What are the boundaries these days?
I once had lunch with a single friend who told me that she had recently dated a guy who had immediately gone and written about their date on his blog, including every detail, sexual and otherwise. The date hadn’t gone particularly well and, in his post, he pretty much blamed her for it. Then he called her to see if she wanted to go out again.
The story is a funny one which provokes a head-shaking, “Oh, these modern times!” kind of reaction. But it also points to something I’ve been thinking about a lot: as everyone gets into the habit of blogging about his or her life, inevitably we’re all going to be telling tales about other people. What are the rules for this? What’s fair? What’s icky? In the name of amusing others and being honest, how far can we go?
(I suddenly feel like I’m channeling Carrie Bradshaw here. Sorry. I’ll stop asking questions.)
I have a particular reason for thinking about this. The two non-fiction books I’ve written have centered on the journey that our oldest son’s autism has taken us all on. When he was little, I wrote pretty freely about our lives (altering the kids’ names for an admittedly thin layer of privacy). Writing about small children didn’t seem particularly revealing in any way, partially because there’s a universality of experience for mothers of small children and partially because little kids don’t really have secret lives.
A couple of years after the book was published, I wrote a piece for a major newspaper in which I talked about my son’s romantic life. Someone subsequently said something to me that called into question my right to talk publicly about my children, and that threw me into a self-questioning tailspin. Had I betrayed my child by publicly discussing him without his approval?
I comforted myself with the thought that if I had, at least I had done so in the service of sharing an experience that made other parents feel less alone. I received a ton of emails off of that piece, from mothers and fathers of kids on the spectrum who also loved their teenaged son or daughter and wanted a happy romantic life for him or her–and who, like me, were worried about whether that would ever happen. Many thanked me for putting into words something they’d been struggling with all alone up until then.
But still I wondered . . . was I taking advantage of someone else’s life in order to advance my own career? When it came time to write another autism book, I felt like my son was now too old for me to tell his stories, so I asked him if he wanted to do it himself. To my amazement, he said he did, although he agreed we should keep his name changed. I actually found myself editing his essays to make them less revealing, suspecting that he might in the future regret being too open.
I still wrote part of the book, of course, but I tried to keep my observations as general as possible. At one point, I told my co-author a funny but potentially embarrassing story about one of my kids and she tossed it into the book. I changed it to a “friend’s child” rather than “Claire’s”–another layer of concealment, another attempt to keep something private out of the public eye.
Do I have a right to make use of my children’s stories and lives? I’m not sure what the answer is. There are people like David Sedaris whose whole literary career consists of telling funny “true” stories about himself, his family, and his friends. He’s said that members of his family have asked him to stop writing about them. I don’t want David Sedaris to stop writing. I love him. But I wouldn’t necessarily want to be his sister, either, and know that any idiotic thing I do or say might end up in print.
When circumspection and genius collide, which should win out?
Blogging has taken this issue from relative unimportance–how many people get personal essays published in newspapers, magazines and books? Some, but not that many–to universal. Tons of people have blogs or websites. Many many more post on social networking sites. A huge portion of these write anecdotes about their families–or, in the case of the gentleman who was no gentleman in the first paragraph of this piece, about anyone who crosses their paths. What’s fair to tell? What’s a betrayal?
In this, my own blog, I try really hard to be circumspect. I rarely tell stories about my kids and I don’t keep a public journal, partially because if I described what I did most days, it would run along the lines of, “Did a load of whites, wrote for an hour, made coffee, threw the ball for the dog, took a kid to the doctor” and so on. Scintillating reading, no?
But I also avoid talking about my personal life because it’s personal. Once something’s out on the net, it’s OUT there. You can’t take it back. It limits me a lot–I have to write about universalities, not about specifics–but better that than to find I’ve said something someone really wishes I hadn’t.
Go back and read this and you’ll see how careful I was not to name names or give any identifying details about anyone I mentioned. See what I mean?