Last summer I enrolled in a creative nonfiction class at Harvard taught by David Gessner, an accomplished nonfiction author and blogger.
For the first half of the semester, I based my responses to the weekly writing exercises on “safe” subjects: a family trip to Maine, a favorite childhood memory, my passion for baking.
During the fifth week of class, however, our assignment was to write a single page about something outside of our comfort zone, something truly personal.
Even though I knew what I was going to write about, I waited until late the night before to complete the assignment.
I emailed the essay to David and shoved the printed copy deep into my backpack, not wanting to look at it again until I absolutely had to.
The next day I arrived at Harvard early and was relieved to find the classroom empty. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and was opening the email app when David strode into the room, his longish gray hair windswept and papers overflowing the top of his worn leather messenger bag.
He saw me sitting there and grinned as he dropped the bag on to the pocked surface of the conference table.
“Kate! I’m glad you’re here early. I want to talk to you about today’s assignment.”
My stomach lurched. I knew what was coming.
David rummaged through his bag and pulled out a dog-eared sheet of paper: my essay. I could see his scrawled comments all over the margins as he held up the paper and gestured towards it. “Your mother and the overdose and the cats—it’s brilliant! Why haven’t you written about her before?”
I stared at the table as I mumbled “Because it’s too hard.”
“Too hard? What’s too hard?”
I took a deep breath and looked up at him. “Because I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed of her and ashamed of the way I feel about her.” I turned away, blinking back tears.
I heard David sit down next to me. “Look at me, Kate,” he said. Biting my lip hard, I swiveled back to face him. He stared at me, his pointed index finger two inches from my face, and said “That’s exactly why you need to write about her. Don’t worry about who might read it. She never has to read it. Just get the words down on the page.”
It was the single most valuable piece of writing advice I have ever received.
It’s always personal.
Unless we’re writing ad copy or documenting a scientific experiment, any and all writing we do is personal.
I don’t care if it’s a grocery list or an autobiography: every detail—from the arrangement of the words on the page to the use of the first or third person—reflects the personality and emotions of the writer.
While you’re not likely to offend anyone by putting the produce before the meats and dry goods on your shopping list, you do run the risk of angering, embarrassing, or hurting someone (a spouse, a friend, a coworker) if you portray him or her in a less than flattering role in your memoir.
Some writers experience no internal conflict whatsoever when it comes to choosing between their own feelings and those of the people they write about.
These are my feelings, and I have a right to express them--feelings of others be damned.
(I liken these writers to those people on Facebook who feel compelled to post every thought, emotion, and opinion that flitters through their brains.)
For many writers, though, revealing our innermost thoughts and feelings through our writing is tantamount to standing naked and alone on the field of a sold-out football stadium.
Sure, we can change names and hair color and cities and call it fiction…and then live in constant fear that Aunt Doris will read our story and figure out that the nagging, overweight woman with the shrill voice and the bad perm is really her.
We’re not just afraid of being exposed; we’re scared as hell of being judged for our unkind, unpopular, perhaps even deviant thoughts.
So what do we do?
Let it all out.
There’s a reason so many people (writers and non-writers alike) keep journals: it’s therapeutic. Recording your thoughts and emotions—whether it be in a leather-bound book or on a laptop—enables you to take a step back and view the deepest, darkest recesses of your psyche through a different lens.
In Peggy Nolan’s Huffington Post blog post “26 Reasons Why I Keep a Journal (And Why You Should, Too),” the author views her journals as safe, judgment-free zones where she can document her emotions and put them away for good. For journal writers, just having their thoughts exist in a space outside of their head is enough to put things in perspective.
Then there are those of us who require a more structured and polished outlet for our feelings.
As writers, it’s part of our nature to want others to read what we’ve written, to have our fears dispelled and our feelings validated.
But at what cost?
By forfeiting personal gratification to protect the feelings of those we write about, we are stifling our own feelings, keeping our frustrations and sorrows bottled up until the pressure builds to the point where the bottle shatters and everyone gets hurt.
Is there no compromise?
Choose your own adventure.
If you are someone for whom peace and satisfaction will never exist until your story has been captured on the page and read by others, then you have a decision to make. Fortunately, there are options that don’t have to result in family feuds, ruined relationships, or sudden career changes.
In a society where public airings of emotions and opinions are not only accepted as the norm but encouraged via social media and blogs, some people may find a writer’s struggle between “I want to write this because it’s eating me up inside” and “I shouldn’t write this because (fill in the blank) will be angry/embarrassed/hurt” to be archaic and unfounded. But for every writer who only cares about themselves, there are dozens of us who fight this internal battle daily.
As I write this article, I feel the familiar lurch in my stomach even though I’m not really disclosing any deeply personal information because, for me, the topic itself is extremely personal. Nevertheless, I will write and publish this article, even though it terrifies me. Because if my words inspire even one fellow writer to conquer her fears, perhaps I will be slightly less fearful the next time I sit down to write.
by Kate Strassel