Periodically in my writing group, someone will ask what is permissible to publish. They’ll have an essay prepared about some event in their life – an abortion, a divorce, a childhood memory, a failing – and worry that it will offend a friend or family member. The general rule of thumb is that it’s a courtesy to either change people’s names/identifying marks or ask them to read the essay and give their approval. However, sometimes doing so doesn’t seem realistic. What do you do when you’re allowed to share nothing, when your friends and family want nothing written about them, and when they think your essays are gossip at best and vindictive tell-alls at worst? Are you simply supposed to give up on wanting to publish essays and stick to fiction (which is not as safe as you might think)? What should you do?
I’m especially interested in this issue because I have been emphatically forbidden by friends, family, and employers to publish anything about them, which creates a great deal of stress for me. The best way for me to understand people, events, and my own feelings is to write about them. Yes, you could argue that these essays then should be reserved for my own usage, but that’s not the way writing works. Writing is about creating a dialogue with others, it’s about sharing your thoughts and feelings, and it’s about forging connections. The purpose of writing is to share it, whether that be in the New York Times, a literary magazine, a personal blog, or an email. Spending hours, days, or even years crafting something and then abandoning it to languish in your writing folder feels like you’re trapping your emotions. It feels like you have something to be ashamed of. It is no longer cathartic but stifling.
There is also a great deal of truth to one of my favorite Tumblr posts: “Some things are so personal that you either have to share them with 17,000 strangers online or no one at all” (paraphrasing). This is because publishing isn’t always about shaming someone or getting someone to back you or getting someone to vilify someone else – it’s just about getting something off your chest. You don’t care if no one ever reads it or comments on it; it’s enough that you said it and hit “post.” After all, this is why we communicate our problems with others. This is why we have coffee and bitch about our jobs or send friends late-night texts about how stressed we are or email our therapists when we’re getting dysregulated. We have to take some of the negativity out of ourselves and disperse it. But what do you do when that negativity is so very personal? What do you do when it’s about something you’re personally ashamed of? What do you do when it’s something you think can harm you? Do you bottle it up, let it fester, or do you release it into the Internet where it can (hopefully) do no harm?
However, this still doesn’t answer the question of, “Why did you have to publish that? Why did you have to sign your name to it? If writing is just about a cathartic expression of your thoughts and feelings, then why can’t you publish it anonymously?”
These are reasonable if somewhat manipulative questions, and there are basically two answers. One is because writing is your job and the other is because you have the right to dispense with your life in whatever way you see fit.
The first, because writing is your job, is a fairly easy concept. You are making your livelihood by writing, you need a subject, and your past and personal life are readily mineable subjects. This doesn’t mean they are necessarily easy to write and require no research; it simply means that they are readily available to you. It’s also not unreasonable to expect to be compensated for what you write. You’ve spent hours on an essay, digging up corroborating facts and photographs, utilizing psychoanalytical texts to understand the past – don’t you deserve to be compensated for that? Don’t you deserve to have your hard work and talent compensated?
The second answer, because you have the right to dispense with your life, is somewhat more complicated. While I do believe in free speech, I’m also aware that free speech does not mean, “I can do whatever I want without consequences.” Everything you say and do has consequences, mostly societal, and a responsible human being will be aware of these consequences and carefully weigh them. Losing your job, getting disciplinary action, or alienating people is not often the consequence of writing an essay, but it can be, and we need to be aware of that as authors. Is it really important to tell everyone how horrible life with your bipolar father was? Is it really important to name and describe your high school rapist? And are you willing to accept the consequences of doing so?
That being said, writing essays is mostly harmless. There are billions of articles being published every day by billions of people; it seems unlikely that an article I write will make it to a friend or family member’s employer and be both identifiable and damning enough to warrant any action. It seems unlikely that my opinions on gun control, religious freedom, or artistic integrity will be enough to influence my employers. It seems unreasonable to say that I can never express an opinion online under my own personal brand because it might reflect badly on someone else; these are my opinions, everyone has opinions, and no one can prevent you from having and expressing opinions. Yes, doxxing and calling out are valid concerns, but don’t those eventualities just mean that you need to make sure that you mean what you say? Because I’ve made my work public, I’ve become much more aware of what I’m saying and am trying to be more open about apologizing for inadvertently causing any offense. I won’t go around begging for forgiveness and pulling every post offline, but I do understand that I have a responsibility to readers to do as little harm as possible. That’s led to greater introspection and better posts. I still say what I want, but I have a wider view of how I could hurt others. That’s maturity, not censorship.
Furthermore, I believe that the subjects of our essays need to be just as responsible as we writers are. They cannot gag us and prevent us from speaking about something. They don’t have the right and doing so is more a reflection of their guilt than ours.
My mother has long had a problem with this concept. Several years ago, I sent out a weekly email to update several friends, co-workers, and professors on my time in Ukraine as a Peace Corps Volunteer. In hindsight, I understand that I was often overly whiny and negative, but it was important to me to be honest with my audience. I wanted them to know what I was experiencing, and I needed their support and encouragement. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to survive what was largely a hellish 26 months.
However, sometimes I complained about my mother, specifically when she said she didn’t want me to come home for Christmas one year. I had the money and the will and really needed some America time to regroup, but she didn’t want me to come home. It was hurtful and resulted in several long, recriminating emails sent back and forth. I never shared the emails, but I did share the event and how it made me feel. My mother was on the email list, and she was livid. She accused me of embarrassing her and said I didn’t have the right to share that event.
It’s been several years since these emails, so I can’t tell you what exactly I said, but I doubt it was anything too horribly inflammatory. I have a tendency to downplay my emotions in writing and use detached, clinical language. I want to convey the substance of the event, but I avoid making myself vulnerable while doing so. This is why I doubt I did more than relay the event.
Nonetheless, I can understand why my mother was upset, though I don’t agree she should be. What is embarrassing about relaying an event, especially if you believed you were doing the right thing at the time? If you’re embarrassed by what you did, shouldn’t you apologize to the other party or try to make amends? Shouldn’t you tell them that you didn’t mean it?
When people get upset that you tell others about something they did, that often shows that they feel guilty and know they were in the wrong. Of course, there are exceptions like when you share information about a person that doesn’t directly involve you (like if your brother cheated in college and got thrown out or a friend was raped); doing so is a violation of that person’s privacy and is something you really shouldn’t do without their express permission. However, relaying information about an event that you were directly involved in shouldn’t be bad.
This is an idea that I only started to understand after reading David Sedaris’ work. David Sedaris is a humorist who often writes about his family. He relays information that could be potentially embarrassing like the time his father choked him or his mother’s drinking habits or his brother’s foul mouth, but, according to him, they don’t mind. In fact, they usually want to read what he’s written and are eager to appear in his work. Perhaps this is because he often writes about himself acting foolishly like when he got late night surgery on a tumor or had his partner pop a cyst on his butt (or maybe it’s because some of the things he writes about are partially or wholly fabricated), but the fact of the matter is that he’s never been part of any controversy with his family about what he’s published. Even if they’re privately upset with him, they never interfere with his public life and he seems perfectly content to keep writing whatever he wants.
I would like my friends and family to treat my writing with the same amount of equanimity. I would like them to understand that I’m not deliberately trying to hurt them or damage their lives but that I do have the right to publish my own thoughts and feelings. If I do err, I would like them to correct me while keeping in mind that I’m not an ogre. I would like them to simply ask that I change some identifying marks or refrain from publishing the piece with them tagged in any way. I would like them to talk to me if they think I’m being overly judgmental or aggressive. I would like them to realize that my writing is my property and they really don’t get to dictate what I do with it.
This is a difficult concept, I understand, and there will be some people who can never understand it. But this is way it has to be. I have to be allowed to exorcise the millions of words inside of me and to find a community of people who value my thoughts and experiences. I have to be able to forge a career with my writing, and I have to purge some of my thoughts if I’m ever going to get to fiction. So don’t worry, guys, this isn’t about you, it’s about me, and you’re going to be just fine. I promise.