The truth about personal essays and what the “personal” should be
Before I began writing professionally (and for a long time while I was), I was a therapist. Therapists are dedicated to confidentiality and bound to it by law, except in very specific cases. As a writer, how do I reconcile writing essays that include other people while writing a really good essay as well?
It’s difficult and sometimes takes a really long time.
I want to acknowledge that I’ve come across writers who feel that their story, their truth and how they want to say it, has a right to its voice. On the page. In public. I totally get that. The once-massive publishing empires (and the smaller ones, too) who have had to re-find their audiences online as print takes a backseat seem to get that, too. It seems like the internet is full of those stories, over-shared essays (though fashioned with lovely essay techniques like imagery and voice) that have been written a few beats before the author had enough insight to write about them. Many of these essays are longer than they need to be and include minutely crafted details that are very well written but skate the line of self-revelation and veer into something else entirely.
That something else is what keeps me up at night when I’m working on an essay.
In relationships, in therapy, the point is to be open and real, to dig more deeply and release resentment. To me, essays are about relationships and so similar guidelines apply. In relationships there are hurts and betrayals and fears and joys, but not all of those things are for public consumption–and really, should they be? A good essay, for example, will show how the resentment started and hopefully how shift in the author’s perception occurred, a perception that allowed the author to release the resentment and then write about it. These essays stay with us and as writers we’re proud of them, not because of the clicks and the compliments, but because of the changes we actually made inside and, secondly, our ability to document that shift in essay format.
What if “my truth” ends up not being “the truth” and someone else–not me as the writer–suffers? The fact is, I’ll suffer as well. The thing with some personal topics is that, because we ourselves are so inside the story, we have blind spots to it and to ourselves. When criticism comes (and it often does) we are thrown and hurt. We regret having gone public. With the internet, everything lives on. One way to look at the “why” of the personal essay is as a vehicle to understand our way out of the old stories we tell ourselves, and give them a richer, more universally personal meaning…on the page. That takes time because insight takes time to develop.
Certain stories need not be told. Others must be told. The question is, how to tell them. When it comes to personal essays, who is the story really about? The story, the essay, is always about the writer.
So, how can I reasonably maintain another’s privacy as I write about finding my own truth and a larger universal truth, especially when those people I mention in the essay helped me—knowingly or not—find it (perhaps the hard way, but still)?
Here are some ideas, some general guidelines I use for myself, and suggest my writing clients consider:
Keep the focus on myself. I focus on myself, on the lessons I learned—about me. Having this ground rule requires discipline, but it has helped me create works that go deeper and wider than I ever could have imagined.
Grasp the deeper meaning and higher purpose of “The Essay.” The personal essay is a true story that utilizes select personal details from my life, to reveal a lesson I learned that deepened my understanding of myself, that proceeds to reveal a greater, wider universal truth beyond me. So, it’s about me, but it’s also not about me (that’s the universal truth part).
No gossip. Don’t “write” behind someone’s back. I might not have learned a lesson or reality about myself had this person not been in my life.
The relationship comes first. I place the relationship, rather than the story of the relationship, as the priority.
The discomfort test. If a person mentioned in the essay reads the essay, the only reason I would want to feel true discomfort would be with what I reveal about myself.
Kids grow up and learn to read. Enough said.
Lay-my-head-on-the-pillow test. If a piece I’m writing is causing me so much anxiety and fear that I can’t sleep (yes, it’s happened), I put it aside and reevaluate later. Sometimes I’m anxious because I’m working out the meaning of a situation, other times I’m anxious because I feel/know that the piece is relying too much on the “shocking” details that might elicit page views today.
Finally, keep in mind, this is not about stifling your voice but in grounding yourself in self-discovery and documenting that with integrity.