5 Writers On What You Should And Shouldn’t Reveal In Your Writing

When I was in seventh grade, I created a bubblegum pink blog on Blogspot and used it to write mean things about my best friend online. It was my own virtual Burn Book, and I didn’t hold back on flinging nasty insults. When my friend inevitably found the blog, she actually printed it out, highlighted the worst parts, and read them aloud during our Ceramics class. It was exactly the humiliation I deserved, and I learned my lesson right then and there: don’t publish anything that’s meant to be private.

As I grew up, my list of off-limit subjects grew from petty cafeteria gossip to include my friends’ and family’s personal lives (without their permission), anything private in regards to my relationships, any debauchery occurring after 9 p.m. on a Friday night, and any embarrassing stories I wouldn’t want attached to my name forever. If I can’t tell my grandparents the story in full, it probably shouldn’t go online or in print.

Last fall, Cosmopolitan.com sent out a call for personal essays from writers about anything they had done in college. Any topic was fair game, but let’s be real — it’s Cosmo. They don’t want to publish your story about studying for finals. I sat down to brainstorm a list of the most scandalous, Cosmo-esque things I’ve ever done, before realizing that I didn’t want any of those stories floating around online.

So what did that mean for my Cosmo essay? I typed up a wholesome piece about dressing up for Halloween and sent it off. My essay wasn’t chosen, but another writer’s essay titled “I Accidentally Had A Threesome With My Best Friend” was.

I wasn’t about to bare my biggest secrets for the whole Internet to read just for the sake of a byline. So how do writers make this work? How do they balance a comfortable level of privacy with a job that’s inherently confessional? I interviewed five of my favorite writers — Ben Kassoy, Jen Glantz, Maureen O’Connor, Elyssa Goodman, and Meredith Fineman — to see how they maintain privacy in their own work.

Ben Kassoy is an editor at Do Something and a contributor at Glamour.com:

Thought Catalog:How would you describe your approach to writing about your personal life?

Ben Kassoy:I’m comfortable sharing things about myself, but I’m very cautious and thoughtful in regards to how my writing implicates people in my life. I’m very protective of my relationships, so I never insult or embarrass anyone — or even share private things about others without their permission first.


TC:Are there certain topics you would never cover? If so, how do you determine what’s fair game for your writing, and what should remain private?

BK:Beyond never embarrassing or insulting people, I basically have three rules:

  1. Never exploit a past relationship for a story. The only exception is that if my reference to someone is so anonymous or vague that there’s no chance they’d see it or care. I don’t want someone reading about negative or even private things about themselves in an article.
  2. Never exploit a current relationship for a story. That includes A.) not going on a date for the sole purpose of writing about it and B.) not writing about a current relationship if I think the story would have negative ramifications on the present situation.
  3. Don’t say things about people that I wouldn’t or haven’t already told them. (Again, the exception is if someone is super anonymous.) That’s why, if I’m writing something iffy, I’ll ask or tell the subject first.

TC:Do you think that writing professionally forces you to give up a certain amount of privacy?

BK:Of course. In some ways it even allows me to give up a certain amount of privacy. When it comes to my personal life, I find it therapeutic and liberating to share private things in my writing. It’s like a public diary; the more I share, the better I feel.

Some writers make entire careers out of writing super personal things about their lives. I could never talk about my family the way David Sedaris does, because I respect the fact that they don’t think they’d want me sharing intimate details of our lives with others. Also, because I actually like them.

TC:Have you ever written about something personal, had it published, and then regretted it?

BK:I always err on the side caution. Maybe that hurts my writing because my stories aren’t as vulnerable or juicy or sexy, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. My writing is my career; my relationships are my life.

For more from Ben, follow him at @bkassoy.

Jen Glantz is a freelance writer, blogger at The Things I Learned From, and author of All My Friends Are Engaged:

TC:How would you describe your approach to writing about your personal life?

Jen Glantz:When I first started this “writing non-fiction for the Internet” thing three years ago, I wrote stories that were personal — but I had very few readers at first. That helped me build my confidence and establish my voice. It allowed me to push the door to my personal life more and more open until it was practically being held open by one of those door stopper things.
 
TC:Are there certain topics you would never cover? If so, how do you determine what’s fair game for your writing, and what should remain private?

JG:My mom is my biggest fan (hi, Mom!) and whenever I write anything, I ask myself, “Is this mom-cool?”  Will my mom read this and be proud or will she read it and say, “I don’t know about this one, Jennifer.” That’s a good rule for me to follow because it’s always spot on. What we write on the Internet is almost as permanent as a tattoo. We need to be completely sure that we’re ready to attach our names to it forever.

TC:Do you think that writing professionally forces you to give up a certain amount of privacy?

JG:I’m still a private person (at least I think I am). I only, really, write about things that I’ve fully digested behind closed doors first. I’m already past the internal monologue and the mascara-stained tears portion of coping with the embarrassment or the heartbreak of a story and at that point, I’m ready to share it.

TC:Have you ever written about something personal, had it published, and then regretted it?

I wrote a piece on why I hate wearing bras and then after I was like, “Hmm, I just posted my bra size on the Internet and talked about how the bra lady at Victoria’s Secret squeezed my water balloons like she was trying to drench a cake in icing.” So I kind of just told myself that maybe no one would read it. But then it got a million likes and a whole bunch of comments on Thought Catalog.

Do I regret it? No.

Am I sometimes nervous that when I’m out in public someone will scream out, “How ya doin’ B-cup Glantz?” Sometimes. Yep, sometimes.

For more from Jen, follow her at @TthingsILearned.

Maureen O’Connor is a writer for New York Magazine and The Cut:

TC:How would you describe your approach to writing about your personal life?

Maureen O’Connor:I come up with the idea and topic first, and then if I have personal anecdotes I think of those as a sort of frame for the story. So with the sexting article, my personal life provided a starting point for discussing the subject and other people’s lives. My life is rarely interesting enough to be the main event.

TC:Are there certain topics you would never cover? If so, how do you determine what’s fair game for your writing, and what should remain private?

MO:I don’t know! Generally I think I should be capable of the level of candor I’m asking of the people I interview. Usually it just comes down to the topic, and whether the first person helps the story or not.

TC:Do you think that writing professionally forces you to give up a certain amount of privacy?

MO:It doesn’t have to.

TC:Have you ever written about something personal, had it published, and then regretted it?

MO:Not because it was personal. I regret dumb jokes a lot, though.

For more from Maureen, follow her at @maureenoco.

Elyssa Goodman is a freelance writer and photographer and a blogger at Miss Manhattan NYC.

TC:How would you describe your approach to writing about your personal life?

Elyssa Goodman:I try to only write about my personal life if I think I have a unique story to tell – if it’s something I’ve seen before or a story that sounds too familiar, I don’t usually think it’s worth writing about.

TC:Are there certain topics you would never cover? If so, how do you determine what’s fair game for your writing, and what should remain private?

EG:I wouldn’t divulge deep, dark family secrets or write about the inner workings of my romantic life or my friendships. I think those spaces are sacred and my relationships of those kinds are too important to me to write about unless it’s something of a more positive nature. It doesn’t always feel good to me to write about the negative past. I realize it’s different for everyone, and that for many writing is cathartic and helps them deal with a variety of emotions, but for me it’s more about exploring the world, and occasionally my relationship to it. I also don’t want people I love to be afraid to converse with me, as if something they say may one day end up in a piece whether they like it or not. Trust is so important to me as a person in general so as a writer it’s also at the top of my list.

With my published writing, I usually ask if it’s okay if I write about a scenario. I will also use initials or give them an alias. For me to use a true first name, the situation has to be completely benign.

TC:Do you think that writing professionally forces you to give up a certain amount of privacy?

EG:If you want to draw attention to yourself — in any field, not just writing — you can. If you don’t, you won’t. Or you’ll try not to.

TC:Have you ever written something personal, had it published, and then regretted it?

EG:I think the only time that happened was in 9th grade. Blogs had just come out, and I wrote about my friends in a way it turned out they didn’t like at all. I think it was then that I learned not to be cavalier with people’s names and identities and I haven’t done anything like that since. Sometimes being a good writer means not telling the story, too.

For more from Elyssa, follow her at @MissManhattanNY.

Meredith Fineman is the founder of FinePoint and a freelance writer.

TC:How would you describe your approach to writing about your personal life? 

Meredith Fineman:I like to write about my personal life where it intersects with important professional issues. These pieces can illuminate issues facing many young professionals, (reverse ageism, confusion surrounding networking and dating) to exploring other facets of business. I think it always makes things more relatable to have personal anecdotal information in pieces, and engages readers. I wrote about comparing myself to other people, and I think people could really relate to that.

TC:Are there certain topics you would never cover? If so, how do you determine what’s fair game for your writing, and what should remain private?

MF:Anything about sex life, family issues, anything that might hurt someone, me, or that I might regret later. I think I have a pretty good barometer for that — and if I’m ever unsure of including a reference to someone — I either ask him or her or leave it out. I don’t believe that everything is fair game. It seems that I’m quite open with my experiences, but I also am very calculated about what I reveal and don’t.

TC:Do you think that writing professionally forces you to give up a certain amount of privacy?

MF:I don’t think so. Writers are natural sharers. But it’s like any other art for others to see: you have to stick your neck out there. I’m not sure if it feels like “giving up” privacy, but rather, if you want people to read your writing, it comes with the territory.

TC:Have you ever written about something personal, had it published, and then regretted it?

MF:No. I’ve written a few very personal pieces, but they’ve all been published anonymously. I almost reverse regret it — I wish I had the guts to put my name on it.

For more from Meredith, follow her at @MeredithFineman. TC mark

image – kwl

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