Q: Dear Publishing Advisor,
I have a really interesting personal story for an essay, but I’m not sure if it’s too intimate to publish. The problem is, the intimacy of the story is what makes it good. I’ve seen similar personal stories published and know that the publisher would not be concerned with the subject matter, but I’m still unsure. When do you know when you’re writing something too personal?
– Cautious in Detroit
A: Dear Cautious in Detroit,
There are many personal essays published by high end publications that border on (or sometimes cross) the “over-share” line. Five years ago, the easiest way to publish was through personal essays. Since then, the market has flooded with an array of personal stories varying from: On Falling In And Out Of Love With My Dad (Natasha Chenier) to After Losing A Foster Child, Contemplating Another (Meghan Walbert). Although your story may be extreme to you, due to the saturation of personal experience pieces, you may be turned down.
Regardless of whether your essay is accepted for publication, what you seem to really be asking is: What are the ethics behind publishing detailed personal information. Since you did not disclose what the story entails, I’m guessing you are not comfortable with the material. Once your essay is accepted, most publications will change the title of your work. Potentially, someone who writes an essay about picking the right dress for prom, may end up with the title: The Modern Obsession With Materialistic Success. If this is online, it may be there forever.
You say: The problem is, the intimacy of the story is what makes it good. That is a problem. If you are resting on the drama of what happened in your reality, what you are publishing has little to do with writing. Say, for example, you publish the essay in a very upscale magazine. If you do not know how to hold the attention of a reader without the extremes of a personal life experience, you will be pigeon-holed as a personal essay writer. If you live life to the extremes, this may not be a bad idea.
If you have the confidence to share the personal experience with anyone, if you know what may be controversial about the story and do not care, if you do not think you will be embarrassed by it ten years from now, I say go for it. Otherwise, try challenging yourself to write about something boring. If you can write a compelling story about waiting in line, you will have future success regardless of personal stories.
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