Writing Boundaries—When Do I Cross Them?

As a writer, wondering whether I should cross certain boundaries that involve my personal life is not a rhetorical question for me. The reason I’m asking it now is that yesterday I almost published a post that might have hurt somebody else.

Not terribly. Not inexcusably. Maybe not at all. But I realized it could have repercussions, and much as I felt attached to the piece and wanted to share it, I knew I shouldn’t publish it.

At least not yet.

Once I realized this, it began to affect the way I told the story.

I had already changed certain names—well, that’s acceptable in memoir writing—but in this case, I knew the ruse wouldn’t provide much anonymity among networks of mutual friends. I added explanations; then cut them again. As a result, some parts of the back story were untold—that’s all right and, perhaps, the ethical thing to do—yet in leaving the motivations of everyone elliptical, it could have seemed like I was protecting myself.

So I’ve slammed up against some big questions, the first of which has to do with the twitchy fingers of bloggers, the breathless sense that it has to get out there, now. Do we have to publish everything in real time? When is this valuable and when not? You move the mouse, click on “Publish Post,” and instantly your work is out there for readers to see.

Even the most sensitive writer is usually making a case for himself or herself. We may admit to our foibles; we may write about crisis situations that change our points of view or reveal personal weaknesses. Yet we get to be the star of the story, rather than our family or friends or co-workers. In fact, if we’re doing our job as professional writers, we’re always making a case for how fascinating our observations are, how worthy of report or discussion, how much they matter.

Often we’re writing about shared human experiences, of course. This can be cathartic for writer and reader. The continuing life stories told by many professional bloggers also turn the writing dynamic in new ways. We see writers change their perspectives and understandings of events in real time. This is exciting; it feels like real life.

Yet it isn’t real life, even if somebody is reporting on themselves every hour. No memoir writing can be, because, as writers, we always make choices about what to observe and what to include. The best memoirs are distillations of lived experience. They have the intensity of novels or first-person short stories. They get at bigger truths than the passing flow of quotidian thoughts and events.

It’s here that I wrestle as a blogger: anything can be turned into an interesting story, if one has a strong, funny, appealing voice. I like the quotidian; I believe some of the best stories happen in the everyday margins; they don’t have to be Oprah tell-alls or about “big” news topics.

But if the passing flow is constantly reported on and then disappears into the cyber-ether, how do we as readers—or writers—know what truly matters? And how do we gain the distance on events to figure out what should be included in a story for public consumption and what not?

With the post I almost published, I’m still not sure. It took a form that was distilled and literary and probably too telegraphic. I think my desire to keep some of the details private dictated the form, without my conscious choosing. But as soon as I started feeling anxious about what I’d created, I didn’t think I had permission to commit it to the public space of a blog. Perhaps I could show it to my trusted writing group first; perhaps it shouldn’t see the virtual light of day at all.

This is frustrating, because the whole point of blogging is to get the work out there. Within the space of a few hours, I’d shifted into my normal print mode: reflection, tightening, editing, possibly de-vivifying. How much lag time does a writer need? Doesn’t that impose a form of self-censorship?

Ugh. I’m wrestling. I’m learning.

I’ve been blogging actively for about half a year now, and the feedback I’ve received from readers has been tremendously helpful in shaping ideas for essays. I’ve posted a few informal riffs, but my posts tend to be essays and think pieces because of my magazine background. This has allowed me to include personal anecdotes in a format that feels very comfortable to me. I understand the ethical boundaries in print, even when telling stories about my seven-year-old son.

But I know I sometimes need to feel uncomfortable, too. It’s possible that the post I haven’t published is heading in an exciting new direction, revealing me in ways that aren’t entirely flattering, adding vulnerability to my writing. Blogging has helped me as a writer, but I have yet to figure out all the parameters or my own personal boundaries.

One of my goals for this year is to post more often on this blog, perhaps daily. I soon hope to have a new website in place and a better format for my blog, which I call Athena’s Head. I want to build a readership, certainly. As a professional writer, I’m creating my “platform.”

Yet I believe that one of the ironies of blogging is that, regardless of how much it’s become a professional add-on to being a writer—and how ephemeral posts are—or how easy it is to fake personal stories or fool people about who you are online—the most successful bloggers communicate an honest, trustworthy person behind the words. You want to hang out with them.

It may be a work in progress, figuring out what to include, but I know that it demands a different voice than that of my literary writing, print features, or a number of the essays I’ve published here.

As always, I’m curious about what readers think. So what do you want to hear me writing about—and how far should I go?

5 thoughts on “Writing Boundaries—When Do I Cross Them?

  1. Oh, Martha. Phew! I need to take a a deep breath after reading this post. There's so much here to tackle–and I have thought about and tackled much of it as well. For me, it boils down to intention. What is my intention for writing this piece? And will my intention hurt someone else? I won't try to answer what I want to read here, because everything you've posted since I discovered you has been interesting to me. I love your writing. And only you can answer what compels you to write certain things and why. It sounds as if you heard an inner voice whispering to you that the piece might hurt someone. It is always good to heed that voice. Now you can figure out how important what you wrote is to you in terms of publishing.

  2. I think you're right, Karen, about heeding the inner voice. I'll also probably be showing the unpublished piece to my writing group because sometimes I'm just too close to tell. That lack of distance in blogging both exhilarates and disturbs me. Then again, that could be just the right stance for creating engaging stories.

    Thanks, as always, for your support. It means a lot, especially as I wrestle through issues like this.

  3. Ironically, Martha, I think this might be your best blog to date. You are skating over the whole hemisphere of writing, regardless of where, or in what format, the writing appears. The selection/construction process of the delivered perspective, the inherent blindness and truth in that process, the role of your "real truth and loyalties," and the coy decisions those loyalties extract, are exhausting. In addition, there is the gruesome issue of self-image. Am I writer before I am anything else, including a parent, spouse, or best friend? Should I, as Norman Mailer suggested, do anything you need to do to write a great story? Anything?
    With autobiographical fiction, a wobbly medium, a hinterland of aesthetics and self-delusion, the quandary isn’t always so much truth, as presenting a truth. The primal effort of selecting the material from life, the right material, to translate the reality you mean to translate, is crucial, and potentially wretchedly disloyal. Everyone's first fiction workshop guru probably told them to write about what you know, but what you know is pretty cluttered. There is a dynamic peephole inside the clutter that will tell the story precisely, but getting there can be one of 100 multiple choice answers. The brain swarms, and gets angry at everything that is complicating and crowding that simple route through truth and beauty. And by the way, was the discarded material a latent form of self-aggrandizement? Did I exclude, in the first person narrator who looks and smells a lot like me, that I am pudgy and pimpled, someone terminally outside of the sweet posse of popular kids? Am I a Thomas Wolfe, writing in that big, bloated, subjective arena of moi? That selection process you describe, for me, is usually the raw essence of writer's block. The potential story is so laden with endless, endless possibilities that I feel like an eleven year old in a very abstract math class. The borders of this morass, this writerly ontology, are simply too nebulous. How many grains of sand, and along those lines, how many ways to tell my heartfelt story?
    So…I have no answers to your questions, but I appreciate your questions. They address the many times when a keen native voice, a voice out of nowhere, a voice with judgment and boundaries, won’t take us by the hand a la Virgil and Dante, and escort us through the writing. In those moments, I suggest a little William S. Burroughs, who made great progress in blurring and bypassing the selection process.

  4. Laurie, this a beautiful comment and full of all sorts of evocative threads. You're right that this post worked because I made myself vulnerable in it, and when I do so, I'm in the zone with my writing. But all sorts of barriers come up when I write about others in a way that makes them vulnerable–and while it does restrain me, I think showing restraint in making such work public is the ethical thing to do. I'm not in Norman Mailer's camp on this one.

    It's very clear to me that I was right not to publish the piece I mentioned. I can also see that it's not working yet as a piece of writing. Too many punches have been pulled; the drama is undercut because of all that isn't explained and the self-protectiveness of my voice.

    If and when I'm able to expose myself in this particular piece, then it will cohere–and it will be something I can publish without feeling guilt. That's the wonderful irony of all this.

  5. Most of the time, people (by which I mean non-writers) should listen to their inner voices, especially when the inner voice advises more diplomacy or "pulling back of punches."

    Writers, on the other hand, often are more sensitive than said people: for example, becoming circumspect and even overly symbolic, perhaps for diplomacy's sake, perhaps for nuance, in order to rise above the petty. In doing so, writers often err on the side of treating their audience more sensitively than even the audience would want to be treated. (Of course, some bloggers do not suffer from over-sensitivity.) So, that is my take: The main dynamic is rarely between writer and subject, more often among a writer and her readers.

    Your reflection about lag time is also interesting. If you believe in the river of Heraclitus, then you yourself become a reader of your own writing, provided you allow yourself at least a day or so of pause. Even as a writer of software (for which design is paramount), I need to be my own reviewer by letting time separate myself from the intense love of my work.

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