Unless you are a hermit who lives alone and never interacts with someone, I venture it would be impossible to write personal essays without including other people in them. After all, our relationships with other people, be they friends, family, lovers, even strangers, are so much of what drives us as humans. While I know that intellectually, there is still always a part of me that's nervous about releasing a personal piece into the world, and even more so knowing the people I've written about will be reading my work. It's hard not to want to apologize, even though for me, writing has always been an essential part of my makeup, my way of operating in the world.
Frankly, while I'm writing, I can't let myself think too much, if at all, about what anyone else will think. That always stops me in my tracks. But that doesn't mean that after I've written I don't care. I'm sure it's not easy to be written about, and especially so when you are repeatedly written about, whether you are the only one who knows it's you or not. It's an ongoing conversation I have in my relationship, but the bottom line is I couldn't really be partnered with someone who wanted to monitor every single thing I write, because that would, on a practical level, impede my ability to make a living, and on a much more personal level, make me feel stymied and controlled.
I do my best to ethically walk that line. I'm sure sometimes I fail at that quest. But what I always think about is: is this about more than me? That sounds grandiose on one level, but on another, I try to look at what about our culture and the larger forces at work am I talking about. I didn't set out to write an essay called "My Boyfriend's Fat" because that is a statement and a fact and alone isn't worthy of note. The whole thing came about because of the question posed to me by my cousin about his fatness and if there is anything that riles up this country, it's fat people. They are such objects of scorn and pity and I knew it was worth delving into because the question threw me off. I wanted to have an easy and pat answer and I didn't, and any time people are questioning me about things that I'm not sure about how to handle, I know it's rich material for some kind of writing. I've also tackled body image and size and desire in my fiction, most notably in "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (click to read it free) in my erotic romance anthology Obsessed.
Do I write things that may make their subjects uncomfortable? Of course, but probably that's true of any writer, nonfiction or otherwise, at some point. If you don't ever dare to say anything potentially off-putting, what are you really saying? I don't have a perfect answer or a one-size-its-all solution for myself or anyone else. It's a constant risk and I've had to embrace the fact that I may put out work that nobody relates to or likes, and that's okay. I also know that the subjects of my essays are, in almost every case, not the target audience. These aren't open letters; they are essays. When I wrote about not wanting to have sex at night, my boyfriend already knows that. It's everyone else who doesn't necessarily. Do I mine my life for things to write about? Yes, and no. I don't sit down and say to myself, What happened today that would make a good essay? Rather, those ideas leap out at me, bold and in my face and not to be ignored. Hopefully in my book Sex & Cupcakes I've opened up myself just as much as anyone else, ideally more. A personal essay or memoir is never the final say or the "real" truth, it's one person's truth, at one moment in time. The words themselves are final but our thoughts and feelings are not.