it, maybe even the people who don't come out looking so good in your story. And, chances are, if they look like that, you don't need them in your life anyway. The people who matter won't leave you, and they'll understand that what you do matters, even if it only matters to the small percentage of us who actually read.

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