This week, we're bringing you a mini-series on 'balance', which is an idea that we think is central to a sustainable writing practice. Today's post from Scarlett Harris looks at the need for balance in personal writing.
Image source: Flickr CC / anyvanille
A few years ago I got burned writing about people close to me. I chose to publish a blog post about Taylor Swift and her damaging notions of femininity and love. Perhaps ill advisedly, I used an example from my friend’s love life, without her consent, to illustrate my point.
This friend has a soft spot for Taylor Swift and I believed her tendency towards buying into the Swiftian “fairytale” romance hype informed her actions when she started hooking up with my roommate. When their courtship fizzled out a short time later, she revealed to me that because they were friends first, she didn’t feel that as lovers their relationship was any different: where were all the grand gestures on his part, she wondered?
At the time, I thought this observation would perfectly prove my assertion that Swift’s anti-feminist lyrics and rhetoric in interviews enforced an ideal that heterosexual relationships must take the shape of fairytale romances that are performed primarily by the guy, while the woman is a passive receiver of surprise weekend getaways, jewellery and flowers.
In hindsight, perhaps my opinion about my friend’s love life wasn’t something I should have published on my blog, or even passed judgment on in the first place. Needless to say, she didn’t think so either - we no longer have a relationship.
After that all went down, I suffered a bout of writer's block that lasted the better part of a year. Was this karmic retribution, perhaps?
This is not the first time I’ve gotten into trouble with a friend for airing their dirty laundry in my prose. About a year and a half before the post that ended a friendship, there was some brouhaha surrounding Mia Freedman’s assertion that sportspeople weren’t heroes because they didn’t have a lot of life experience. This got me thinking and writing about one of my friends’ sport-focused, relatively sheltered upbringing and how this influenced his social skills.
Understandably, he was very hurt that I had used personal details he’d told me in confidence to further my agenda. He was upset that I had those opinions about him at all. However, he was able to see my point of view too, and hash it out with me like an adult. Our friendship has since recovered. (Yes, I ran his inclusion in this post by him prior to publication.)
Taylor Swift herself doesn’t stray too far from mining her own and others’ personal lives for use in her work. I’m not trying to equate my writing with Swift’s by a long shot. Nor am I trying to say that using other people’s stories is the same as using your own. But I would like to think she could relate. Either way, we both wrote and write about people who are no longer in our lives, a feat some writers are more adept at that others.
But how much of other people’s lives do writers have the permission to share? Obviously, I had license to share neither experience, but in the absence of anything happening in my own love life and the desire to act as therapist to another friend, respectively - and,let’s be honest, there was obviously some resentment towards each that I was working through. I crossed a line.
The line that I crossed is one that all memoirists must at least consider. Increasingly, I’ve been delving into the personal essay and wondering whose stories and lives I can share; which anecdotes I have the permission to make public.
How specific can I get when using identifying details in my writing? At the time of publishing the pieces in question, only a few of my friends were reading my blog and would have realised who I was writing about. The majority of people who read my work are unknown to me. But just because only a handful would recognise the subject in question doesn’t necessarily mean writers have free reign over how they’re represented.
Writers such as Lena Dunham and Janet Mock share that problem on a global scale. Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, drew controversy last year when she wrote of her curiosity about her sister’s body and an alleged date rape in college. Though names and other details were altered, a fellow student of Dunham’s alma mater was falsely identified as her attacker. Mock shared concerns about the portrayal of her family in Redefining Realness, her memoir about growing up trans in Hawaii. With stakes as high as those in Dunham and Mock’s works, there’s an increased likelihood that their audiences and subjects will take issue with their words.
I think part of the reason I chose to publish those pieces was a form of therapy: giving voice to my hurt. At the time I wrote about Swift, I wasn’t thinking positive thoughts towards my friend.
I’m also guilty of writing about former idols, so it’s not just bridges between friends I have burned with my words. Sometimes the words on the page need to be voiced but we lack the courage to say them in person.
Writers are stereotyped as solitary loners who prefer to engage with the characters on the page, rather than people who exist in real life. Chalk it up to that, writerly narcissism or lack of imagination. Whatever the case, it would seem that I haven’t learned my lesson. I’m still writing about the people and situations that caused friction in my personal life in the first place.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.