Map out your ethical comfort zone

Thursday, August 20, 2015
Dr Sian Prior interviewed by Michelle McLaren

A portrait of Dr Sian Prior
Dr Sian Prior

Journalist, broadcaster and critic, Dr Sian Prior’s first book, ‘Shy: A Memoir’, was published in 2014 to critical acclaim. Dr Prior shared some of her thoughts on writing about her life - and her shyness, with WV Intern, Michelle McLaren.

UPDATE: Dr. Prior will be running a Memoir in a Year: Memory vs Imagination course in October 2017.

Writing about the details of your life is a daunting task for anyone. Does being shy make this even more difficult?

I don’t want to downplay how difficult it is for ANYONE to write a self-revealing memoir, but one of the key characteristics of shyness (or social anxiety) is "fear of negative evaluation". So there is perhaps an added stress when a shy memoirist imagines their readers reading about all their strange and shameful little fears. But for most memoirs to work there has to be something at stake for the author, and for me, dealing with that fear of self-revelation and potential rejection (by imagined readers) meant there was definitely something at stake for the author in writing ‘Shy’.

‘Shy’ isn’t a straightforward memoir. It includes glossaries of psychological terms, interviews, lists and more. What drew you towards such an experimental format?

In part I was just playing around, having fun with language, and in part I was trying to mimic the way my brain works and perhaps how other shy people’s brains work. I often use lists as a way of managing my anxiety. They help me deal with the incessant "what ifs". And I do interviews for a living, as journalist. So that was familiar territory for me. And I grew up surrounded by the language of psychology because my mother is a psychologist. I hope that those quirky ingredients give readers particular insights into the person they’re reading about.

Writing can be an intimidating profession. A shy writer might find it difficult to attend writers’ festivals or share their work with critique groups. Do you have any advice for shy writers struggling to engage with the writing community?

Remember that audiences respect and relate to vulnerability. I’ve had people say they wanted to hug me when they heard me talking about my shyness. Effective personal writing stimulates empathy in the reader, so you can feel safe that your readers and listeners at writers’ festivals are "on your side". And remember that you know more than anyone else about your topic. You are in control. You only have to tell the audience what you feel comfortable telling them. Keep some of your secrets. They’re important.

When you’re writing about people from your life, how do you balance worrying about how they’ll react to recognising themselves in print with the need to tell your story?

There is no single or simple answer to that question. Everyone has to map out their own ethical comfort zone. Keep your readers in mind. They will know if you’ve deliberately "done the dirty" on someone, or over-praised someone, and judge you for it. I made sure I got approval from my immediate family before sending my memoir manuscript out to publishers. I changed the names of most of my friends and former partners to protect their privacy, and consulted with many of them. I tried to be as honest as possible, and as self-critical as necessary. That’s all I could do.

How should someone writing about their life decide which episodes to include and which to exclude?

You need to be clear about the difference between the situation(s) you’re describing and the story you want to tell. Situations are not necessarily interesting. Good stories are. Unless each episode relates in some way, directly or indirectly, to the insights you want to convey to your reader, your memoir can fill up with unimportant and potentially uninteresting material. We will cover this topic in some detail during the Refine Your Memoir workshops.

About Dr Sian Prior

Dr Sian Prior has been a writer and broadcaster for 25 years. She has written for newspapers, magazines and literary journals and won awards for her short stories. Sian has taught non-fiction at RMIT and for writers centres around Australia. Her book ‘Shy: A memoir’ was published in 2014.

About Michelle McLaren

Michelle McLaren is a Program Intern at Writers Victoria. She works as a freelance copywriter and writes about all things literary at Book to the Future.