5 Reasons to Write Your “Taboo” Stories

A woman with closely-cropped hair uses her hands to hide her face from the viewer.
Photo by Anna Shvets

Today’s post is by writer and editor Katie Bannon (@katiedbannon).

Writing memoir is always a vulnerable experience, but some stories are especially difficult to tell. Topics like mental illness, sex, and violence are often branded “taboo” and can be among the most challenging material to write about. In many cultures, we’re taught to avoid these topics, and that sharing them is TMI (“too much information”).

But at their best, these narratives speak to our darkest truths and teach us what it means to be human. Despite the challenges of writing about stigmatized topics, sharing our vulnerable, deeply personal stories can be incredibly healing. And not only that, but these stories can make for the most compelling writing for readers.

1. Writing about taboos can give our stories heat and urgency.

Emotionally charged, vulnerable experiences lend themselves to high-stakes storytelling. In memoir, we are challenged to answer the question of: “So what?” Why would a disinterested reader, who doesn’t know us from Adam, care about our lives? Taboo topics tend to be rife with conflict and dramatic tension, among our best tools for engaging readers in our stories. What’s more, when we lean into stigmatized topics, we invite readers to wrestle with the same complexities we’re examining in ourselves—this gives our storytelling urgency and nuance, which keeps the reader turning the pages.

2. Vulnerability can make us more trustworthy narrators.

In memoir, readers want us to tell the truest, most candid versions of our stories. If they sense that we are holding back, being evasive, or trying to present our lives and ourselves as rosier than the reality, we risk losing their trust. Not shying away from the thorny, messy truths of our lives sends a powerful message to the reader. It shows them we are willing to lay bare our most difficult truths—even when, and perhaps especially when, these are unflattering. Readers respect writers who come across as honest and authentic—facing challenging material head-on, without sugar-coating it, shows our ability to grapple with complicated memories. This kind of honesty can help build our credibility as narrators, while establishing a more intimate connection between the writer and reader.

3. Writing the “unspeakable” allows us to reclaim power.

Often, what is categorized as “taboo” or “unspeakable” has a lot to do with power dynamics. For instance, topics like sexual assault and racism have long been stigmatized; this is a way of silencing voices of dissent, those that might disrupt the established social order. Writing about taboos helps jumpstart conversations about some of the most important topics of our day. We can break through the forces that attempt to silence us, instead using our stories as a way of speaking truth to power. This is especially the case in marginalized communities, where voices have been systematically shut out—writing the hard truths can be empowering for the writer, and illuminating for readers.

4. We can reduce shame in ourselves and others.

Writing about vulnerable topics has the potential to promote significant healing. When we give voice to the rawest parts of ourselves, we take control of our stories rather than them taking control of us. Writing in this way forces us to investigate the complicated web of our thoughts and feelings, increasing self-acceptance and reducing shame. Additionally, when we are vulnerable on the page, we invite readers to do the same—to face their own difficult truths and find more gentleness and healing. In addressing stigmatized topics, we have the opportunity to cast light on stories that are too often shrouded in shame and secrecy. When a reader sees themselves in our stories, it sends them the message that they are not alone. In a time when isolation and division is on the rise, there is enormous power in helping our readers feel heard, seen, and understood.

5. Taboos speak to our darkest truths as humans.

Vulnerability is integral to the human experience. All of us have experienced the shame, guilt, grief, and pain that comes from having difficult experiences. When we write deeply personal stories, we can tap into universal truths that will resonate with any reader. The pain of feeling all alone. Of being otherized. Of not feeling good enough. No matter what the specifics of our “taboo” stories are, we have the capacity to elevate our experiences beyond the personal, digging into the messiest and most essential parts of what it means to be human. This is what distinguishes good memoir writing from great memoir writing—when we can use our own vulnerability as a stepping stone for mining the intricacies of the human experience.

Memoir is all about complexity and vulnerability—leaning into messy truths, rather than the tidy, “prettied up” versions of our lives. While the journey of writing taboo stories has its challenges, the rewards are vast—both for the writer, and for the reader.

Share on:
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments