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?