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Essay Writing: When It's Just Too Personal
by Heather Haapoja

Return to Creative Nonfiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Humorous and touching slices of life are the livelihood of many writers, but are some things just too personal to share?

Shortly after I started freelancing, I was faced with an interesting dilemma. I had a story I felt strongly about telling that might help parents with the challenge of raising teenagers. It might also raise awareness of a community program that was helping teens maneuver the rocky path of life. I had even found the perfect market for such a story, and it paid well.

Now, surely there's nothing better than being paid to do something you love and helping others in the process. So, what was the dilemma? I was personally involved. One of my children made a very poor choice, and we all had to face the consequences. I felt compelled to put the whole experience down on paper. But did I really want to share it with the world?

For a writer, it's next to impossible to go through a major life situation without writing about it -- even the most heart- wrenching situations. Besides the fact that it's second nature to us, writing is excellent therapy for working through emotional upheaval. But would you want to share such personal material with strangers? Perhaps, if you thought it might help someone else.

If you feel compelled to tell your story but are concerned that it's just too personal, don't give up hope. There are ways to share what you've learned from your situation and still protect your privacy:

  • Write anonymously or use a pen name. If you leave out identifying details in the piece, such as changing or omitting names, only your byline is revealing. Consider using a pen name or requesting no byline at all. This may not help further your writing career, but it does allow you to speak honestly from your heart about what you've been through. If you do opt to change names within the story, be sure to add a disclaimer such as, "Names have been changed to protect the family's privacy."

  • Change your perspective. Writing the story in the third person point of view will distance you from the story. No one will know (except for your editor) that the tumultuous life of Jane Doe is actually your life. It's a bit more difficult to express your true feelings with this option, but it is an alternative to consider. Again, remember to include a disclaimer.

  • Be journalistic. If you're goal is simply to offer advice and solutions to others in your situation, write a journalistic article about the specific problem. With your close proximity to the situation, you'll undoubtedly have access to many experts and others in your situation for interviews. Assure your contacts that their names will be changed, if desired.

  • Give it some time. If your family has been rocked by a crisis situation, such as teenage pregnancy, substance abuse or mental illness, you may need some time to adjust. Journal about your day-to-day life, as you work through the situation. You'll never forget such a life-changing event and you'll have your journals to fill in the details at a later date. It may be years before you're truly ready to tell your story to the world, and you may gain a new perspective over time. Conversely, you may eventually decide that some things are better left unsaid.

Ultimately, I chose to share my experience in an essay. It was no easy decision. I was filled with doubt and questions. What would be the far-reaching effects? Would it really benefit anyone? Would it be embarrassing or hurtful to my child or family? I debated these issues for quite some time, discussed the idea with everyone involved and finally decided to pursue publication with the appropriate market - under one condition. It would be published anonymously.

When I read the published piece, I knew without a doubt that I had made the right decision. Tears came to my eyes, as if I was reading it for the first time. I could see it from the point of view of a parent like myself, just trying to get their child safely to adulthood. My words offered troubled parents reassurance and new options to explore. They provided an inside look at community programs in action and supported a worthy ause. I had reached an audience that might benefit from my experience.

And my personal life remained just that -- personal.

Find Out More...

An Exercise in Essay-Writing - Sheila Bender

Finding Your Writing's "Occasion" - Sheila Bender

Personally Speaking - Kathryn Lay

Writing From Anticipation - Sheila Bender

Writing the Personal Essay - Mridu Khullar

Copyright © 2003 Heather Haapoja
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Heather Haapoja is a freelance writer from northern Minnesota. Her work has been published in numerous print and online markets including ePregnancy Magazine, Travelwise Online, Rainy Day Corner for Writing Families and a variety of regional magazines. Heather is a regular contributor to The Grapevine in Frederick, Maryland and writes a monthly column, "Look on the Bright Side," for EveryWriter.com.


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