I went to a recital given by my piano teacher and her students a few nights ago (I didn’t play…too many months off after having a baby) and got to chat with another adult student. She mentioned that her husband writes poetry and we got to chatting about writing; she asked me what I wrote, and I told her personal essays. She wanted to read what I’ve written, and this is the first time I’ve had someone I know (outside of my writing group and a couple friends) ask to read my work. She wanted to know what I wrote about, and I told her “intimate personal matters.”
Writing personal essays that are honest (and sometimes painful) is a strange conundrum: I want my work to be published, yet I never think about who might read it when I’m writing or submitting to journals. It’s actually easy to forget I’m writing about real people. This past spring, I withdrew an essay from a journal after it had been accepted because I realized it would be devastating for the family member I’d written about to read. It revealed family secrets that this family member is unaware of and will likely never know. This is the only time I’ve shied away from the details of my childhood, because other than this particular essay, I know that I own my story. My childhood is my own, and its story is mine to tell.
My father called me a few months ago after reading one of my essays online. “I think you need to write about things that make you happy,” he told me. The essay’s subject–my trip to the national spelling bee when I was 14 and how little my mother participated in my life–made him very uncomfortable, even though he’s no longer married to my mother and he himself was “well represented” in the essay. Any writer knows, however, that “happy stuff” doesn’t make for good reading. No one wants to read about the woman who lives a happy life with everyone going perfectly well for her…no. We all want to read about conflict, tension and strife, not because we like to see other people be miserable, but because readers want to find themselves in our work. As readers, we want to witness and then discern how others deal with roadblocks, obstacles and pain of all varieties. This is how writers get to connect with their readers. And I’m glad I get the opportunity to do that with my essays.
And I also have to say: trying to write beautifully about the dark parts of the human experience DOES make me happy. We can bring light to sadness just by looking head on, unflinchingly, at all parts of our lives…the good AND the bad.