I have a personal essay coming out this week in Bustle. It's a first for me in many ways: my first piece on a website that gets millions of hits a month. My first public essay about my private self. And the first personal essay I've ever published and gotten paid for.
I'm so excited about it—but I'm also so nervous. For one thing, it exposes some things about me that I don't generally like to talk about. For another, it exposes other people—two people in particular, both of whom I've loved deeply. I wrote the essay in the first place to deal with my own struggles: with Valentines Day, with love, with relationships, with my own needs. But in the process I had to write about two of the people I've struggled alongside and with.
I sent a draft of the piece in advance of its publication to one of these two men—the one I've been involved with most recently. I told him he should feel free to tell me if he felt it misrepresented him; that I could change the piece if it made him uncomfortable. After reading it, he did say he felt it misrepresented him, but he also said that he didn't want or need me to change it. I took that to mean he recognized that I am writing about my own experience. Misunderstandings and misrepresentations are part and parcel of knowing other people. Sometimes the better you know someone, the less you really understand them.
I did not send the piece to the other person I talk about in the piece, a high school ex-boyfriend with whom I haven't really been in touch over the years. Although he and I live in the same city, he is married now; we don't hang out with the same people; we rarely talk. Is that why I didn't send it to him? Am I using as an excuse the simple inertia of not being in touch? I guess it's one reason. Another is: I don't feel he has so much at stake. We broke up when I was eighteen, after all. That was almost fifteen years ago. The boy I remember can hardly be the same person as the man who he is now.
If I sense a kind of defensiveness in my own tone here, if I feel the courageous and courteous thing to do would have been to send it to him—to at least have let him know this essay, which talks about him in detail, would soon be out there in the world—I also feel that to have done so would have been to make too much of it. Just as you must revisit a person intimately to write about them, to have written about them is to mark them definitively as past. Now that I have written this thing, I have put these histories to rest inside me. I don't want to revive them again by bringing it all up again between us, by writing to him and saying: Hey, hey, remember this? And, though of course I could be wrong, I doubt he'd appreciate it either. It would make it seem as if I required his permission, as if these memories were necessarily memories we shared. More likely our memories are vastly different in tone, in timbre, and even in substance.
I am reminded of the quote from Zola: "Art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament." It's a phrase that gives me freedom. My work is simply a corner of creation I've experienced, seen through my own temperament. It's a phrase that reminds me to give myself the freedom to express myself, and the power to preserve my own little corner of creation.