Let’s Get Personal

The essay I wrote for Bi-Women, “Kids Keep me Kloseted,” will be published in the December newsletter and possibly online. The irony that I’m publishing a piece about being closeted is not lost on me. As I was polishing the article earlier this week, I had a quick moment of panic, in which I thought, I can’t submit this, followed by, I WILL submit it, and if it gets accepted, I’ll ask to use a pen name. (It’s not actually as juicy as all that. If it does go up online, I’ll link it here so you can be wildly disappointed).

I got an email yesterday from the editor asking how I’d like my name to appear in the print and online version. The moment of truth.

I just sent my response. I’m using my real name.

But this does bring up an issue that most writers — and I would say ALL writers who write from their deepest truth — face at some point. If your novel is based on your childhood, will you have to edit the characters your family and friends might recognize? If you’re writing a tell-all memoir, can you really tell-all? How “personal” should you get in a personal essay?

My answer? Don’t let anything keep you from your Truth, even if it doesn’t make other people look pretty. Even if it does air some dirty laundry. Even if it does express your opinions and secrets and passions in a way you’d never dare to do out loud.

But what if Aunt Ethel picks it up, and makes the connection that you think she smells like pickle juice, and never sends you a birthday card again?

That, my friends, is a very good problem to have. Because that means you’ve been published.

All writers deal with this a little differently. Annie Dillard shows her memoirs and essays to everyone mentioned before she publishes them (which some of my professors thought made her a “sell out” of sorts; I don’t agree). Some people use pen names. Others probably disguise or cut more than we could ever possibly know; most of what we see, after all, is on the other side of publication.

When you’re writing your first few drafts, don’t let anything interfere with your honesty. What you write doesn’t have to be accurate (did Mom really always favor Sis over you?), but it has to be true (why yes, it certainly felt that way). A writer’s truth is not a scientist’s truth. You know it when you feel it, and as hard as it is to put to paper (or screen), you wouldn’t be a writer if you weren’t willing to be that bold.

Right now, the novel I’m writing for NaNoWriMo (of which I wrote a whole big, fat, 0 words today!) is more heavily based on my own childhood than anything I’ve written before. It’s still fiction. I stretch the truth all over the place. But there are a lot of pieces in there my family and childhood friends would recognize. And letting them read this novel could get a little messy.

And that is a problem for another day. Now, my job is to write, and to write as boldly and truthfully as I can. Eventually, I’ll submit. And if publication ever becomes a real possibility, then I will re-examine the very hard question about whether I can dare to put a piece so heavy with my own truth out there. I am very much looking forward to facing that very hard question again and again. In the meantime, I’ll continue to practice being bold, in preparation.

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4 Responses to Let’s Get Personal

  1. Jenny says:

    Practicing courage is a very good thing, especially for those of us who tend to default on the side of kindness. 🙂 Maybe your critical-of-Annie-Dillard professors were the sorts who deafaulted on the the side of courage, and needed to practice a little kindness. Practice, practice, practice. Then take a deep breath and click “send”. 😀 Yay, you!

  2. “A writer’s truth is not a scientist’s truth.” Well said! I’ve actually come to find that writing fiction can be more “true” than non-fiction. And maybe it’s because of those fears you talk about … in fiction, it’s easier to then tell Aunt Ethel, “no, I just made up that character. It had nothing to do with you!” Fiction frees the writer to say things that would be harder to say otherwise, maybe?

  3. Thanks for the comments! Jenny, you make a very good point about tempering courage with kindness; and Josh, I like what you say about fiction making it easier to access the “truth.” I think you’re right, and that may be why my first love is fiction writing. Through it, I can create circumstances that get at the truth of what my experiences have felt like even if I don’t recreate the experience itself.

  4. […] them is rather painful, immoral, even. This is all good. It also ties into my advocacy of honest writing. If you’re truly being honest, sharing your work is going to feel a little scary, whether […]

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