old inscription on a typewriter

I became a writer inside the clean pages of a journal. Over and over, I wrote whatever I needed to say. Each word freed me – whether it was a tangled emotion, intractable problem, or intense joy. I was uncensored. Writing became the path to understanding my life, and so I followed wherever it led. There was little risk because nothing I wrote was read by anyone. It was simple.

Is self-censorship sometimes the right thing to do?

Publishing and writing for an audience, on the other hand, brought me into complex questions. What if speaking my truth caused someone else to feel exposed or unsafe? I’ve grappled with this dilemma in many essays, some I’ve published and some I’ve decided not to. Each decision required my weighing the costs of self censorship against the cost of honoring the needs of others.

It’s a riddle more than a decision.

Personally, I believe writers need to tell their stories. I’ve published my words when others told me not to but when I thought it was the right thing to do. In some of these difficult situations, it worked out. More than this, it brought healing to myself and the other person. But there have been other times too, times I’ve stopped myself and listened to the internal voice that said, Don’t publish that. I don’t have any easy relationship with this voice. It’s a familiar voice. As a lesbian and as the daughter of a spy, I hear it often, both internally and externally. The voices that silence are everywhere. But writers are trouble makers and truth tellers in the best sense of the word. In the stirring, thought provoking, healing, bringing-up-what-needs-to-be said, kind of way.

What is a writer’s responsibility?

So how can artists and writers, especially those who write non-fiction, be responsible to our own creativity and selves and at the same time be responsible and compassionate about those included in our work? What is a writer’s responsibility? Honestly, it feels like an unsolvable riddle to me. Sometimes silence is the right thing. Other times not. Maybe the best we can do is to stay conscious, to ask questions, and to hold onto a sense of compassion for ourselves and those included in our work. The trick is to lean into this compassion until it lights the way forward. Maybe solving the riddle isn’t really the point.

Maybe compassion is.


  1. Your responsibility is also to do no harm to the innocent people you write about. Sometimes there are consequences beyond your control, but sometimes you can take steps to protect them.

    • Leslie Absher

      You make a good point. If there’s a question about someone else’s physical safety, I think it’s the writer’s responsibility not to publish. I never want to knowingly put anyone in physical danger via my writing. But other than very clear, black and white situations around safety, the whole issue gets murky fast. For one thing, perceived secrets carry so much fear, that people can be convinced that revealing them will lead to harm, even if this isn’t the case. This happened to me with the LA Times essay. I was told by a family member (not my dad) that publishing the essay would lead to their physical harm even though I was sure it wouldn’t. I don’t blame this person. Their sense of fear was real for them and grounded in experience, and I respect this, but at the same time I didn’t think it applied to my essay. Writers can get shut down pretty quickly by their own and others’ fear, and when this happens, important stories are prevented from being shared. Murky, I tell you. Very murky.

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