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Ask a Writer: Mailbag #1

I invite writers to ask me anything. In this mailbag: truth, teens, first person perspective and dashes.

I don’t want to alienate people

Q: I am currently working on a semi-autobiographical project about my experience being a ‘coconut’ while growing up in downtown Toronto but still being too Indian for my well established Italian in-laws.

What I am struggling with is the guilt from writing about my in-laws in a negative way because they are nice people and they do care about me but their views have at times created great strains in our relationship.  

If my writing were to ever get published, it would probably put a strain on our relationship. I think because I am already not as confident as I would like to be about writing, I am letting this hold me back from writing in general. 

I haven’t written anything since February and feel stuck that I can’t get past this and just write. Any kind words or advice welcome.

— Concerned Coconut

A: Dear Concerned Coconut;

Kind words first: you’re on the right track. You have a story you want to tell and you’re aware that sharing this story raw and unfiltered could cause harm. As a writer, you have options on how to balance the truths you’ve experienced with the relationships you wish to keep.

Truth comes later. First, you have to get back to writing the damn thing.

1. Fear and first drafts

Fear of hurting others is a lot of pressure on a writer’s shoulders. If you know before sitting down to write that your words may (or will) cause a rift between you and people you care about, it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to write freely. You need to remove this pressure. Only then you can move forward to shape and share your project with the world in a way that you will be comfortable with.

To help get you unstuck, let’s borrow some wisdom from Writing Alone and With Others, AWA founder Pat Schneider’s book on finding and liberating your true voice. In her book, Pat recalls a conversation with author Elizabeth O’Connor about her work. She said there were things she felt she could not write about out of fear of hurting her mother or offending her husband. O’Connor replied, “It sounds to me like there are a lot of absentee landlords of your soul.” Pat continues:

This is crucial: If you are to write, you must move out of “rented rooms” in your mind, rooms that you have allowed to belong to someone else. It will (usually) not happen overnight. But you can begin at any time to be free. You must own yourself, have no “absentee landlords.

Pat’s advice is to claim the first draft of your work as your own. Use real names and places. Write down the events that caused you strain as accurately as you can. “Make no judgements, no omissions, no correction. Remember, this is just a first draft. You need the freedom in order to catch the passion and the music and the mystery of the writing. You will fix it later.”

Give yourself permission to finish this story, knowing that it is only for yourself and you will share it with no one. If that’s enough, great. If it isn’t, make a promise with yourself that when the draft is finished you will burn it or bury it in a time capsule to be opened only after your death. It may help to know that no one will ever accidentally come across hurtful details without the context that this was a trial run meant only for you.

The notion of destroying your work may freak you out, but many writers tend to overestimate the value of their first draft. I’ve been guilty of this myself. Your first draft (or “shitty first draft” as Anne Lamott cheerfully calls it), is not a fully formed work that gets a coat of polish to be hurried out the door. It’s much more of a sketch that will help you determine what you really want to say, and how you want to say it.

2. Balancing the truth

I ran a workshop for seniors in Scarborough a few years ago. The question of ethics in memoir writing came up frequently. In response, I proposed a balance test: weighing the potential benefit of using real people’s names versus the potential harm this use might cause.

If the people you write about are public figures, you likely have a bit of leeway. Writing about public figures adds to an existing profile. If the people you write about are private, and sharing their stories could affect your relationships or their standing in the community, you’d need a pretty heavy dose of potential benefit to justify showing them as is to the world. This assumes, of course, that your writing does not compromise anyone’s safety and you are not writing to shame or embarrass.

The balance test is a good one to keep in mind. You have the added bonus of working on a semi-autobiographical project. The biographical come from your life. The semi gives you freedom to disguise and shape your story. Fictional complications, pseudonyms, changing the genders of characters, moving your family to a distant outer space colony in the 24th century . . . these are all options available to you as a writer. And none will take away from the truths you are trying to tell about how your characters feel and grow as a result of their experiences. The emotions are the memorable bits that will stay with readers. The clothing, speech pattern, time and place . . . these are all yours to fiddle with as you see fit.  

A final note about real life: we think of reality as being one thing but every person seems to have their own version. Unless a character looks, dresses, smells, eats and talks exactly like us, we’ll likely greet them in print as strangers: even if we are the source material. Give yourself clearance to blur the exterior details of your family as long as you don’t compromise on the internal truths you aim to share.  

3. A note on publishing

Your writing may get published. Or it may not. Publishing is an opaque, squirrely business. The more you let it sit at the bow of your mind as you write, the further it will drag you down. Trying to push through it will only lead to drowning. Anne Lamott writes eloquently about this in her great book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life and I’ll give her the last word:

I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.

I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

There’s no “I” in “me”

Q: How can I write something about myself without using the pronoun “I” in almost every sentence?


It’s common to find a lot of “I”s in your work if you’re writing about yourself, because we use a lot of “I”s when we talk about ourselves: I drove to the store and I got a great parking spot. I saw chips were on sale. I picked up the salt & vinegar bag—you know how much I love them . . .

It doesn’t work quite so well when we write about ourselves. The “I”s get in the way. First person writing should offer readers the immediacy to experience what you or your character feels and thinks. Every time an “I” shows up, it reminds us we’re reading someone else’s story and we’re getting an experience second hand.

In One Quick Tip for Effective First Person Writing, Ruthanne Reid advises to avoid words that filter the character’s experience. Here’s some examples:

“I heard the music start up, tinny and spooky and weird,” vs. “The music started up, tinny and spooky and weird.”

“I saw the dog, brown and shaggy.” You’re watching the character see the dog. “The dog was brown and shaggy.” Now (the reader is) seeing what the character sees, and there is no space between (the reader) and the character.

So look through your work, seek out those filter words (every I thought, I felt, I saw, I touched) and take them out. You’ll find they aren’t really necessary and will allow the reader to become more immersed in your story.

Like all rules, this one doesn’t work 100% of the time. You will likely want an “I” here or there for flow or emphasis. Nor is it important to remove all the “I”s from your rough work. You can always take them out later. The more comfortable you get editing out “I”s and filter words from your writing, you’ll likely start to see them disappearing from your first drafts as well.

Writing groups for kids

Q: Hi David,
My talented daughter (14) has been writing in secret for a long time. I had the opportunity to read some of her writing and I think she has a lot of potential. She told she wants to take a creative writing course/workshop. Do you accept teenagers in your workshops?

A: I only accept writers 17 years and up in my workshops. The age cutoff has nothing to do with talent or experience, but rather the environment I try to create for workshop members.

The goal of my workshops is not to teach people how to write, but to provide an environment without pressure or criticism so they can write whatever they want. This often leads to pieces with adult themes about work, family, relationships, mental and physical health. (On the good nights, there’s a lot of cursing too.) Having a younger writer in the group often causes adult writers to hold back: to avoid writing about what matters to them for fear of being offensive or confusing. As I don’t want anyone in the group to self-censor, I now focus on adults-only sessions. (I would add that I generally chat with the 17 & 18 year olds who are interested in the group to gauge their maturity level first).

While my groups aren’t a good fit for your daughter, there are options around town. These are not endorsements—I don’t have direct experiences with these groups—but they are programs I am aware of and hope they help you find a good fit. I am keeping them on a permanent page here and will update as other programs are brought to my attention.

Dash-driven depression

Q: I love this Ask A Writer thing; a very noble and generous endeavour! To help you get started I’m ready with my most asked question, re hyphen vs dash vs whaaa?/where/why is it?
– Please Stay Tuned

A: Dashes and hyphens are often used in an incoherent fashion. Partly because they’re confusing and partly because they can be finicky to find on keyboards. Ignoring grammar and focusing on usage, here’s your go-to dash guide.


The hyphen is the shortest and most commonly used symbol in the dash universe. Hyphens are used to group words together to show they have a combined meaning (like “pet-friendly” apartment and “well-known” bar). Hyphens are almost always the default key between “0” and the equals sign (=) on keyboards.

En Dash

Longer than a hyphen and roughly the width of an “n,” en dashes are used to bridge periods of time when you might otherwise use “to”. For instance: The years 2001–2003, or January–June. Most people use hyphens instead of en dashes and the world survives. The en dash has no defined space on a keyboard but can be found through an insert symbol option.

Em Dash

The longest and most misunderstood child of the dash family, the em dash is roughly the width of an “m” (get the naming convention now?) Em dashes are used to indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought:
You are the friend—the only friend—who offered to help me.

To insert an em dash, hit option + two times, or option +shift + -. Noice! (I have read that inserting two hyphens with no spaces will automatically convert to an em dash on Macs and PCs but this has never worked for me.)

Got this far? Want to ask me something? While I won’t be able to read or edit your work, I will respond to your questions via email or a future mailbag as honestly as I can.

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