The Risks and Rewards of Writing True Stories

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

So you’ve started a blog to document your university years. Or penned a personal essay about what it was like going through your parents’ divorce. Or maybe you’re really ambitious and you’re working on a memoir about your job as a celebrity dog-walker. Great! Creative non-fiction, writing that mingles factual events with fiction techniques, is hot these days.

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But wait— before you hit that publish button or send off that query, are you ready for an audience?

Mari Adkins, a writer who keeps a personal blog as well as one devoted to her writing, expresses a sentiment common among personal bloggers, “I don’t blog for the audience; I blog for me. I blog (and I write) to keep the voices in my head at bay. The interaction with other people is nice, but I don’t need it. I just have to get things off my chest and out of my system.” She goes on to say that if people don’t like what they read they can always click that X in the upper right corner of the page.

In explaining her blogging motivations, Mari hits on a key truth. A side effect of blogging, even if you’re writing primarily for yourself, is that you do have an audience. An audience that is potentially as big as everyone who has access to the Internet. That’s a lot of people. But if the thought of billions of people checking out your blog makes you hyperventilate, relax. Your actual readership will probably be small.

Even so, it can have a huge impact on your life. It’s not the size of your readership that matters; it’s who those readers are. Blogging can be a tremendously positive experience, connecting you with others who share your interests, people whom you might never have met otherwise. “Keeping [my] blog was essential for my soul and my sanity through school, and had the added unintentional benefit of plugging me in to a network of brilliant people who helped me accomplish some of the most amazing things I’ve ever done,” says JCA, a recent law school graduate who blogged her entire law school experience from the LSAT to the California Bar Exam, at her blog, Sua Sponte.

Ana George, a scientist-by-day who writes under a pseudonym, says, “I actually have two blogs; one under this name and one in the name of someone who started out as a character and became an alter-ego. The character blog won for me the love of my life, rather to the surprise of both of us. The character blog sometimes includes incidents from my real life, and my partner is sometimes amused to find her words in the character’s partner’s mouth.”

As well, numerous bloggers have obtained book deals because of their blogs. Many writers find a blog a good way to nibble away at a manuscript a little at a time—and it has the side benefit of winning you fans before your book ever hits the shelves.

But if you’re writing things about people that you wouldn’t be comfortable having them see, things can get ugly. Heather Armstrong of Dooce lost her job because of what she’d written on her blog. Armstrong, who has been interviewed about a million times about “getting fired for her website,” has admitted that she was naïve and even stupid to post as freely as she did about both her family and her job. Like many bloggers, she didn’t think that anyone—or at least anyone she was writing about—would see her blog. What actually happened was that not only did her brother find Dooce, creating a family furor, but someone e-mailed copies of her posts to every vice-president at her company—and she was fired.

More Fired Bloggers

So while it’s true that you don’t have write for anyone but yourself, before you leap into the blogosphere, or the world of creative non-fiction in general, you should take the time to weigh the risks. Ask yourself:

  • Am I defaming anyone or disclosing information that should remain private? If you are, you could be sued.
  • Am I criticizing my employer, boss, or co-workers? If your employer becomes aware of your negative statements, you could be fired.
  • Have I said anything about my family and friends that I wouldn’t say to their faces? If you’re not prepared to lose them, think again.
  • Am I comfortable with anyone knowing this about me? If you’re not, consider an offline journal instead.

Most bloggers are selective about what they share online. “I never blog about anything uberprivate,” Mari says. “Suffice it to say, my personal homelife isn’t up for public consumption.” Instead, she saves the private stuff for a hardbound journal. Shizgirl, who keeps a personal blog under a pseudonym, agrees: “I don’t talk about my personal life, because it’s nobody’s business. I don’t talk about my past, because it’s too weird and painful.”

Writing about your life can be a weird balancing act. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, writing about your own experiences necessitates writing about other people—people who may not like the way you portray them.

Augusten Burroughs, author of the memoir Running With Scissors, is currently being sued for defamation, invasion of privacy, emotional distress, and fraud by the family of the psychiatrist he lived with as a teenager. His memoir recounts the family’s bizarre antics, and, although he changed their names, his detailed descriptions leave no doubt of whom he wrote.

Defamation (known as “libel” when it’s in written form) is an untrue publication that injures a person’s reputation. “Publication” means communicating the defamatory words to at least one other person aside from the person being defamed. A “reasonable person” must believe that the statement refers to the person claiming defamation.

One way to avoid getting yourself in hot water is to make sure you present statements as your opinion, not as fact. This may come into play in Burroughs’s case, because memoirs are generally accepted to be one individual’s interpretation of his or her history.

A statement must be untrue to be defamatory, but just because something is true doesn’t mean that you can write about it with impunity. Assuming that Running With Scissors is factually correct, the family would not have a case for libel. It may, however, still have a case for invasion of privacy.

Four types of invasion of privacy are generally recognized. You can invade a person’s privacy by intruding into his/her solitude, by publicly disclosing private facts about him/her, by placing him/her in a false light in the public eye, or by appropriating his/her name or image for your commercial interest.

In Burroughs’s case, due to his detailed descriptions, apparently anyone familiar with the setting of the book can identify the family’s house. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that readers might start showing up on their doorstep. But more significantly, the family didn’t expect what they did behind closed doors to be shared with the world. While Burroughs has a right to write about his own life, that has to be weighed against other people’s rights to privacy.

But privacy is not just a legal issue, it’s an ethical one.

You may want to use nicknames, initials, or pseudonyms when blogging or writing creative non-fiction out of respect for others’ privacy, even if you’re not saying anything negative. Your friends and family members would probably prefer that your blog not show up as the #1 search result when their bosses Google them. For “friends in real life, I use their first initial only. This is something I discussed with them beforehand and they were adamant about remaining anonymous. I respect that wish,” Shizgirl says.

“I don’t include people’s names (or my own), either. The site I’m on has a custom of registering under handles and pseudonyms anyway, so referring to people by those makes sense. Or making up names for nonmembers,” says Ana.

Remember, though, that changing names won’t prevent people who know you from figuring out who you’re writing about. “I use one pseudonym on my personal blog,” Mari says, “and honestly, it’s the man’s first initial. I do it mostly for his own privacy—although for people who know us, they know who it is when I mention him, usually.”

And as the Burroughs case shows, changing names won’t prevent people from taking legal action if they take offense at what you wrote. And it won’t prevent you from being fired.

If your work-related blog is found, it doesn’t matter if you don’t identify yourself or your employer by name. Heather Armstrong didn’t. It doesn’t matter if your posts consist of harmless fluff a la Nadine Haobsh, who lost not one, but two jobs, when her blog, Jolie in NYC, was discovered in July. (Although, it’s worth noting that in the blogosphere, things have a strange way of turning around. Just this week Haobsh announced on her blog that she has a two-book contract. And she’s far from the first blogger to lose a job and gain a book deal.)

It doesn’t even matter if you work for the company that owns the blogging service you’re using. Mark Jen was fired by Google after he blogged about his first month on the job. Jen’s short-lived blog described orientation and the company cafeteria, not exactly topics that you’d list off the top of your head as “dangerous” ones.

What it comes down to is that your employers may simply be squeamish about the idea of their employees keeping a blog, no matter how innocuous the topics you’re writing about, or how positive you are about your workplace. As JCA says, “Employers are risk-averse… They don’t trust people who don’t keep quiet.”

To Blog About Work—Or Not

One thing to keep in mind is that even writing about subjects unrelated to work carries with it some risk. While it’s unlikely that you would be fired for blogging about your hobbies, if you’re a regular employee, hired “at will,” and not subject to tenure, or a union or other contract that specifies under what conditions you can be let go, know that you can be fired for pretty much any reason (aside from those protected by anti-discrimination laws), regardless of how trivial, or for no reason at all, i.e. “without cause.”

However, if you think you’ve been wrongly dismissed—let’s say you’ve been fired because you wrote about going to a Star Trek convention and your boss thinks Star Trek is silly and the fact you dress up as Spock on the weekends makes the company look ridiculous—you may want to consult an employment lawyer. If a court finds you were fired without cause, you won’t necessarily get your job back, but you could get severance pay in lieu of notice.

If you know—or suspect—that your employers (or anyone else) would be unhappy if they found your blog, anonymity may be the way to go.

Shizgirl says, “I do post about my job and at times (ok, most of the time) I’m not very complimentary. However, I have never named the company I work for, nor used any co-worker or supervisor names. The company does not know about my blog and I’d like to keep it that way.” When asked what her bosses’ reactions would be if they read her blog, she says, “Not good.”

Being truly anonymous requires more than simply using a nickname; you need to start fresh with a new identity that’s not linked to anything else you do online or off. Additionally, if you wish to remain anonymous, you can’t give away any identifying details that will connect your blog to your offline life. This is easier said than done, and if followed to the extreme can render moot the point of posting.

If you have your own web site, you can register the domain privately, so no one can see your WHOIS records. If the main purpose of your blog is communicating with friends and family—and you really want to tell those work stories!—password-protecting your blog may be the way to go. If you don’t have your own site, LiveJournal offers the option of designating posts as “friends only.”

There are further, more technical, steps you can take to hide your identity, such as using anonymizing technologies that hide the IP address you’re posting from (see the links below), but it’s questionable whether it’s worth it to go to such an extent unless you have something more significant to share than a few stories poking fun at your boss.

Anonymous Blogging

In some cases, the risks outweigh the rewards of blogging.

JCA, who started clerking at the beginning of September, has ceased blogging at least until she’s finished her clerkship. When her judge offered her the job, he had a single reservation: her website. “Such blatant open-air publicity gave the court heartburn.” It turned out he meant an older website, not her law school blog, but she didn’t doubt “that he would wish Sua Sponte to trail off equally gently into the ethers.”

She’s philosophical about the constraints on her public voice. “I went to law school to be a lawyer, and I don’t want to put that investment at risk, if this is in fact what I’m facing.” She’d love to try to publish Sua Sponte in book form, but is concerned about the potential impact on her legal career.

But not every employer is anti-blog. Some don’t care, and others even encourage blogging. Occasionally, people get hired to blog.

Blogging is Good

Whether writing about your life is an acceptable risk for you really depends on your own situation and goals. Many bloggers wouldn’t give their blogs up for anything. “Would I cease blogging if someone asked me? Nope. They can have my blog when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers,” Mari says.

But whatever your situation, it’s not a bad idea to view your blog—even your personal blog—as an extension of your resume, in the sense that all your published writing should reflect an image of yourself that you would be happy to have anyone see.

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