How do we write the truth about our parents, spouses, children, and friends without hurting them?
My ex-boyfriend often jokingly accused me of “selling” our love. The reason for that is simple: I write and sell personal essays.
This is the thing about personal essays. They’re personal. We dig deep within ourselves and write about thoughts and feelings we wouldn’t dare share with the closest of friends, but make available to the reading public. We cut open our hearts and our wounds to explore the raw emotions beneath our words.
The truth isn’t always pretty. And when family members, friends or acquaintances come across themselves in writing that portrays them in an unflattering light, the risk of hurt runs high. Personal essays can be great to read, but damn tough to write.
Whether it’s a humorous anecdote or a deep-set revelation, a personal essay revolves around real people and real feelings.
How then, do we write the truth about our parents, spouses, children, and friends, without hurting them?
If you’re struggling with words that have to come out and a need to protect the people you love from the exposure they risk, here’s what you can do.
1. Use a pseudonym
Pseudonyms are a great way of writing material you wouldn’t want your family to lay eyes on, venturing into unknown territory while protecting your reputation, or simply using another identity for a different kind of work. If there’s high potential for broken hearts, it may be in your best interest to pick out a catchy name for your personal essays.
2. Write it as fiction
Some stories need to be told. But you don’t always have to write a first-person account to bring home a point. You could tell it in the voice of a character in your novel, screenplay, or short story. Change genders, ages, dialogue, details. Everything but the spirit.
3. Talk it out
Instead of giving your loved ones a copy of the personal essay when it’s released to the world, get their approval beforehand. Many editors will advise that you ask people for permission to use their names in your work. Not only will many people be flattered that you wrote about them, they’ll be more forgiving because you respected their privacy by checking with them first.
4. Don’t aim for publication
Writing isn’t always about publishing a story. Sometimes, it’s just about getting something out on paper. Some personal essays never see the light of day. Most writers will tell you they have stories lying around that they wouldn’t ever want to have published. Lay off your work for a while. Get back to it when your emotions have cooled down and you have some distance. If you still want to get it published, do so when the time is right.
5. Go for it
Sometimes you reach a point in your life when you need to say something and you need to say it out loud. If you don’t mind telling the truth, no matter the cost, then for what it’s worth, go ahead and do it. (Just please, check with a lawyer so you don’t land yourself in legal trouble.)
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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