I had been careful in writing this post to respect his privacy as much as possible—while still retaining a story that expressed at least part of the emotional truth of the situation.
After reviewing the post, I decided to leave it as is. But I didn’t take his request lightly, and it caused me to think again about one of the moral issues writers grapple with: how is it possible to write honestly about ourselves, first of all, and more significantly, about the people who are or have been close to us?
This is not a new question for writers.
* Update November 22, 2013. I would like to share an excellent article about the reasons writers may choose to share personal experiences, and how such writing can be valuable: http://www.theheartofmemoir.com/solving-incivility/
There are numerous examples of famous writers who’ve published damning books about their ex-husbands, lovers, or other family members, whether as fiction or memoirs. Sometimes writers may have been motivated by anger, hurt, or a desire for vengeance. More often, though, I suspect that these writers are trying to analyze, to interpret, to create a narrative about the significant events of their lives in an effort to explain (to themselves as well as readers) the mysteries of intimate relationships, how love turns to hate and harmony mutates into conflict.
What reasons make it morally justifiable to write about personal topics, even when poeple’s secrets will be exposed?
A few authors have made lots of money by publishing sensational memoirs that became huge bestsellers; two that come to mind are The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. Both of these books were about severely dysfunctional families. Both were also well written, and provided constant jolts of shock, amazement, and sometimes, inspiration.
I’ve also read some good books by heroin addicts that have depicted the extreme depths of addiction; the way a life’s focus becomes reduced entirely to where the next fix is coming from, all morality and loyalty to anyone else obliterated. Does understanding addiction better make me a more compassionate person?
Some reviewers criticize the readers of such books for being voyeurs who are encouraging the proliferation of this “drug writing porn.”
Perhaps both the writing and the reading of sensational or highly personal books are justified if the writing is good. Does the creation of what we could call Literature or Art justify exposing or hurting other people?
How can we judge whether a book (or other piece of writing) is a work of art? It has to do not only with technical writing skills but also with the universality of the book’s themes and characters. Does the book inspire readers in some way? Even ugly truths can help readers, by giving them the comfort of knowing that they are not alone in experiencing terrible thoughts or emotions; perhaps a dark book also includes messages about recovery or learning.
That request to remove one of my blog posts seemed like a personal violation. Why should I hide a piece of creative work that had taken me much effort to write and deliberation about the risks involved? Yet I understood that person’s reason for making the request, and it forced me to examine my reasons for writing a blog. Why do I write about personal topics, not just running?
I write to express myself, and there is no doubt that writing is therapeutic for me. Yet I could simply write a diary and keep it all to myself. Why do I need to publish what I write?
It’s normal for writers to crave an audience: writers want feedback about their work. Hasn’t part of the power of books always been to connect the minds of writers and readers? The difference now is that with blogs and social media, the interaction between writer and reader can be almost instantaneous. It can be more mutual and personal than it used to be. The blog writing style is powerful mainly because of its immediacy and its personal nature. Readers often expect a blog to convey not only facts and stories, but to express the writer’s personality and style.
The conflict I have in exposing my writing publicly is that many of the topics I’m most fascinated by are personal ones—the timeless themes about relationships—sex, love, betrayal, denial—and how modern technologies have affected how relationships evolve. Where do I draw the line about what I write, and who I include in my stories? Where is the line between writing something worthy of readers’ attention, and writing as a narcissistic or exhibitionistic act?
These questions can all be seen as part of a wider discussion about how we present ourselves online. What are the repercussions for me personally, and for the people I write about? Will I become unemployable by writing about failed relationships or drug use? Social media gurus advise us to include some personal messages on our sites, to convey something of our individuality in our marketing efforts, but in reality you can’t veer very far to the Dark Side without risking your professional and personal reputation.
I’ve already made the choice to take that risk. I’ve rejected the idea of presenting myself online as always being the upbeat, successful, ever-persistent athlete who followed my passion and talent for running without ambivalence.
According to marketing experts, a blog should be about one clearly defined topic that is geared to a specific audience. I’ve rejected this advice because having a wildly successful blog, perhaps even a money-generating one, is not my primary objective.
Instead, I write my blog for the reasons I’ve given above—for self-expression, for therapy, and as a way to connect with friends and strangers. My blog is an experiment to help me make a decision about the direction my writing will take in the future. Will I write some kind of memoir about my running career?—and if so, will it include some of the negative aspects of making running the top priority in my life for so many years? Or will I write a fictional book that draws heavily on my own experiences but bends the facts by disguising real people and using my imagination to play with real events?
A (relevant) aside about two books
It’s ironic that at the same time as I’ve been thinking about how to represent myself honestly in my blog, and how much of my real life to expose, I’ve been reading two books whose themes are about the devastating psychological consequences of living an unfulfilled life, of denying one’s true nature and living hypocritically.
These two books could hardly be more different from each other in form and in context: the first, As For Me and My House (1941), is a classic Canadian Depression-era novel by Sinclair Ross. The second, Fury (2001), by Salman Rushdie (famed author of The Satanic Verses), is a brilliant, sophisticated novel set in New York City just before the terrorist bombings.
The similarity between the books is that both their protagonists have compromised their artistic natures in exchange for money: both are tormented psychologically, and have ruined their marriages. Philip Bentley in House has repressed his dream of being an artist and become a small-town minister (though he doesn’t even believe in God), and Malik Solanka in Fury has allowed his beloved creation, the subversive and intelligent Little Brain doll, to be hideously transformed by popular media into a creature whose behaviour and values are diametrically opposed to her creator’s original intentions. Though the Little Brain franchise has made him a multi-millionaire, Solanka’s self-disgust has manifested itself as a fury that directs itself even at those whom he most loves, his wife Eleanor and their young son.
I mention these two excellent books (each worthy of a full book review) because they reinforced my belief about how important it is to represent oneself with integrity, being true to one’s values rather than being hypocritical. I feel that way about my blog writing: where is the value or purpose in writing if the truth is evaded or watered down to the extent that there is no emotion left?
Yet I’ve also learned that in the real world, the world of real jobs, corporate culture, and getting along with co-workers, I need to be more flexible in my beliefs, less outspoken, and more diplomatic in my communication with others.
My blog remains a place where I can “be myself”—where I can write about the topics that matter to me and take some risks in revealing my personal opinions and experiences.
The blog post that I was asked to remove was, in fact, one that many readers responded to in a positive and supportive way. Their feedback reassured me that I had made the right decision to publish the post. But perhaps the readers who thought it was inappropriate kept their comments to themselves!
What do you think?
Is it ethically wrong for writers to publish material that could hurt others professionally or personally?
What reasons justify the publication of sensitive material about living people?
Is it a mistake to publish sensitive material if one expects to ever work in the business world?