Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Personal Hazards of a Personal Essay

I have been writing personal essays for years, but also been getting rejection letters for years, so I was thrilled to get an acceptance last week from the Morning News. I wrote this essay, "The Debt" for a 48-hour magazine competition, where they give you a topic, in this case debt, and you have 24 hours to submit something. They take the next 24 hours to compile, edit, and lay out the magazine.

I didn't get accepted to that, but I was happy with the piece I wrote from a literary perspective. It was about money I had loaned my ex boyfriend for a move across country, and because I wrote it so fast and because I had a topic for which I couldn't think of any other material, I didn't censor myself the way I usually do. It's a big debate in the nonfiction world about how much you worry about the people you write about, and what kind of privacy you owe them and whether you should let them read the piece before you publish it. "No apologies" is the first rule of writing, said a friend recently, but I usually fall heavily to the other side. Other people have a right to privacy, and I usually work hard to be sensitive to that.

In this case I wasn't. I had a couple of people read the essay, and I asked them how the "characters" of my ex boyfriend and current boyfriend came off. "Fine," my readers said. "I see that this is a complicated, nuanced situation, and everyone in the story seems reasonable."

I submitted the story to the Morning News, and let's be honest, I have been rejected so many times I didn't really think this would be any different, so I probably didn't think about the ramifications publishing a fairly personal story as much as I should have. But I got an email a couple days later saying they wanted it. Great! I spent a significant amount of time on some areas the editor wanted more information on, and sent it in. It went up yesterday.

Then there were two issues: 1) the magazine put a somewhat lurid sounding title and blurb on it, which pointed the reader toward thinking my ex boyfriend was a real jerk who was taking advantage of me and 2) I realized I had written my ex boyfriend to be a bit of a jerk who was taking advantage of me. He and I have both done less-than-generous things to each other, and it was true that he hadn't paid me back what I loaned him, but that wasn't the point of the essay at all. Some people saw what I meant them to see---that this was a painful and complicated situation. Others saw what I had (I admit) showed them---the deadbeat jerk. Or, they saw their own ex boyfriends or their own debtors, and magnified the character with that lens.

Once you have published something, it is out of your hands, and your readers will make it their own. This essay resonated with people, both in the way I wanted it to (what do you do with a serious longtime love that has ended) and in ways I very much didn't (take that guy to small claims court!). On one hand, the passionate replies I received in the comments section and personally are a great testament to a successful piece, and I'm deeply moved by them. But on the other, I feel mortifyingly exposed, and feel that have done a disservice to the people I wrote about.

Some of you will say (and have said), you're an idiot. You wrote about your personal business, so what are you whining about? I suppose it was naive, and thoughtless, or maybe I rightly sacrificed to my craft. I don't know. I thought about asking the editors to take it down, but that's hard too, since I'm a writer, and trying to make it as a creative nonfiction writer, and it's the deep personal conflict that makes this piece successful.

I don't really have a summary here, except to apologize to anyone I hurt with writing, this time or any time. And I'm very interested in thoughts on this topic.


  1. I for one just changed the title when I reposted it to twitter. I liked my title better anyway!

  2. Seems to me that you already know the answer you're looking for...publishing a story (fiction and non-fiction are alike in this way) means the story no longer belongs to you alone. Readers own the story they read, which may or may not be the one you thought you wrote.

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