You want people to relate to you when you write, but are you alienating those you love the most?
As writers, our desire is for our content to be rich and authentic so that our readers can better identify with us. Apt personal anecdotes are the best way to connect emotionally with readers and drive a story’s popularity. Personal illustrations can effectively help the mind wrap around and focus on an idea. But when it comes to sharing stories about our significant other and children, that line of decency and protection for those we love best can often feel blurry.
After reading Erika Dreifus’ essay “Five Ways For Writers To Avoid Oversharing” and “Stop Posting Negative Things About Your Kids On Social Media” by April O’Leary which links to a story about a teen suicide allegedly in connection with something her father posted online, I committed to writing on a subject that has increasingly been on my mind.
I Ask Myself What, When and Why:
As far as my personal boundaries on sharing family-related content, my main rule involves timing. I allow lots of time to pass before I write on an experience that directly involves either my husband or children. Being able to look back on an experience I went through years ago affords many advantages.
First, waiting to share publicly helps me to more completely understand and process what happened in the first place. When I have a family-related story idea, I’ll start a rough outline. I’ll revisit it as my thoughts mature and clarify, often building a messy first draft. Mulling is a very good thing; at the very least it keeps me honest about my own culpability in a personal family anecdote I’m considering sharing. For starters, what is my motivation for sharing?
Waiting to release personal content enables me to discover the real message of an experience. As time passes, I’m better able uncover the deeper meaning of an event or season I’d like to write about. Instead of offering my readers a trite personal anecdote that makes them laugh or roll their eyes with me, I’m now able to hand them a meatier story with a coherent message. The story will have a point.
Originally, “What Potty-Training My Son Taught Me About Myself” was just another tale of a frustrated parent. Perhaps it was funny, but it wasn’t original. As I moved in deeper, thanks to time passing, my eyes were opened to the fact that the main take-away from this time in life centered on my insecurities and pride, not my son’s poor aim.
Sharing a personal experience before I come to terms with what I’ve learned—whether it’s one of anger or joy —will rob me of the chance to write the best possible story, one which will offer lasting impact. For me, emotional settlement needs to happen to write from a grounded posture.
When I’m simmering with emotion from an argument with one of my teens, or I feel let down by my husband, artistically speaking this isn’t the optimal time to write. When I’m mad, hurt or angry my word choices, phrases and story arc are more likely to be uncreative and cheap. If I write while I’m still bleeding or in a state of euphoria, my work also tends to read like a vanity project. I’m the center of attention, desiring empathy or applause.
For me, the cause of this is that I’m still smarting and have zero perspective. But if given time, a flippant post can morph into a deeply felt story. Time makes for a better product.
Most importantly: waiting provides cover for my marriage and children. No amount of writing success is worth bringing hurt or injury to those I love best. In today’s online environment, everything written is accessible to them. When my kids were little and unplugged, I didn’t write negatively about the daily grind not only because of appreciating what I’ve already mentioned—that the passing of time allows for a truer story—but that I didn’t want to cause them future embarrassment.
I fully appreciated that someday they and all their friends would have access to everything I’d published. There would be no taking things back. Apologies would ring false; relational damage would be tough to repair. Today as ever, writing about humiliating experiences for a cheap laugh is at odds with everything I’m trying to do as a parent. From tot to teen, my kids have always deserved to be treated like I’d like to be treated: with respect.
Building a strong relationship with my husband and kids is like a major construction project—the effort and time is immense. I am unwilling to destabilize this structure by insensitively oversharing.
Another great check on disclosure is to use my family as editors. Today, my family knows that before I submit something that mentions them, I’ll run it by them first. If my writing involves my husband as in “The One Adventure Guaranteed to Stretch Your Marriage”, I’ll have him read it first. If he feels it’s crossed a line and waded into our personal life as a couple, my work is to rewrite in a way that honors him and ultimately, us. Though this story started as a fairly artless rant about a frustrating shopping trip to a London IKEA, with time I saw that day from afar and was able to take the essay into the deeper zone of the marriage relationship. Since we don’t keep secrets, I wanted his eyes on it before it went online. This has only built stronger mutual trust in our relationship.
In the previously mentioned potty-training story published last winter, my now-teenage son read it and laughed. He was so past all of that. However, it wasn’t that long ago that he would have felt deeply humiliated had I published the story, regardless that the point of the story wasn’t his bathroom drama.
The by-product of this practice is that it’s brought my husband and kids into my writing life. Additionally, my conscience is clear.
Like most writers, I’m pretty obsessed with writing and getting published. I’m also obsessed with getting the story right. My discovery has been that when I do a story right, I simultaneously protect my family relationships. What about you?