Believe me, I’ve checked, and when it comes to revenge writing, the universal advice is, Don’t Do It. Ever. Do Not Do It. Don’t even think about doing it. And if you do somehow manage to fantasize about doing it, even in private when no one is looking, well, you should just stop. Right now. Writing out of some twisted and infantile need for revenge, the conventional wisdom goes, is bad form, bad news, and just plain bad juju.
“If someone is writing to take revenge, or embarrass or punish someone, it’s not going to be a very good book. It’s immoral, and it’s bad writing,” says Heather Sellers, author of, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know.
“It is a natural fantasy to imagine getting even with someone by exposing them in your memoirs, and revenge can fuel great writing, but for the most part complaints suffer like bad novels from one dimensional characterizations and an overly simplified Manichean vision of the world,” says Tristine Rainer, in her classic how-to guide, Your Life As Story.
I didn’t read it myself, but I have it on good authority that Donald Rumsfeld’s 815-pager, Known and Unknown, falls prey to the exact problem Rainer explains.
There are, of course exceptions. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough when reading Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World. She balances confusion and youth with focus and revenge and the result is a memoir I devoured. Most of us are no Joyce Maynard though; we were not on the cover of the NYT magazine as a teen, and didn’t spend strange months in rural New Hampshire with iconic literary hermits.
Marion Roach, the author of a readable and newly published guide on memoir writing, The Memoir Project, has a list on her blog of eleven no-no’s to observe when writing about one’s own life. They include tips like don’t make your writing only about you, don’t give readers a boring list of events, and don’t complain. By my calculations, pushing back against an urge for revenge factors in on numbers three, four, five, six and eleven on her no-no’s. That’s almost half.
And yet, and yet. I feel myself slyly protest this “No Writing For Revenge” rule, hypnotized as I am by the sheen on a cold antipasto platter.
Salt, vinegar, and red meat. Yummy.
Ah, Revenge, that tasty appetizer before the power steak, served bloody. Because however fleeting, exacting revenge with words will make the writer feel strong and back in control. For about ten minutes. Ten glorious, fang glinting, back-arching, howl into the emptiness minutes.
But then what?
The real problem of acting on this dark urge in print is not only that it’s wrong. The real problem is that by doing it, you’re using someone else’s story to tell your own. Writing for revenge gives away your literary power, instead of claiming it.
Joan Didion says that writing itself is, “an aggressive, even a hostile act.” True. Writing dares to say I’m here, I matter, Listen to me. But aggression and hostility are emotions that move a story forward; while bad-mouthing –i.e. revenge- is just the soggy leftovers.
This topic has some resonance for me, after winning Creative Nonfiction’s Anger & Revenge personal essay contest. I was – am- thrilled the editors selected my work. And, a bit daunted, too. My submission detailed what happened to my wedding dress after my twenty-year marriage ended. How to reconcile my own two personal essay writing rules – 1) tell the truth, and 2) don’t give your power away to anyone else – with being recognized for something many writers I respect say is forbidden?
I spent not a small amount of time wondering about this internal conflict. The conclusion I reached was this: I wrote the piece not for revenge, but to offer my mother an explanation of what happened to the wedding dress she and I hand sewed together, more than two decades ago. And that is just as good an impetus to write as any other. Right?