That fine line between TMI and keeping your friends.
Wow, is it hard to be an essayist and respect others’ privacy!
I’m currently the 5th Top Writer for the This Happened to Me tag. I’ve found a niche writing in first-person about my real life, not wanting to hold back.
I feel an imperative to provide authentic authenticity (because, let’s face it, artificial authenticity is en vogue right now).
The problem is that I don’t live in a vacuum; every story that’s mine is someone else’s as well.
It’s hard to deny that my epic homebirth story is mine to tell, and I’ve written about why I went TMI with it. The blood, the poop, and the pain are all my own there, though of course the baby, while my own in a sense, is really her own person. And so I’ve questioned privacy when it comes to my kid, and so far I’ve come out on the side of (over-)sharing.
I’m constantly holding back stories because I’m afraid someone else will be reflected badly. We all do things we’re not proud of, and who wants their weakest moment to be immortalized in writing?
I’ve submitted to Modern Love exactly once, first using these guidelines to do a slew of edits. I ended up getting a rejection, but I found a home for it on P.S. I Love You, and it endures as my most popular piece on Medium:
In the section №21: Writing About Other People, Jones advises:
As the writer, you are in a position of great power — you control the megaphone — and the reader knows this. You can make people look good or bad. And if the reader senses you’re abusing this power, they’ll think the person who looks worst is you. This is why, as a preemptive measure, the writer should be hardest on himself. Self-deprecation can be among the personal essayist’s most useful tools. Counter-intuitively, you can look good by looking bad.
Self-deprecation? — Cool, bring it on.
But, for some friends and family, showing my flaws too might not be enough.
I’m home for the holidays right now.
There’s a good side to that,
and a more difficult side.
Everything in both those linked pieces is true, factually and emotionally. The one I’m calling “good” focuses on my own struggles, so really what I mean by good is that others come off as purely good.
I started writing for publications when I was in high school. I wrote probably 50 pieces for the Florida Today newspaper. Since I was a minor, I consented to my mom pre-reading each one before I submitted them. Mostly, she was happy with them and supportive of my writing. But there were a few pieces she wanted to edit first, because,
“This one’s going to make someone mad, and they’ll throw a brick through our window.”
Brick through our window became short-hand for too controversial. When I moved on to the Entertainment section of my college paper, the Independent Florida Alligator, they were instead doing edits to add profanity and drug references.
I graduated with a magazine journalism degree, got a couple high-level rejection letters, then quit writing for over a decade. My mom wanted me to stay uncontroversial. The Alligator wanted me edgier. Everyone had an opinion, and I could feel my writing getting worse as I tried to conform to others’ varied expectations. I love Medium because I can just be me.
So, like I said, I’m home for the holidays. My mom and brother had a sort of impromptu intervention about my lack of privacy in my writing. They tried to get my husband to join in, but he told them he supports my writing and feels it’s honest and valuable.
My mom and brother tempered their concerns with compliments, but I still felt ambushed. I finally have my voice back. I fought hard to rediscover it, while attending therapy, for the belief that my voice was worthy of being heard. I am so proud to have my voice back.
“I just want you to think about how it affects other people when you write about them,” my mom said.
I do think about that. All the time. Constantly. Too much.
That night, my brother was posting yet another video of my 4-year-old on Snapchat, without checking in with me.
“I thought you were all about privacy,” I said.
“There’s no privacy concerns with good stuff,” he said. “Share as much as you want of the good stuff. Just don’t tell anybody the bad.”
This is not my philosophy.
Maybe it’s that I’m an INFJ (or maybe you just lost respect for me because I pulled out pseudo-science), but any time something interesting happens, I’m writing it as a story in my head.