December 21, 2014

When Does Confessional Writing Cross the Line?

A conversation with several other writers sparked an interesting question: “if you write an essay about committing illegal acts, could you face criminal charges?”

I’m no lawyer, but I’m definitely a rule-follower, and my first thought was, “why the heck would you own up to something illegal and make that confession public?”
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that there are plenty examples of authors do this, both in memoir and essay form, and as far as I know, none of them been arrested as a result of what they wrote.
I’m sure this depends on the severity of the crime and how long ago it was. I can certainly see someone getting busted for over-sharing on a blog or Twitter if it was recent and really egregious. Plus, bloggers don’t have the benefit of a publisher’s legal team to advise on what details may cross the line. I can also see this happening in other parts of the world where someone’s political views or sexual orientation could endanger them.
I’m not encouraging anyone to commit a crime so they can write a tell-all essay or memoir, but I can certainly see why it would make deliciously readable material and why authors might want to ‘fess up as a form of therapy, a way to unburden themselves of guilt and painful secrets.
Here are a few examples:
All of these pieces have a raw poignancy to them (in fact, the first one made me cry), and I admire the authors for their honesty, even when it makes me uncomfortable. Still, I wonder about the answer to original question, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you read other confessional pieces like these? Have you heard of any authors or essayists facing charges for their writing? Do tell!

Book Review: Naked, Drunk, and Writing

With a headline like that, I shudder to think of the people who will find this post through a keyword search and expect to find something completely different. (Sorry, dude, it’s not that kind of blog.) Still, I read plenty of books on the craft and business of writing, and this one was so darn good it demanded its own blog post.

Since I have your attention … Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay (Ten Speed Press, 2010) is a must-read for anyone who wants to write from personal experience. Author Adair Lara teaches writing workshops in San Francisco, and it didn’t surprise me to read that most of her students get published within a year of taking the class (that is, the ones who actually submit their work, as she’s quick to point out). Reading Naked, Drunk, and Writing almost felt like I was sitting in Lara’s class having my own pieces workshopped.
With each excerpt from a student or published author, Lara shows readers how to pace a memoir or essay, balance scene with narration, handle revisions, and cut to the emotional core of the piece. She also includes tips on where and how to submit your personal essays and what to do if you get stuck or worry about offending someone in your piece.
The book references Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird in several places (in fact, Lamott even blurbed Lara), and it’s easy to see similarities. But where Bird by Bird focuses on the psychological challenges writers face, Naked, Drunk, and Writing also delves into the nitty-gritty details of word choice, tense, and syntax. Although I’ve published essays in two anthologies and two major newspapers, there were plenty of insights that were brand new to me, and I could scarcely wait to incorporate her tips and exercises into my own writing.
Interestingly, Naked, Drunk, and Writing was originally self-published and proved successful enough that a publisher snatched up the second edition. With so many tips on the practical and poetic sides of writing, it’s easy to see why.

Guest Post: Getting Personal with Essay Subjects

By Meredith Resnick

Before I began writing professionally, I was a therapist. (I hold a license in clinical social work.) Therapists are dedicated to confidentiality—protecting the privacy of clients and patients, individuals who trust you with personal details of their lives.

So how do I reconcile writing essays that include people I care about so that they will feel comfortable reading them—and I will feel okay if they read them, too?

How do I maintain others’ privacy as I write about finding my own truth and a larger universal truth, especially when those people I mention in the essay helped me find it?

Here are my guidelines.

Keep the focus on myself. Having this ground rule has given me more freedom to write than I ever could have imagined. I’m a work in progress—they’ll always be plenty to discover and improve about me, so I’m guaranteed never running out of material. I focus on myself, on the lessons I learned—about me.

Grasp the deeper meaning and higher purpose of “The Essay.” After studying the personal essay with masters like Lori Gottlieb, Andrea King Collier and Beth Levine, this is the [somewhat] distilled definition of the personal essay I live by, based on what I learned from them (prepare for a long sentence!): It’s a true story that utilizes select personal details from my life, to reveal a lesson I learned that deepened my understanding of myself, that proceeds to reveal a greater, wider universal truth beyond me. So, it’s about me, but it’s also not about me (that’s the universal truth part).

No gossip. I don’t “write” behind someone’s back meaning I don’t reveal personal details, confidences, etc that could be humiliating or just too tender or raw, no matter how compelling.

Specifics about me; generalities about them. If I’m going to write an expose, it should be about me, not them.

Ask myself: Is this my story?

View the other person as a gift that contributed to my insight. I might not have learned a lesson or reality about myself had this person not been in my life. Keep the focus on that and handle that “gift giver” gently. For me, this goes for a person living or deceased.

The relationship comes first. I place the relationship, rather than the story of the relationship, as the priority.

Tell my story, not theirs. This means when I’m writing something that includes my kids, my husband, my friend, I do my very best to frame the anecdote to reveal how they enabled/allowed/encouraged me (whether they realized it or not) to find my truth.

The discomfort test. If a person mentioned in the essay reads the essay, the only reason I would want to feel discomfort would be with what I reveal about myself—not what I mention about them.

Lay-my-head-on-the-pillow test. If a piece I’m writing is causing me so much anxiety and fear that I can’t sleep, I put it aside and reevaluate in a day, week, month or year. Sometimes I’m anxious because I’m working the meaning of a situation out, other times I’m anxious because I know in my gut that the personal essay or memoir format is not an option for a particular story, because the details about someone else are way too personal. (Which is why I’m just beginning to figure out what fiction writing is all about!)

What are your guidelines?

Meredith Resnick’s essays have appeared in Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, JAMA, The Complete Book of Aunts and many others publications. She the author of Adoption Stories at Psychology Today and the Older Parents column, coming soon to The Faster Times. She is the creator of The Writer’s [Inner] Journey.

Guest Post: Discover the History Within Your Memoir

By Annette Fix

Simply stated: When you write a memoir, you are recording history. History as experienced by a single human. History that you are living and documenting right now.

The dusty textbooks used in schools relay history, citing the names, dates, and places of significant events, and the major public, social, political, and religious figures considered noteworthy. While all those facts and figures are preserved for posterity, where are the stories from the people who lived through those historical events?

Without the individual stories of people who were there, future generations will be robbed of the humanity beneath the history.

The galvanizing election of the first African American president of the United States, the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Holocaust—these events and countless others—both large and small—are pieces of human history that shouldn’t be reduced to facts and figures.

Which is more compelling and leaves you with a deeper understanding of history: the chapter about WWII in your old high-school textbook or The Diary of Anne Frank? At their core, all memoirs have historical elements woven through the story. There is no way to write a memoir can exist without capturing a moment in history. A memoir is documentation—a narrative record of how a single person functioning within society thinks, behaves, and lives at this very moment in time.

Through his personal story in Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt tells a tale that gives great insight into the Irish socio-economic struggles. His experience is not unlike the experiences of many others at that place and time. McCourt’s story has relevance today in this economic climate. A memoir written by someone affected by the current lending crisis or the stock market crash could provide the human insight behind the facts and figures that will eventually be recorded in history textbooks.

The same can be said about the gender oppression in Middle Eastern culture explored in Reading Lolita in Tehran. And the political debate surrounding right-to-life issues in Two Weeks of Life. History repeats itself and often only the setting, characters, and details change.

What is your story has no connection to anything historical?

Maybe your story is not tied directly to any event that will ever make your name appear in a textbook; that doesn’t mean your experience is less valuable. Your daily trials, concerns, and experiences deserve to be recorded to paint an authentic picture of life at this very moment, at this exact place in the world. What may not seem like history to you now could end up being a study in social anthropology in the future, so don’t be too quick to decide your story is insignificant on a historical level.

As an example, when I began writing my book, The Break-Up Diet: A Memoir, I was working through a devastating relationship break-up that occurred exactly 43 days after the terrorist attack on The World Trade Center—two seemingly unrelated incidents. It wasn’t until a year later that I discovered studies were conducted about the phenomenon. Because Americans were shaken to the core by an attack carried out on U.S. soil, many of them began to question what and who in their lives were most important. People made significant life choices, following the mantra: “life is too short.” Though the specifics of my story are unique to my life, and my voice and the execution of my memoir is intentionally lighter in tone than you would expect, the catalyst for my story is both historical and universal.

Take a look at your life. Think on a micro level—what experience in your life mirrors history on a universal/macro level? What is your personal story connection to history?

Annette Fix is a freelance editor, a publishing industry and single parenting speaker, Senior Editor of WOW! Women On Writing, and the author of The Break-Up Diet: A Memoir.

Visit her writing blog at Annette’s Paper Trail. She enjoys hearing from her readers and other writers. You can email her directly at annette[at]annettefix[dot]com.

For the length of her blog tour, Annette will be giving away free digital copies of her memoir. If you’d like a copy, send an email to promo[at]thebreak-updiet[dot]com, please put “The Urban Muse” in the subject line.

You can purchase copies of The Break-Up Diet: A Memoir online and from any independent or chain bookstore.