I’ve been reading your blog regularly for a few years now. I love how much of your personal life you share. I would love to do that, but I’m afraid to really put myself out there like that. Do you find that being open with readers has overall been a positive or a negative experience? How do you deal with it when someone you wrote about doesn’t like what you wrote? That’s happened to me a few times even with how small my blog is, and it’s been a pain in the ass. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to write about their personal life and still enjoy living it?
Ernest Hemingway once said, “The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.”
It’s worth noting that Hemingway’s own life ended at age 61 via suicide. He was a brilliant and celebrated writer but a deeply haunted one. He struggled with alcoholism and a pattern of behavior that experts now believe was undiagnosed, untreated mental illness (modern psychiatrists believe that he was likely bipolar).
So that quote comes from someone who understood all too well what is was like to be both courageous and vulnerable, wounded and then destroyed.
Hemingway’s story is incredibly sad. As is the thought that those who bring beauty to the world are sometimes destroyed by it.
The act of sharing yourself with the public, whether in a representational way via fictional analogies or abstract images, or in a more direct way as a memoirist or blogger does, can be extremely daunting and scary.
But I, for one, am glad that so many people before me have done it. I can’t imagine what the world would be like if people didn’t swallow their fears and dare to put themselves out there.
I’ve found the process to be mostly a positive one. Sure, there have been negative aspects. However, with time and a little creativity, I’ve figured out the best ways to help me manage them. Here are things that I do that help.
1. Play with timing. Work on a delay. Rarely publish things that you’ve just written or are about things that just happened.
Asynchronous writing works wonders in allowing you to share your innermost thoughts and feelings while still maintaining a personal sense of emotional privacy.
Include your true emotions and what’s going on in your piece, but don’t publish them then, when you’re actually feeling them. Publish them later when you’re feeling a different way. Not only are you less likely to be hurt by any mean comments, but in an odd way you’ve still maintained absolute emotional privacy. People might have a good snapshot of what you once felt, but they don’t have a clear window into what you’re feeling right now.
The distinction between the public knowing your past versus the public knowing your present may seem at a distance like an intellectual one, but trust me, when you’re the one posting, the difference is huge. The present moment is always yours and yours alone (and whoever is close to you that you confide in about the raw play by play of any given day, the ups and the downs).
Sometimes this means that I write things and then don’t publish them for a while. Other times this means that I wait much later to write at all about something that’s happened.
Either way, a bit of temporal distance is my friend.
2. If you write about others, change or omit names and identifying details in order to anonymize.
This one is huge. Strictly speaking, the easiest way to circumvent a lot of headaches is to never write about other people. To only ever talk about yourself. No one else.
This is a valid choice. It’s definitely possible but harder than it sounds, particularly if you want your writing to be compelling and actually reflect your experiences. Inevitably, our lives do intersect with other people’s. Complicated stories often have multiple characters and interesting interpersonal dynamics.
I’ve opted not to forgo writing about other people altogether. Instead, characters who routinely appear in my writing are given ongoing pseudonyms. Other folks never get any name at all and are identified by whatever pronoun I assign them for the piece or pieces in which they appear. When telling stories, I frequently will change identifying aspects, including people’s genders and orientations or leave out or change small details to point away from them. This of course applies to any advice letters I receive from readers (it always amuses me when readers get hung up on gender of a letter writer or some slight detail in the letter and start talking about what that particular thing means, since those are things I’ve sometimes changed to protect a person’s identity).
But it also applies to pieces other than advice letters. I may be having a conversation with a friend of one gender in it but rewrite the piece to change their gender to something else (or change other details), as a way of obscuring their identity.
There are even pieces that are actually about more than one person but are written as though they happened with a single person. In others, several conversations I had with the same person are combined into one.
Some of the teaching examples are pretty much one-for-one faithful re-tellings. It happened exactly like that. But there are plenty more that are semi-fictionalized anecdotes or montages that are compressed into a quick lesson (with all the boring parts edited out). Based on a true story rather than a blow-by-blow transcription.
All of these measures greatly help to maintain anonymity and make people far less recognizable to themselves and to others.
Because of these practices, I’ve found that people in my everyday life have erred in both directions: Not realizing something is written about them in some instances and in others thinking a piece is about them that totally isn’t about them at all. If you were curious, I’ve found that the second mistake (a false positive, where they think something is about them that actually isn’t) is more common than the first.
Third parties typically have no clue who a piece is about unless it’s a recurring character who is clearly identified by their blog alias. And they usually don’t seem to care. The lesson or theme of the writing seems far more important to them.
3. Warn romantic partners about the potential public exposure of being linked to you or written about and give them a chance to opt in or out.
Since I’ve started writing for a broader audience, any partners who have been publicly linked to me or mentioned in my blog have opted to do so voluntarily.
I normally have the, “So as you know, I write about my love life for a living, do you have any concerns?” talk pretty early on in the relationship. I consider it as indispensable as the talk about sexual health and STI status. (Truth be told, at this point, I actually get more nervous about the writing talk.) The last few people I’ve dated actually read my blog for a while before we started dating, and two out of the three had known me for quite some time before we started dating.
Typically I do raise the issue of public exposure a second time if they ask about listing our relationship status on social media like Facebook or FetLife. I make sure to never pressure them about it. Usually I let them bring the topic up first of becoming “social media official,” because as I often say, “I know it’s a big ask. I’m a semi-public figure in certain circles, and you might lose some privacy by being publicly linked to me for however long. And I completely understand if you don’t want to.”
Although I’m completely emotionally prepared for a no (I’ve had “no” said to me plenty in my life, by now it’s no big deal) I’ve never actually had someone say no in the face of this warning. To say, “Oh, you’re right. I don’t want to do that.”
That said, I did have one instance where someone was very gung ho and excited to be linked to me in public and to be written about but changed their tune a few months later after they broke up with me for other, unrelated reasons. They insinuated that because we were broken up that not only should I not write about them ever again but that I should delete everything I had written in the past on my site that even refers to them (even happy posts) because we’re no longer together (and that I would be out of line to link to those pieces ever again in any new things I write).
But that’s really not how it works, and it’s a strange ask to insist that someone never refer to (or even delete) past writings simply because your present relationship has changed. I have a right to remember the relationship we had. You may want to forget me, but I don’t have to forget you. And my past is mine to talk about, even if it briefly intersected with yours. (Not to mention that Internet archive sites like the Wayback Machine means that it’s hard to 100% guarantee that I can truly ever un-publish something, even if I did consider it an appropriate request.)
To use an analogy: You can clip me out of any photos of the two of us together that you have, but you don’t have a right to insist that I cut you out of all of mine. Stop coming over to my house (in this metaphor, reading my writing) if you don’t want to see that I have old photos of you in my album.
And of course the request came right at the moment I was pretty much done writing about that time in my life and had said anything remotely interesting I had planned to say, the last real insight about myself and how I treat others that I drew from reflecting on that short relationship.
Anyway, I share this to make the following point: Having discussions ahead of time about comfort doesn’t prevent every weird occurrence like this, but I still believe in having them. Because even if someone changes their mind when they change their heart, having had those talks in the first place do give me peace of mind that I did my due diligence in fully informing someone of the potential risks, even if they apparently didn’t internalize them on their end at the time or have an awareness how those things could change for them and how quickly.
And that experience helped me learn how to better have that talk the next time I need to have it, in a way that stresses that I don’t delete work after I post it or pretend I never wrote the things I did in the past (something I honestly never thought I’d have to explain).
4. If you’re really concerned about how someone close to you might take a particular piece, talk to them about it beforehand.
I will occasionally run an idea that feels risky by someone close to me. Being open about my experiences is important to me (since I was routinely silenced by a vain, controlling parent), but sometimes I’m not so sure about an idea. It’ll seem interesting, but I’ll worry that it might not be worth the hurt it’d cause.
When I first got started, I used to check in a lot. Constantly. But I went on over time to develop a good sense of what’s reasonable over the years by doing this enough times and with enough people. I only do so now if I feel like I’m in questionable territory, that meets two criteria:
- If a reasonable person might take offense at what I’ve written.
- If I personally care if the person in question gets offended.
Normally, the person I run it by is the person that the piece is about. But I also have a few close friends that are trusted pre-readers, especially in cases where I’m writing about someone I don’t have much contact with at the present time (for whatever reason).
If a piece seems like it’s going to be more trouble than it’s worth, then I won’t write or publish it.
With friends, I often will also do a quick casual “mind if I write about this?” at the conclusion of an interesting talk, or say something like “I soooo want to write about this,” to which they nearly always answer something like, “Oh my God, awesome, do it!” or “YASSS.”
Occasionally they’ll say something like, “Yeah, go ahead. Just don’t identify me.”
5. Accept that no matter what you do, some people are going to have a problem with it.
At this point I’ve written about a few hundred people I know in real life in some capacity. By now, the practice is pretty old hat, and I don’t think too much on it. By and large, people who know me in real life have given me the feedback that my portraits actually skew positive of people. Now that’s not to say that I haven’t written negative portrayals of people. I sure have — there are recurring characters even that are basically antagonists (although I try to include noble moments when I am writing about them). But a large number of them have been gracious about how I’ve written about them.
And even considering the ones who haven’t, I’m often told by people who know us both (both me and the antagonist) that the portraits I’ve written are actually quite realistic and sympathetic. Sure, I’ve captured flaws. But they are ones that are actually there. And I’m often told by those same mutual acquaintances that I could have written things much more negatively without bending the truth, that I’ve toned down the intensity, if anything.
It’s worth noting that I’ve been in the other position. I’ve been written about plenty, as a subject or launching off point of popular writers who at the time had much larger followings than mine. And in one notable example, someone was saying really negative stuff about me that I didn’t agree with at all.
I know it isn’t easy to be in that role, but when it happened to me, I found it best to just shrug my shoulders and move on. I didn’t talk about it publicly at all or complain to the writer (which would have had to happen via third parties since we weren’t talking with one another at the time but could have been arranged). Privately, I did initially worry about possible damage to my reputation, especially since I was new in town and didn’t really know people very well, but once it happened, the actual fallout wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared.
I found that most of our mutual friends didn’t recognize me, and those who did, didn’t actually care. They took the whole thing with a grain of salt. They paid much more attention to their overall picture of me — particularly their interactions with me and what they’d heard about me in general, not from any one bitter ex.
Long term I ended up being a very popular and well liked person in those communities. It really didn’t matter what my critic said about me. My actions spoke much louder than their words ever could.
Anyway, it’s been interesting being on the other side of things. You can’t predict who reads you. And who complains when you write about them versus who doesn’t, well…. it doesn’t seem to follow the patterns you would expect it to. You can write harshly about people and have them thank you. Other times, you can write something that’s arguably a much softer, charitable version of the truth, and that’s the person who loses their shit.
Even getting the okay beforehand (as in #4) doesn’t always help and can weirdly backfire. Interestingly, you can legit go up to every person you want to possibly write about ever and ask their permission beforehand — and some of them will still freak out once the piece comes out. Even if they read what you wrote beforehand and approved it, if commenters come in and say things that were critical that they didn’t expect, for example. (Which as a writer you have very little control over.)
The only pattern I’ve really noticed is that the people who complain the most about when you write about them seem to be the ones who have the most control issues, most vanity, or both (an unfortunate combination).
It used to really bother me, but over time I’ve found that ticking off these people is usually a blessing long-term, provided you can cope well with and navigate any shit storm they kick up in in the short term.
They tend to be emotional vampires that you would have run into trouble with eventually, one way or another. I consider it a kind of mercy to know sooner rather than later.
And I greatly overestimated how often it would happen. Of the few hundred people I’ve written about, only four of them total seemed to mind (and really only two people since my blog has had a bigger audience; the first two complained back when basically no one read me). It almost never happens.
6. Don’t give small drama fires the oxygen they’re begging for. Starve them.
If someone does kick up an unreasonable, disproportionate fuss about something you wrote, I’ve found the best approach is to just ignore it. The folks who are most angry in the face of criticism and/or paranoid about the possibility of public humiliation are usually incredibly attention motivated. And while they might kick up a short fuss, most attention-hungry people just don’t have the stamina to sustain a one-sided war for very long. So as long as you don’t fight them, they usually give up and go away.
There are two tactics that work very well:
- Ignoring them completely, if you can. Literally. Not saying anything whatsoever to them directly.
- If you are forced to interact with them by circumstance (for example, you show up at the same event where you can’t leave because you’re working, etc.), I would recommend the gray rock method. In brief terms, when you gray rock someone, you say as little as possible in response to them, and you keep the conversation as bland as humanly possible. If they ask how you’re doing, you say something like, “I’m fine, thank you.” And say nothing else. Don’t ask them questions. Don’t make small talk. Don’t volunteer details about your personal life. Be as boring as possible. Stick to neutral facts. No opinions. Nothing interesting. You’ll become so boring to them that they’ll leave you alone and find someone else to attack or complain about.
But #2 is only if you absolutely have to interact with them. If you can help it, don’t engage with them directly at all.
If you’re feeling any angry or annoyed energy, take that and write about other things. If you want to write about them, you can always do it later. If you need to get it out somewhere now, write it in a private journal and save it. Publish it later, or not at all.
If you absolutely need to vent to someone, make sure it’s a safe third party, not someone who would have any reason to interact with them. But this is riskier. The absolute safest method is to talk to no one at all and write it down in a journal (because some people really like to stir up shit, and even if you think you can trust them, they might very well go double agent on you and start something).
7. Know the difference between hurting someone’s feelings and committing libel.
Contrary to what a lot of people think, you don’t need someone’s permission legally to write about them. At least not in the United States, where I live. If people had to approve of everything written about them, journalism wouldn’t exist.
And a lot of creative work would never have happened (as in spite of what the disclaimers say, a great deal of the authors of fictional work base their characters on people they know).
For something to be libel, it must be demonstrably false and cause damages. The burden of proof is on the other person to prove that what you wrote is grossly untrue. Generally speaking, opinions cannot be considered false in libel cases — instead you need to state something as though it is an objective fact that is both incredibly damaging and provably untrue (and which you could have reasonably known was untrue and spread especially while suspecting it to be false).
So if you wrote a piece publicly about someone using their legal name or enough information that a stranger could reasonably identify them that’s accusing them of being officially tried and convicted for a crime when none of that happened, and their employer came across it and fired them because of this false claim you made, yeah… that’s libel.
But writing about crappy miscommunications you actually had with your ex that made their blood pressure momentarily spike when they read your retelling because they disagree with your opinion and that’s it? Not libel. You hurt someone’s feelings.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. And definitely not YOUR lawyer. This is not official legal advice. When in doubt, consult an attorney.
8. Take copious notes in private diaries.
I’m constantly writing down notes about good conversations I just had or tucking away chats or screen shots. And I frequently write in private diaries. This is something I’ve pretty much always done, even before I ever started writing memoir. As I wrote in an earlier piece:
I learned this habit growing up. My mother would routinely tell me that we never spoke about things when I knew we had. After one of her emotional meltdowns, her usual tactic for smoothing things over was to simply assert that it had never happened. That I was exaggerating. That she never said the things that I knew she had said or did the things that I knew she had done that had wounded me.
And sadly, I later got into relationships where partners (and occasionally friends or metamours) would do the same. Dismiss my concern with their blanket “nuh uh” or “you’re remembering that wrong, don’t be so dramatic, I didn’t say that.”
As I grew older and the world more technological, chat logs, emails, and IM histories became extremely helpful. And in cases where the conversations have been in person, I developed a habit to go and document important ones.
It wasn’t so that these records can be whipped out in a dramatic Perry Mason moment. “You say we never talked about that, but this chat log says differently. Gotcha!”
On the few occasions I tried this, it inspired outrage and further abuse from them. I learned quickly not to produce these as evidence but kept up my habit of writing things down.
At least I’d know that I remembered correctly. And knowing that I wasn’t crazy would provide solace, even if I could never convince them to join me and agree.
I still find it’s not helpful for enacting Perry Mason moments. However, when I started writing memoir, I did find a few new additional benefits:
- It enables me to write about things that happened a while ago. This is good because it helps me to play with timing, as I listed in point #1. I can write about something that happened ages ago. Without the detailed record, this would likely be a great deal harder.
- I’m able to use dialogue in pieces. Dialogue dissipates rather quickly and must be captured soon if it’s going to be portrayed with any degree of accuracy, even if you include a note to readers that all dialogue is representational and based on memory and/or contemporaneous memos (not a bad move).
- I’m able to use those notes and chat logs for corroboration if I’m challenged about the veracity of a writing, very much like I did with tape recordings when I was a small-town newspaper reporter and school board members who said embarrassing things during public meetings would storm into the office crying, “That’s not what I said.” (When they in fact did, and I actually had them on tape saying it.)
9. Remember that no matter what anyone might say, you’re keeping plenty to yourself. You’re not writing about everything. No one can. It’s too much.
I did have one person I was close to unexpectedly make a rather pointed comment. I’m not sure they understood how rude what they were saying at the time was, but they told me writing so personally meant that “everything was for public consumption” and implied that any time I shared an experience with other people that meant that the memory was less valuable. This was a curious dig, especially seeing as the person in question was also polyamorous. Talk about your zero sum, scarcity thinking.
My gut response to this wasn’t to get hurt or feel ashamed of my writing about my life. Instead, I found that it made me think less of them. Because there are a few things wrong with it:
- It’s kind of weird to assume that just because you share something with people that it becomes less valuable. Sharing something doesn’t automatically consume it. Public happiness can be just as nice as private happiness. Not everything has to be secret in order to be meaningful.
- I still have secrets. I have plenty I haven’t written about. It’s literally impossible to write about everything that happens. No one can. There’s too much going on and it’s moving too fast. (Seriously, I think it would be difficult to share to the point where you had nothing you hadn’t shared and still do any living and I make sure to live.)
- Even if I managed to bare it all and write about literally everything that ever happened to me (where would I find the time?), I’m always making new memories. Time doesn’t stop moving.
10. Share for the love of sharing. Don’t share with a broad audience if you’re seeking a particular emotional response.
It’s funny… The more I’ve worked as a writer and have come to know other people in my field, the more I’ve realized that you have to have an awful lot of vanity, or basically no vanity at all, to become a successful writer. Because the process involves an awful lot of rejection and you either have to:
- Know you’re always going to make it despite all the evidence to the contrary, which takes a lot of vanity and self-protective narcissism — OR
- Put yourself out there again and again without needing to ever get any external validation
Seeing as I’m a person who only stopped actively hating myself 24/7 about 5 years ago, the high-vanity path was never a realistic option. But the second has worked just fine, pushing myself very hard without worrying too much about validation or if other people think my work is any good.
In tougher moments, I envy those authors who think they are God’s gift to writing. It has to be so nice to feel entitled to recognition, to brag about yourself and your work so naturally when you’re asked to for promotional purposes.
But once I’ve looked closer, I see that path is a tough one, too, for different reasons. Narcissistic writers have a really rough go of things. Built up and destroyed by every positive or negative comment or book review. Only as good as their last assessment. At the mercy of every person’s opinion. It frankly looks pretty exhausting.
I’ve also known several people over the years whose stated motivation for blogging publicly was to create a public persona that looked good to others. Essentially they wrote to be popular. Well liked. And that, too, looked utterly exhausting. A rollercoaster with highs for sure — but also lows that left them feeling empty inside.
After what I’ve personally experienced and everything I’ve witnessed via others, I would choose the second path every time. And it’s the one I would advocate to others: To share for the love of sharing. Don’t share with a broad audience if you’re doing so to receive a particular emotional response from them or to feel better about yourself.
There are plenty of better vehicles for that. If you want to write in order to get emotional validation from others, it’s probably best to stick to filtered social media, online support groups, or writing your posts in a friends-only journal (which is how I often shared before I got to a place where I was emotionally secure enough to share widely, regardless of the reader response).
Even now, I have a very important rule for myself: I only write about something publicly if I have personal closure on something. I don’t write publicly about something until I’m over it. If I don’t need a response from the people the piece is about or from the people reading about it.
Hope that helps! I’m sure other people have their own way of managing things, but that’s what’s worked best for me. Good luck with the writing.
Books by Page Turner: