To me, writing often means putting into words the otherwise unutterable—to take messy knots of feelings and unravel them into a series of articulate sentences, hoping they’ll strike a chord with others. It is to condense complex subjects like sex, love, pain, and outrage into digestible tidbits for readers’ consumption. I always hope they finish my pieces feeling sated, thinking “finally, someone said it!”.
While chasing the glory of relatability, I’ve found myself toeing the lines of my own psyche. What more am I willing to share? How much can I feed readers before nothing is left? How much should I keep to myself? In a world where baring all (physically or mentally) is the norm on social media, sharing intimate details is celebrated; getting personal proves there’s life behind those mascara-ed eyes. Vulnerability has become a creative currency and its value is ever-increasing—but at what cost does this come to writers?
While writing my sex column for a student newspaper (which, of course, was predominantly read by my classmates), I had to remind myself that I don’t owe anyone total access to my private life; my writing doesn’t have to be entirely autobiographical. Olivia Ferrucci, Lithium‘s editor-in-chief, summarizes the uniquely vulnerable position of writers well, noting that “we very explicitly share vulnerable, messy parts of ourselves, and I’d argue that we don’t get to hide behind the veil of some other artistic component like musicians and artists.” She’s right—there are no visual or auditory nuances to hide behind as a writer. So how do we achieve relatability while protecting our privacy as well as that of others?
What goes unsaid requires almost as much thought as what is said. We tiptoe around the incriminating details that would identify others in our pieces: names, places, dates. When I asked three writers what kinds of details they would omit from a personal essay, all three gave answers relating to other people. Meghan Chiew, another Lithium writer, confesses to getting “into lots of trouble for being a little too specific and honest” in her high school blog. No writer ever wants to receive the “is this about me?” text, so we omit and we fine-tune to avoid conflict with the people in our lives.
Are we, as writers, more preoccupied with protecting other people’s information than our own? This makes sense, given that to name-and-shame would be both unprofessional and a little distasteful—we aren’t, after all, the tabloid media. But many personal essayists take no issue with having some of their most intimate thoughts and feelings published. When possible, we sustain an intense focus on our own experiences, ensuring that those involved in the narrative go unnoticed. Personally, I have a fair few things under lock and key—but perhaps they didn’t mention such things to me, just as I’m refraining from going into detail about my own skeletons in the closet here.
The process of writing personal essays isn’t always comfortable, after all. Writing about my parents’ divorce was tough; I cried while drafting it and felt minimal catharsis once it was out in the world. While I’ve previously benefited from the vulnerability of my sex and relationships writing, this piece rendered little reward—I suppose I found my creative boundary. But Meghan compares the process to “finally solving a difficult math problem”; Olivia likens it to therapy, noting that the “process of carefully articulating my experiences and relationships always helps me discover how I really, honestly feel about something or someone.” In many—though not all—cases, writing can take on therapeutic qualities as it forces us to confront and articulate some of our innermost feelings.
This vulnerability can be rewarding for readers as well as writers, too. I was only inspired to start writing after I’d read pieces that resonated with me. I remember the relief I felt after reading about the agony of FaceTime or the toxicity of self-care culture and knowing I wasn’t alone in my skepticism. Our pieces can outstretch an arm of relatability, as people read them and (ideally) think “thank God it’s not just me!” What makes many personal essays so valuable is their honesty—allowing others to connect with what is otherwise a series of inanimate words on a page.
That said, sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings so freely can come at a price. I share Meghan’s concern that “sometimes I just want to be a mysterious girl, but having my vulnerable thoughts on the internet kind of sacrifices that.” It’s hard to be mysterious when we prolifically externalize our internal world. Another Lithium writer, Andrea Panaligan, explains that she has begun “straying from personal essays” due to the impact writing has had on how she processes experiences. She elaborates, “with traumatic experiences, I don’t give myself the time to actually come to terms with what happened; in my head I’m already picturing it as a pitch.” I’m guilty of taking this a step further: sometimes, my position as a writer who specializes in love and relationships has unfairly influenced my real-life decisions. I resisted getting into a relationship with my now-boyfriend because I was worried that a heterosexual, monogamous relationship would somehow tarnish my sex-positive, enthusiastically bisexual, sex-columnist image.
And now, I’m more driven toward an open relationship—but is it for the real-life rewards or for the research? At this point, I’m struggling to draw the line between myself as Person versus myself as Writer. It’s a sentiment Andrea summarizes very well in her piece on debranding the self, quipping, “I write a lot of first-person essays, so I find that there’s so much riding on Me, on my capital-S Self—selfhood may be a process but there’s also some truth in it being a product, and mine has always been for sale.” Part of what makes a successful writer is having a distinctive brand. To me, that’s always meant being funny on the internet, sexually liberated, and single.
So I kept my relationship to myself while writing my column, firstly out of fear, but later because I began to understand that it’s okay to not share everything about myself for the creative benefit of personal essays. I’m allowed a life that exists beyond my writing. It’s liberating to know that my choices don’t have to be governed by “research” for writing; having a boyfriend has in no way stunted my creative abilities.
Of course, this piece isn’t to discredit writers’ innate desire to share; I think our willingness to be honest and vulnerable in personal essays is a beautiful thing. But hopefully this reminds both writers and their readers that we are all entitled to some privacy. Don’t be afraid to draw boundaries, omit details, and keep some parts of yourself to yourself.
By Alice Garnett
Thanks for this article. I think there needs to be some honest vulnerability in writing. Because it makes all the difference. Vulnerability is not laying down the facts, it’s the tone, the honesty, even if it’s a bit embarrassing. Also, this article has pushed me to write again! xx