Living With A Writer: Your Right To Privacy

I read something today that made my heart drop.  It was an essay in a popular magazine and while I was reading, I heard the screaming of a dying relationship.

In the piece, the woman was saying how she had never liked children, and now she was dating a man who had a small son.  She didn’t love the son.  She didn’t even particularly like the son.  She resented having to share her time and boyfriend and life with an interloper, and knew that the son felt the same way about her.  It was well-written.  It was interesting.  But when her boyfriend reads it, he’s going to be faced with the realization that everybody and their dog knows his girlfriend wishes that he didn’t have a child.  It isn’t between the two of them anymore.  This author had invited the world in, and I can only assume that she didn’t ask his permission because the piece was so bitter that I can’t believe he would grant it.

Writers have a tendency to share personal things that others might deem too private to share.  This openness is one of our strengths, but I can also see how it’s one of our weaknesses.  When are we sharing too much?  When are we selfishly trampling over the people that we love (or don’t) in order to get a story?

The lovely Kirsty Logan wrote a beautiful blog post about this very thing.  In fact, her post was in the back of my mind while I was reading this painful magazine article, and I thought, “Why, author, why?  Why would you do this to this man that you claim to love?”  On the other hand, writers write about the world around us.  How much privacy should others rightfully expect from us?

Your thoughts?

24 Comments on “Living With A Writer: Your Right To Privacy”

  1. For some writers, words are just a bag of building blocks to help create a story, with hardly any emotional connection involved. For others, it’s much more personal.

    I’ve written some intensely personal stories. I’ve “explored” both the functional and the dysfunctional aspects of relationships with my father, my mother, my brother and sisters, and my wife. I’ve used my wife’s first name (or some variant of it) in a lot my stories. She’s been “used” as a surrogate for my anger, my abuse, my affection and my curiosity. As have the members of my family. But I feel that’s the nature of that kind of writing; that kind of exploration. If you’re going to “go there” you have to be honest about it, you have to tell the truth, even if it uncovers something about your loved ones or yourself you don’t like.

    As for the effect it has on loved ones? Most writers write to uncover truths. An artful writer will find a way to mask those truths if it exposes something a little too close to home. Those who don’t mask it, either consciously of subconsciously, want those truths to be exposed, either as a means of revenge, confession or simply to initiate a change they don’t have the courage to confront face-to-face.

  2. Mercedes – you know from Twitter I was wondering about this exact thing yesterday. It’s tough, I think, to know where the line is. But it’s also extremely important to not cross it. For my purposes, I try to keep everything very PC, no matter what venue I’m writing on. I think the personal stuff is best left to personal relationships, not author-reader ones.

  3. Kurt captured the concept with much finer words than I could muster on a Monday. One of my earliest acceptances, a short called “Homecoming” at Reflection’s Edge (March ’08), was all about my wife’s post-partum. She didn’t like the story. I exercised a lot of my own demons though.

    Tough subject.

  4. Tough call, good lady. I try not to divulge personal information of the embarrassing kind (well, at least the kind that’ll embarrass my family, as opposed to just me). But my fiction–what I choose to write about, the topics that present themselves to my mind–is so personal, oftentimes, it may as well be just tossing my issues out to the world for judgment. I just have to hope that people enjoy my stories, and don’t psychoanalyze the author too much… 🙂

  5. I think about this a lot too– very interesting and deep topic, very thought-provoking post.

    I ask if I can use things before I do. My husband says a lot of hilarious/stupid stuff, and he’s shameless enough that he loves when I use it– that and our in-jokes. But admittedly, I’ve never used any of the near and dear aspects of our relationship; I wonder if it became emotionally stressful if I would. Either way, I would ask first.

    I have used things that that could be potentially embarrassing to others if they recognized the situations once or twice, but those are relationships where bridges have been burned, and I don’t expect they’d ever see them. Real life is so much weirder than fiction though, I often think those are the most unbelievable things I’ve written.

  6. I would never dream of violating another’s privacy the way this woman did. She has a right to her feelings, but my heart goes out to her boyfriend. I’m very private when it comes to my personal life; if someone were to do that to me, I’d consider it a betrayal.

  7. If she’s not comfortable enough to talk to her boyfriend about that issue, then the relationship was probably doomed from the start. Good point, though. In grad school, we were urged to write notes as if our clients and their lawyers were standing over our shoulders. Might be a good guideline for personal essayists, too. 🙂


  8. When in doubt, I ask myself if writing something would inflict a great amount of pain. Or, be too gross an invasion of privacy. If so, it’s probably a bad idea to write it, and the ripple effect would overshadow the story anyway.

  9. I stumbled upon your blog through a friend of mine. *smile*

    This is an interesting topic and I think a very important one. I refuse to talk about my family excpet in general terms “hubby”, “son” – I never mention names and I surely don’t talk about specific situations (unless it is seriously humorous and I have their permission.)

    It’s easy for me in a way, since my husband really doesn’t care much what I say about him on line! LOL However, I would never talk about things that would damage his career.

    My son is still a toddler so I can get away will telling cute little stories about the silly things he does. When he’s older, I won’t do that anymore, unless he wants me to (Heck, he might have his OWN blog anyway!).

    I love what Cecilia said about “them looking over your shoulders”. Essayists and bloggers everywhere should heed to that advice.

  10. Why? Well, to sum it up in one word, selfishness. What a selfish and self-centered thing to do. Sickening really. And what if that child ever gets wind of how she feels? Shame on her selfish self.

  11. I teach my son that he can choose when it comes to things that only effect him, but there are consequences. When our actions effect others, that is where the line becomes clear.

    Hurting another person is never okay. Get permission, keep your facts straight, and make it clear whose opinion you are elaborating upon.

    Exorcise personal demons with a therapist, or in a journal. Writing should edify the reader and writer.

    That all being said, there are exceptions to every rule, and I am not a writer.

    I simply know the power of words, and the difficulty of recalling anything that has been placed before the world.

    Difficult thoughts, topics and feelings can be expressed in a way that hurts no one,and can even help. It is all in the approach.

  12. That woman instantly reminded me of “Eight-Legged Story” by Maureen McHugh.

    Every bit of fiction I’ve ever written represents something personal. My hopes, my fears, my demons, &c. And yes, I might use remixed versions of actual details, but a play-by-play of real-life events, constructed by my biased, and therefore faulty, memory? No.

    I wish I could say it was because of some sense of what is or isn’t mine to share. Or that I’m cleverly flexing my creative muscle by hiding details. But the truth is that the only way I can give strangers everything about me in my stories is by giving them, well, nothing.

    To paraphrase an old Phil Collins lyric: My heart’s on my sleeve, but my sleeve is rolled up.

    See, I’m private by nature and insecure enough that I’d only trust friends with the gory details. Lest I become the subject of someone’s blog entry. 🙂

  13. The interesting thing about this was for me the sense that the woman writing it was more full of her resentment than a sense of dissatisfaction (or shame, or guilt, or distaste) at her resentment.
    Now, I know this is being filtered through your impression, but your impression is a fairly good litmus test of the article’s intent. (What the writer intends invariably bows to the readers interpretation)

    This is different from “Writing the TRUTH”. It’s more of an expose’ of the writer’s hidden selfishness.
    It may be truth (in it’s own way) but it’s a futile truth.

    Writers must write the truth… but there is a difference between telling the lady “You are fat,” and saying “You’d look more svelte if you avoided spandex and horizontal stripes.”

    Just saying.

  14. I stick by the rule, if you can’t say anything nice… say it with a pen name no one knows.

    Haha… ahem, no just kidding. Sorta.

    I am going to be dealing with this whole topic soon when I write my nonfiction stuff because most of what I have gone through involves other people. However, the way I choose to relay it makes all the difference. This article could have hit the mark without the bitterness and still been an excellent article. There are many roads to our goal in writing, it’s which one we take that matters. I believe this woman took the wrong road and hop that her boyfriend runs for his life with his precious son.

    But that is just my two cents…

  15. Hey Sadie.

    It’s a tough question to answer. I’ve told you before how Jess and I both don’t want my work to constantly dive into the murky, dark depths, but what I didn’t tell you was that our relationship almost ended because of The Rift.

    It was the first project I started when I again picked up the “habit” of writing. Not really sure how to progress, I took the people around me at the time and turned them into characters in the story. There was a certain bartender at a place we both frequented who I made into the main character’s love interest. Needless to say, J read the manuscript, and the connection was so transparent that it caused a HUGE fight. We almost didn’t make it through that, because not only did it make her question my faithfulness, but it also caused me to put my own longings into question.

    In the end, everything turned up roses. I ended up rewriting the entire book anyway, and that character is no longer anything like the source material. The same with all the other characters, as well. It was a learning experience for me. Writing is fine for exorcising your personal demons, but never, ever use it as a way to suss out your desires, because the end result could be not so good.

    That’s all…and how’s that for writerly divulgence?

  16. Gee, I’m already a private person and for me to shove my issues out there for the world to see seems highly unlikely. There are some things that remain best unsaid or a different way you will be able to do it without seeming as though you are so bitter (from the way you made it sound.)

    Honestly, if there was a lesson in all of it, I would understand. But it doesn’t sound as if there was one like that either.

  17. If I wouldn’t want the loved one I was talking about in the story to read the story, because I feel certain it would upset or insult them, I don’t write the story – I write a poem instead and pour whatever I need to purge into that poem and make it a bit abstract.

    Maybe that is wrong, but now that I actually look at my work in regards to the topic of this post, I see that is what I do.

  18. Thanks so much for commenting, you guys. I’m delighted to see such a wide array of opinions. Yes, we want to be truthful. Yes, we don’t want to be hurtful. It’s a delicate balancing act.

    I wrote an essay that ran in the last issue of The Rambler. I chose to print it anonymously because the information could be hurtful to them. It was truthful and it wasn’t vindictive, but it still discussed personal things that might hurt those involved, simply because it is THEIR right to air it, not mine. But this was a nonfiction essay. Fiction is a completely different story. 😉

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  20. that poor poor son of his. If you dont like the son dont date the man they come as a packadge. that son must be devistated.

  21. That is a sad story indeed. Sounds like a round about way to address the issue instead of confronting the issue head-on. There’s no other reason that to use the article as a proxy to get her thoughts across. So sad…

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