Wednesday, July 06, 2011

That's personal! UPDATED

As someone who writes in the first person on this here blog, and who often finds herself writing about other such writing, I've often thought and sometimes written about how one approaches this genre/this set of genres. By "genre(s)" I mean everything from "overshare" essays about love life, body image, etc., to articles or blog posts that mix a personal story with one of broader significance (think Amy Chua on parenting, Allison Benedikt on Zionism, or, indeed the Drezner's tenure tale, to give just three recent examples that have come up on WWPD). The authors/bloggers in question might be people somewhat in the public eye - that is, writers/academics/bloggers with readers outside their immediate families - but are not sufficiently famous/glamorous that strangers would be giving the slightest thought to their personal lives if they hadn't put it out there. So a Kissinger or Britney autobiography doesn't count, but a Park Slope parenting tell-all by someone well-known in sustainable-food circles does. (I.e. not people who would make it into this amazing/upsetting German celebrity magazine that's all about famous people whose bathing suits don't fit properly. Amy Winehouse's bikini top needed some serious adjusting, as did Kate Moss's bikini bottom. This is what's on the cover of the magazine, in the checkout area along with the tobacco and hard liquor selection. No Whole Foods, this Rewe.)

If you're writing one about yourself:

-Be clear with yourself (and, if relevant to what you're writing about, your loved ones) where you draw the line. Dan Savage, for example, talks about oh just about everything (note the "tail" query in a recent podcast), but not his sex life with his husband. First-person, personal-issues-topic, tone of openness, none of this requires actually spilling all. Where you draw the line is sometimes best not to spell out for readers, because this is information in and of itself that curious sorts will extrapolate from. But, as with Savage, sometimes common sense supports a decision, and there's no harm in stating it outright.

-Remember that the "you" your readers are getting is one based purely on the text provided, and others provided previously. If you hint at your husband being a tyrant (Benedikt), or a pushover (Chua), readers will round up. And you don't get to complain about this, because they didn't just randomly pick you out of a crowd and decide to discuss your marriage. You put it out there. Remember that however harsh the criticism, it's not you-you being criticized, so even if you end up learning valuable things about yourself, you don't have to take this personally. It's not your marriage in its entirety. Its the tiny glimpse offered by a couple of anecdotes.

UPDATE (and expect more such updates):

-Your children are yours to raise. They're not yours to write about. I know I'm repeating myself, so I won't restate all the arguments here, but this really does belong in the official WWPD guide to writing and writing about personal essays, as PG's comment below inadvertently reminded me. Kids who are under your roof, especially, are not in a position to consent to being written about, so even if they were totally OK with it, what would that even mean? In this Facebook age, no one has much of a right to reinvention anymore, with all those friends from middle school virtually present at all times. But at least leave the potentially humiliating anecdotes of childhood to the children who've lived them, to retell years later if they so choose.

If you, the parent, believe what you need to say about parenting is really that important, find some way of doing so that in no way implicates your own, identifiable, real-life children, and sorry but yes, they're still identifiable even if you're a woman who kept her name, and their last name is that of their father. Write about Parenting, not your parenting, because your parenting is also their upbringing, and what if they, unlike you, never become big-deal writers/bloggers with an audience? Or better yet, write fiction, and even if some readers suspect resemblance to truth, you've probably mixed things up a bit, right?, and even if you've used their real names (which I wouldn't advise), it's not really about them.

Caveat: This doesn't carry over to if the personal writing is about having a child with severe mental retardation or severe autism, or worse (and yes, I'm thinking of this essay). In such cases, a) the chances that the child will read or write about his own childhood are slim to none, and b) this kind of writing could be immensely helpful to other parents going through the same thing, canceling out any remaining ickiness about discussing the private moments of a real-life person who can't give consent to being written about, or about the possible necessity of mentioning the siblings' childhoods as well. But if the issue is, your 12-year-old is begging for designer jeans, your 16-year-old keeps flubbing the PSAT, your charmingly articulate four-year-old's fixated on scat, this is not for you to report to all. If you need reassurance in these non-tragic matters, some combination of general-terms writing, fiction-writing, and private conversation with other parents about raising kids will have to suffice.

If you want to criticize one:

-Don't even begin if the person who wrote the thing is, say, your boss, your best friend's girlfriend, your neighbor with whom you share childcare duties. The recipient will take personally criticisms of personal writing, even if in an ideal world that would not be the case, so there will be real-life consequences. But even then, it's tough to criticize the personal writing of someone you know well or have strong feelings about, because that background is coloring everything you think about some measly 800 words.

-So, assuming the author is a relative stranger, or the kind of personal essay/opinion writer who actively invites criticism of his work, stick with the text(s) provided. If it's in there, it's fair game.

-Do not throw in personal details about the author beyond what's provided in the article/post or in other articles/posts by the same person. This goes both for if you're critiquing the writing of an acquaintance about whom you know details beyond what's provided, and for if you're improvising your own assumptions via speculation. Both are irritating, because there's no way to refute arguments that are based on personal details above and beyond what you're willing to provide publicly. As in: it's fair game to point out that someone hurling a YPIS ("your privilege is showing") is himself a graduate of Andover, if this is in some public bio of the individual. It's not fair game to be like, 'and at Andover, he always made a big deal about how his pink polos were Lacoste,' or, 'his parents so obviously could pay the full tuition, no way was he on scholarship.' It might be awfully tempting, but don't.

If you want to defend one:

-Don't say that all criticism of the piece is inherently unfair, because it's just one person's personal experience and don't judge, etc., etc. Writing for an audience, even writing in the first person, doesn't get a pass wrt being judged. Because, as noted above, it's not the writer-as-person who's being judged, but the persona as he comes across in the piece of writing.

-By all means include that disclaimer about being friends with the author, and defend your friends when you think they've been misunderstood, but don't then expect readers who know neither of you to find this persuasive.

There's probably a good bit more that could be added, so consider this a proto-guide at best.


Sheera said...

None of this applies to my blog! We only take compliments from stay-at-home moms.

Phoebe said...

A fine policy I should probably adopt for WWPD.

PG said...

Interesting set of rules, with which I mostly agree. However, I think it's quite difficult for the person described in the piece in question not to feel personally criticized unless the critic makes this clear up front. E.g. if someone writes about how Chua's parenting methods must inevitably have produced soulless robots, I think her actual children are justified in feeling this as a personal criticism of them, unless the critic phrases it as "I fear that *I* would have turned out a soulless robot had I been parented this way." Another option is to get sorta academic-sounding and emphasize that you are critiquing a performance/persona presented in a particular cultural artifact, and not the person him or herself.

I started out with way more sympathy for Chua than for Benedikt for many reasons:

1) Chua really was writing about something very personal: how she raised her children and how one of her daughters ultimately rebelled against this method. At least in the U.S., we have a strong sense of the nuclear family unit -- and the marriage at its head -- as the most private possible zone, into which intrusion should be as rare and minimal as possible. Chua's opening up this zone for public inspection, particularly doing so with many admissions of her own faults, mistakes and absurdities, is brave.

Benedikt was writing about probably the most intransigent political problem since WWII. Sure, she was writing about her personal journey and feeeelings and all that, but that doesn't change the fact that political judgments are made by citizens who then can affect life for total strangers through their exercise of 1st and 14th Amendment rights. Chua's choice of how to raise her kids hasn't the slightest bearing on how I choose to raise mine unless I want it to.

2) As we've gone over at WWPD, people were judging Chua based on a mishmash of paragraphs taken from various parts of her book, an editing decision that resulted in her statements being read utterly out of context. That Chua should have foreseen this isn't quite as obvious as it may seem, given that all her previous publications were on political/legal topics, and in that arena where she had public influence, she paradoxically was accorded fairer intellectual treatment despite her controversial theories about the role of ethnicity.

3) At least on the blogs I read, the violations of "Do not throw in personal details about the author beyond what's provided in the article/post or in other articles/posts by the same person." wrt Chua came out VERY fast. In particular, everyone was an expert (for the prosecution) on her marriage. This doesn't appear to have been so much the case for Benedikt.

Phoebe said...


First off, what you say re: Chua's kids' right to defend themselves reminds me of an item I left off - but have mentioned here before - and will need to add in an update to this post: personal writing should not be about your real-life-identifiable kids, esp. kids still living under your roof. If it's "brave," as you say, to write about parenting, how does that square with the inherent unfairness of being written about by someone you depend on? Yes, yes, they were consulted, we were assured, but why would we think Chua's daughters were even in a position to say anything but that their mother's delightful? There are ways to write about parenting-in-general (here's an underused genre: fiction!) that do not bring the inherently embarrassing moments of real people's upbringings into the public eye, in a document purporting to be non-fiction. So as I see it, it was wrong that this book was written about them in the first place, but also wrong that the commentary on it - and I take your word for it - got personal above and beyond the info Chua herself was providing.

(I suppose a caveat here would be that if someone writes a personal essay, those who know them personally, in discussing it amongst themselves/with other friends privately might well bring up the juicier side-stories. What's unacceptable is, for example, using the fact that someone's written something on a personal topic and in the first person as permission to say whatever you know about them in real life.)

As for the rest, I have no doubt that whether scrambled by the WSJ, edited with utmost, or improvising, Chua's more persuasive than Benedikt on everything. A better writer, a better thinker, etc. Benedikt presumably saw herself as brave for daring to speak out against Zionism as - gasp - an American Jew with a left-wing journalistic platform, by all accounts because she missed the zillion peers who preceded her in the last decade or so. Chua actually did write something new, and hit a nerve. I think you and I fundamentally disagree on the extent to which Chua was hurt by misreadings vs. delighted with all the publicity, but we definitely agree re: the difference between what Chua and Benedikt had to offer.

As for whether people got into her personal business, my sense is she's less of a public figure than Chua, so what there was was a bunch of people speculating that her husband's an ass, along with a fellow-journalist friend of hers (and the infamous husband) speaking out in her defense. Given her stature, it's conceivable that people were already gossiping about Chua, if in a very small community, simply because she already had something of a profile.

Phoebe said...

Oh, what should go also in the parentheses - what's unacceptable is to say that in a public forum, such as a blog.