Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Where Do You Draw The Line?

A few weeks ago, I got the inkling to start drafting an essay for a major national column. I had the perfect idea and started fleshing it out in my head as I strolled around the city, worked out on the Precor, tossed and turned awaiting sleep. I knew it was perfect for this notoriously hard-to-crack column, but I also knew that publishing it would come with a price. Namely, the essay was about an incident in my life that occurred almost a decade ago. Over the course of the years, the emotions have faded and most of the scars have healed themselves, and so, dragging the incident back up - in as public a forum as you can get - might have reopened a slew of entanglements that I'd worked hard to put behind me.

But still. I knew it was perfect. And I felt tugged in two directions: one, the one that as writers we often feel, that in some ways, we're voyeurs of the every day, and it's our job to expose that as lyrically as possible; and two, as simply me, who had struggled with this incident for many years, and who knew, at least the smarter part of me knew, that publishing a piece about it would open an enormous can of emotional worms for all parties involved.

After some wrestling, I opted not to forge ahead with the essay, recognizing, of course, that this personal decision flew in the face of a professional decision. I realized that I had another fitting - though maybe not quite as perfect - subject for this same column, and while this subject, too, exposes some personal laundry, it's laundry that I can handle being in the public domain. So I sat down and started writing, so far, it's not half bad. Maybe it will get accepted to this column, maybe it won't, but either way, it was the better decision for me and those who would have been affected by the other essay's publication.

All of this is a long way of opening up the discussion on what a lot of writers deal with: how much of ourselves are we willing to not just put on the page but put out in public? I've had chats with friends who say that they'll write about the happier times in their marriages, but never the bad ones: it would be too much a violation to their husbands. Or friends who will write about their kids but not their husbands. Or their parents but not their children. I, personally, will joke about my husband's annoying habits, but I'd never write an honest expose of the ups and downs our marriage, even though ours is a happy and solid union. It's just not something that I'd ever feel comfortable with other people examining. Why should I? And why should they?

I don't know: where do you draw the line? For me, it was just instinctive this time around. I wasn't willing to restart a conflict that all parties had seemingly gotten over. Publication simply wasn't - isn't - worth that to me. But it's a sliding scale, one that we all face every day, and I guess the best you can do is listen to your internal compass and hope for the best.

7 comments:

Amy Nathan said...

I tackled this issue about six months ago when I switched from writing a memoir to writing a novel. I wrote about half the book and realized that I was not willing to disclose everything necessary to have an honest memoir. So I started from scratch, using incidents, ideas and feelings to invent a story and characters and places.

I think the memoir would have been of interest - but it would have also exposed things that are very private to me and my children. So I tucked it away and now it's memories, not a memoir.

Good decision on my part, and undoubtedly, on yours.

Larramie said...

From this reader's POV, when writing includes disclosures about others -- even unnamed --, I feel uncomfortable and wish the author had drawn the line.

gail said...

Interesting topic because when I wrote fiction I often felt I "exposed" truths about others I would never dare expose now that I'm writing memoir. New book? All about marriage...

Amy MacKinnon said...

Allison, this is such a provocative question. At first, I was prepared toanswer, "there is no line." But the more I thought about it, I realized I would never disclose anything about my children. As a mother, I am the barrier between them and the horrors of the world. I won't betray that ever.

Amy

Jen A. Miller said...

I wrestled with the same thing. In the end, I decided to go ahead and try to publish it because I thought what I had to say might help someone who had been in the same position.

Of course, this will only REALLY matter if someone buys it!

Trish Ryan said...

Great, provocative question!

I've discovered that the line between what I feel comfortable putting out in the world and what needs to stay private is hard to find until I've written a piece. It's like I can't tell how I feel about "it" until I see it down on paper (you know how things always sound different when we're thinking about writing them vs. once we've captured them on the page?!)

Sometimes my gut will say, "Are you sure you want this out there?" and other times someone I trust will ask the question. The line moves, but I think it's important to look for so you don't end up in that awful, "OH-what have I done???" place!
Good for you!

chryselle said...

I'm struggling with this too. I've got enough interesting stuff that has happened to me to fit into several essays and the topics would be great for those hard-to-get-into columns. But I dare not re-open that can of worms. It was hard enough dealing with the issues then; bringing them out into the open is not worth rehashing the pain. So, for now, I think of other ideas.