Over the past two years, I’ve written hundreds of essays and blog posts about my personal life. Broadly speaking, I like to write about my attempts to quit bad habits and develop good ones. My biggest focus has been on my sobriety.
Writing about my struggles with alcohol involves divulging some of my most shameful memories. These are the kind of deeply personal thoughts that I’ve kept private my entire life.
It can be embarrassing to air such personal stories in public, but I think it’s helpful. It’s helped me to clarify my thoughts about drinking and to reinforce my decision to get sober. I also hope it’s helped other people who are quitting drinking to know what to expect.
With how much time I’ve devoted to these topics, at first glance it may seem like I’m an open book. But the reality is that I actually avoid writing about most aspects of my life.
One of the things that I discovered very early on when writing these essays was that it’s important for me to set boundaries. I like to have a clear idea of what topics I’m willing to write about, and which topics I’d prefer to keep personal.
When it comes to my drinking habit and sobriety, I’m happy to spill all of the juicy details. But there are many other topics, like my job, dating life, and friendships, which I stay far more guarded about. I’ll typically mention these in passing or not at all.
Why Set Boundaries?
Even though it’s great to share stories about your life, it’s also vital for every writer to set boundaries. We each have different topics which we’re more or less open about, but we all need some aspects of our lives that remain truly private.
Writing about every single aspect of my life would be exhausting. It would create a situation in which everything that I do feels like fodder for another essay. I’d never truly be able to separate my time writing from the rest of my life.
I experienced this about half a year ago when I decided to start writing about my drawing hobby. I wrote a few blog posts about how I’d been learning to draw, and shared some pictures of my progress.
The posts did well, and I was proud of my progress, but the next time I went to draw, I realized that it wasn’t quite as fun. Instead of just drawing, I was suddenly thinking about how I could write about my drawing experience. Knowing that I would write a blog post later was getting in the way of simply enjoying my hobby.
After that, I decided I was done writing about drawing, except perhaps mentioning it in passing. I’ve continued to draw, but haven’t devoted any more posts to it, and I’ve had a lot more fun that way.
Respecting the Privacy of Others
When it comes to work and social relationships, I have another important reason for avoiding writing about these topics: I want to respect the privacy of my friends, colleagues, clients and students.
I’m happy to divulge details about my own life, but I’m not nearly as comfortable publicly discussing other people. Perhaps this stems from all of my training as a lawyer — the importance of confidentiality is instilled in us from the first year of law school.
I’ve had a little bit of trouble deciding where to draw the line. I’ll occasionally mention a conversation or interaction with a friend, but I don’t go into details about anyone’s jobs or personalities.
I try to ask myself whether I’d feel comfortable knowing that someone else was writing the same thing about me. When in doubt, I err on the side of caution.
As important as boundaries are, I don’t think they have to be set in stone. I’m willing to shift what I talk about if I have a good reason for it.
I’ve already given one example of this: I used to write about drawing, but discovered that it was a hobby that I’d rather keep to myself.
I also have thought about moving in the other direction though. I’ve never written much about work before, but a couple of months back I got laid off, and this has shifted my perspective.
Lately, getting laid off has been on my mind all the time. Although this is an area of my life that I normally wouldn’t write about, I think externalizing my thoughts might be healthy for me.
I may end up publishing something about this, or I may reach a middle ground — writing but not actually publishing the writing anywhere. Even in the age of the internet, there’s still something to be said for writing something just for yourself.
Ultimately, each of us will set our own boundaries when it comes to writing. My taboo topic might be your bread and butter, and vice versa. It’s important though that we all draw the line somewhere.
Even for writers who love personal essays, it’s healthiest to keep a part of ourselves private.