Q: After my girlfriend and I split up, I wrote a creative nonfiction piece about our breakup (changing some identifying details). I published it on a popular blog and linked to it on Facebook. We’re back together, and things are great; however, she saw the story and was humiliated. I explained that what I wrote was beautiful and vulnerable and true, and many people were moved by it. She really wasn’t down with that and told me to consider her off-limits in my writing. This seems unfair. I write nonfiction. What will I write about if I can’t write about my life?
A: As lame as some creative writing exercises sound — “Write a haiku about what you had for lunch!” — a thinly veiled portrait of your chicken salad will cause way less relationship stress than “Turn your fight with your girlfriend into a blog post!” (And no, you can’t just change her name from Molly to Holly so nobody but your 546 Facebook friends will know it’s her.)
Yes, I’ve heard — privacy is reportedly dead. It was pronounced dead in 2006 at an Internet security conference. This doesn’t mean that it is actually dead or should be — just that lots of people are finding their dirty laundry uploaded to Instagram and their private conversations turned into content. Chances are, those nonchalantly ripping away others’ privacy online would be spraining their tongues tsk-tsking if somebody did it the non-virtual way, like by hijacking the mic at an outdoor concert series: “My girlfriend, Molly…second row, that blonde in the red…FORGOT to tell me she was weapons-grade slutty in college. She’d have a tat of that McDonald’s “x million served” sign, except that there’s no room on her disturbingly small breasts.”
But, wait — if you and your girlfriend have a fight and nobody comments on it on Facebook, how do you know your lives are worth living? The answer is, decide which you want more, this girlfriend or an audience. This isn’t to say you have to stop writing about her; you just don’t get to hit “publish.” Try to see this as an opportunity to expand your writerly horizons. Go do things you can write about: Climb something. Fish for marlin. Drop in on the Spanish Civil War. And remember, everybody’s got a story, and lots of people are just dying to have theirs told. Seek them out, look deep into their eyes, and say, “So, tell me the horrors you experienced as a prisoner of war, and would you mind not leaving any participles dangling?”
Q: I’m a writer, and I went to a book party where there were many interesting writers, including a very cute, witty man. Problem is, I’m afraid to go talk to new people, especially cute, witty men, so I hung back and eventually left. Now I’m ruing yet another missed opportunity.
A: You apparently learned your social skills from a park ranger. Playing dead is a successful strategy when you’re being chased by certain types of bears. When you’re hoping to be chased by a man, you need to go over and say hello. But, you whimper, you’re scared. Yeah, okay. But, why would that be reason to avoid doing it? By making yourself do something you’re afraid of, you shrink your fears and probably feel better afterward, unless it’s something like walking off the ledge of a tall building.
Don’t worry if you aren’t a genius conversationalist. Just ask questions: “Are you a friend of the author’s?” “Is that soup on your shirt?” If somebody likes you, he’ll talk to you. If not, it’s a big world; go talk to somebody else. And don’t see every interaction as some statement about your worth. Some people will like you; some won’t. Unless you’re running for office, who cares? The more people you talk to, the bigger your life will be, and the less each interaction will matter in the grand scheme of you. Until then, remember, 90 percent of success is just showing up — and then not running back out to your car, powerlocking your doors, and speeding home.