When I was a little girl, I was told I had a had this habit of writing things, funny things, painful things, sad things, confusing things on pieces of lined notebook paper. I would write, write, write and then, when finished, tear the page out and hide it under my pillow, or bedside my bed, or in my closet, or anywhere, really, that was discreet…enough. When I was writing back then, I always said that I would “die if anyone read my writings!” Die! But then, oddly, in my not always so discreet placement of these writings around my room, I didn’t really mean that. Secretly, and except for Sally Ride (a.k.a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) and Patrick Smith (a.k.a. the incredible hulk) (note: names changed twice for added privacy) in third grade, I’ve always wanted someone to find my writings, to read them. I wanted to be recognized for my writings. I wanted that kind of fame, the non-flashy, turtle-neck wearing “Oh, yes, that’s Jessica F. Hinton,” writer in the background kind of fame. I wanted this because I thought this could give meaning to my young life.
As a teenager, I never read the diary of Anne Frank. But I knew enough about her to want to be like her. I think. Or, maybe, really, what I saw in Anne was the idea that my writings could outlive me. In scattering around those papers, I was scattering around parts of me, parts that could live and speak for me even if something horrible were to happen to me after the age of very old age of 16. Okay, okay, I wasn’t that grim. Or least not always.
“What does life mean?” I often would ask myself. I didn’t know at 9,10, 11, 12, or even into my twenties, but my writings gave me something concrete to hold on to. They gave me purpose. I used to think that nothing in my life was off limits for my “Craft.” In the earlier years of my online writing career, I wrote as if I were writing on those old lined papers, kind of. I was emotional and heartfelt and honest. But also since I knew I was writing for other people, many, many, many people (often imagined people) who I thought I needed for validation, to become a real writer, to get paid for being a “real” writer, I also was, often, or I felt, inauthentic. Rather than writing everything because everything was in my heart, I wrote everything because I thought I had to. To make it. It’s what everyone else was doing, so why not me? In the big world of the Internets, as a new blogger, I wanted to make a dent. So I said everything that I thought would be interesting to this imaginary audience in my head. Don’t get me wrong, everything I wrote was true back then. It’s just that I often wrote “everything” for what I now think are the wrong reasons. Note to new writers online or anywhere who are writing just for attention, profit, notoriety, don’t be like me.
I don’t know why I’m beginning with this. But as I sit here with a print out of an essay I’ve written on my lap, I can’t help but wonder why I started writing, why I continue writing, why all this matters to me. How I’ve changed. I’ve changed so much.
This essay I’ve written has three corresponding pitch letters saved in the same folder. It’s ready to go. But still it sits.
Why? At first I thought it was my perfectionist tendencies? Or maybe fear of critique/failure/writer’s block? But the more days, weeks, and months that go by with this particular essay on my computer, I know that’s not all of the truth. The truth is that it’s this essay, what it’s about, someone else, and how I don’t really always know how to do this, delicately, all the time.
I do believe in authenticity and honesty. And I’m usually of the school of thought that argues there’s more to be gained by speaking up than saying nothing at all. But is there a limit to this? Should there be a limit? I’m starting to think so.
Some of the best stories of my life are the stories that I will never tell. Why? Because, I’ve learned that sometimes telling some stories in the first way that you think they must be told is not worth it.
Life is a never ending story until you die and sometimes after. We can never really run out of stories. Your stories have a value so be intentional in sharing them with strangers. I don’t know the recipe for how to do this “right.” So I say, do what feels right to you.
Consider these questions when thinking about publishing something personal:
- Why am I writing this? What are your intentions? Is it just to get paid? Published? To connect? To garner sympathy, accolades? I can’t say that the answers to any of these questions should preclude you from telling your story. But these questions should be considered, nonetheless, along with the very necessary follow-up question: Is it worth it?
- Related to number 1, could how I feel right now change? Would I care if this is published and I stop feeling this way? If you’re writing to vent, stop. Don’t publish! Anger is a emotion that goes away, you know? So, too, does sadness. Write with your heart and eyes open. Words can be forgiven but not taken back, so think wisely about how you them. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write about hard, sad, emotional things. You should! But be meaningful. Intentional. Be balanced.
- Should this go in my journal? Journal writing, it seems, is a forgotten art. But we need our journals! Every story inside must be told on paper. But that paper need not be The Paper for the world to see. Say it all in your journal. If you want feedback, share your story with someone who is worthy of hearing your stories.
- How would I feel if the person I’m writing about were to read this? It should always be assumed that the last person you want to read your writings will, somehow, read your writings. So be honest with yourself and up front with your plans with the person you’re writing about. As a general rule, when writing about other people, I’ve started to show them my writings before sending a pitch. For deceased writing subjects, consider talking to their close family.
At the end of the day, this is your writing career. You are the boss. So it’s up to you to decide what feels right.
This essay on my lap will never be published in the way it’s written, but that’s okay. I can fold it ten ties and still tuck it under my bed just like old times. I’ll likely find it again months later. Then, I’ll smooth out its edges and do what I properly should have done months before…shred it. Seeing it in a thousand little pieces, I’ll then rejoice that the nightmare of me publishing about that fight, that’s since ended, with my loved one was really just a bad dream after all. And it will all be okay.
Am I the only one who struggles with this? How do you strike your “right” balance, when writing about people your life, between a desire to be authentic and transparent and, at the same time, respectful?