"Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story" — Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton)
The rise of personal essays online has been a boon to up-and-coming freelance writers and a bane to veteran professionals who say it’s not “real” writing. As an up-and-comer myself, I’m beyond thrilled whenever I publish an essay about my experiences. For many personal essayists, it’s about owning our truths when we’re told not to, or about sharing our stories in the hopes that someone else will relate.
But what happens when we publish something that hurts another group of people?
As writers, it is our responsibility to think about the words we put in the world. No one should be dissuaded from writing something, but when it comes to publishing it, putting it on a public platform, we should all be critical of ourselves. This doesn’t just go for non-fiction, but for fiction, too.
The key aspect of any kind of writing is research. Some things are easy — our lived experiences are research — but we always need to place them in a larger context to make the essay universal. And if we’re trying to portray a reality that isn’t our own, it’s our responsibility to make it as fair and accurate as possible.
NPR recently published an uninformed piece about sensitivity readers, the practice of hiring someone with a particular identity to read through your work and point out any potentially harmful parts. One interviewed writer said that hiring sensitivity readers comes from a place of fear.
Sensitivity readers are not for the author, but for the readers of the book.
If I, as a non-binary Persian Muslim individual, read a book where a trans Muslim character is vilified via stereotypes, how does that make me feel? As a writer, it’s important for me to consider those perspectives because, ultimately, I’m not writing for myself. I’m writing for my readers.
Personal essays are no different, but the “research” needed isn’t so straightforward. After all, personal essays, by definition, come from our experiences — and how could those be invalid? The truth is, they’re not. But again, choosing to publish our experiences means we have to transform our diary entries to a universal truth.
I have to stop and ask myself: What is my story adding? Is there somebody who has already shared what I want to share? Is there a point of view I’m not considering in my writing, one that could end up harming people instead of making them feel heard? We can’t control everyone’s reactions, but we can be thoughtful about what we choose to publish.
I recently read an essay about a woman who is naturally skinny, in which she talked about being criticized and picked on for her body. Her point was to explain that policing people’s bodies, no matter what type of bodies, is harmful. However, even putting aside that she didn’t mention the body positivity movement and how it’s necessary for fat individuals, she could have used her essay to talk about how we don’t know someone’s lived experiences. What if she wasn’t skinny naturally, but because she had a chronic illness? What if the constant comments about her body caused her to develop an eating disorder to remain that size?
As a fat, queer, trans person of color, I think a lot about bodies. Am I “fat enough?" Does my light skin prohibit me from talking about race? Is my non-binary status enough to be trans? To some of these questions, the answer is, simply, yes. I’m white-passing, and it’s not my place to discuss race and talk over, for example, dark-skinned and Black people of color. I have many complicated feelings about my body, and my voice might inadvertently add to fat-antagonistic points of view already out there. As someone non-binary, I struggle with what it means to feel trans and appear cis.
All of these are my truths, but anytime I want to share them, I have to stop and ask myself: What is my story adding? Is there somebody who has already shared what I want to share? Is there a point of view I’m not considering in my writing, one that could end up harming people instead of making them feel heard? We can’t control everyone’s reactions, but we can be thoughtful about what we choose to publish.
It is also vital to think about the context of our words.
If I want to talk about bodies, I have to consider whose bodies I’m talking about — because it’s not just mine, but bodies both like and unlike mine. Are my struggles with weight excused because I have light skin, and so I “must be working on it?" What about someone's pain that their thin body is criticized because they are reminded of the standards that they feel they will never reach, even though they “technically” have?
There are truths that others experience that cause them deep pain, and without addressing these concerns — even if we can’t share them — they’re back to where they’ve always been: erased. That is, without thinking about the context of our words, we are silencing others who may, in fact, be harmed by what we write.
The crux of the personal essay is the premise that something happened to you. Not to your neighbor, or friend, or parent: you. The downfall of many essays is their focus on explaining an experience that is not theirs to share. But humans don’t exist in a vacuum, and to say that others do not affect us is disingenuous.
What is the balance? How do we talk about things that have very real consequences on our lives without hurting those they involve?
Parents want to write about how their children’s mental illnesses affect them; as a sibling, I want to write about my brother’s classical autism to ensure he has a voice. But any time we come across a story, we have to ask ourselves: is it ours to tell? That answer is trickier than it may first seem. My brother, for instance, is nonverbal, and if I don’t share his stories, then no one will. On the other hand, despite having other disabilities, I don’t have autism, and my voice could inadvertently silence an autistic writer’s voice. If I go ahead and publish that essay, I must consider this, because I am ultimately responsible for the words I put into the world.
In talking to other essayists, one thing is abundantly clear: if you don’t worry that you will hurt someone, you probably will. However, if you are taking the time to worry, and therefore do your due diligence, you also might also get the story right. While it is ultimately up to you, as the writer, as to whether you publish the piece, it is again part of the larger context that we have to consider.
Are you the right person to tell that story? Is it the right time?
When we share personal essays, many of us don’t do so as therapy. We do so because we want to inform someone else of a point of view they haven’t considered. But in doing so, we’re also representing people who might share in some of our identities, or who can relate, and we owe it to them to be thorough and fair in our work. That means considering points of view you might not have, or accepting criticism from your potential audience, and ultimately answering one question: “What is my story adding to the conversation?” The resulting essay will be, inevitably, more powerful for it.