Before I began writing professionally (and for a long time while I was, as well), I was a therapist. Therapists are dedicated to confidentiality. So how do I reconcile writing essays that include people I care about so that they will feel comfortable reading them—and I will feel okay if they read them, too?
How do I maintain others’ privacy as I write about finding my own truth and a larger universal truth? Here’s a few thoughts:
Keep the focus on myself. Having this ground rule has given me more freedom to write than I ever could have imagined. I focus on myself, on the lessons I learned—about me. Attached to this is something equally important and sometimes difficult, when writing about something that is emotional or feels raw: remembering the humanity in the other person.
Grasp the deeper meaning and higher purpose of “The Essay.” After studying the personal essay with masters like Lori Gottlieb, Andrea King Collier and Beth Levine, this is the [somewhat] distilled definition I refer to: It’s a true story that utilizes select personal details from my life, to reveal a lesson I learned that deepened my understanding of myself, that proceeds to reveal a greater, wider universal truth beyond me. So, it’s about me, but it’s also not about me (that’s the universal truth part).
The discomfort test. If a person mentioned in the essay reads the essay, the only reason I would want to feel discomfort would be with what I reveal about myself—not what I mention about them.
Lay-my-head-on-the-pillow test. I’ll admit it, anxiety is an issue for me. If a piece I’m writing is causing me so much anxiety and fear that I can’t sleep, I put it aside and reevaluate in a day, week, month or year. The distance gives me time to feel okay with what I send out into the world via what I put on the page.
Meredith Resnick lives in southern California. Visit her at http://meredithresnick.com.