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Where Does My Story End and Someone Else’s Begin?

Like external validation, the idea of where my story ends and someone else’s story begins is something I return to over and over and over again.  What you are essentially reading is the argument I have in my head on an on-going basis, and I go back and forth about it as a consumer, as a possible subject, and as a producer — three different roles.  We all play at least two of these, and artists in any medium — from painters to bloggers — play the third one.  But these thoughts are not meant to invoke guilt.  On the contrary, I want a conversation.  I want us all thinking and talking about these very blurry lines because it’s a different world now that it’s an online world.

As a consumer, I obviously love it when people write about other people.  If they didn’t do it, I wouldn’t have my entertainment, I wouldn’t have my knowledge, I wouldn’t have all the things I get out of reading blogs and books.  I’m glad when friends post pictures of their kids on Facebook so I can see their kids age and keep up with their life.  When people write about things that are personal, it makes me feel less alone knowing that we all are struggling with this big, messy, wonderful thing called life.  So, yes, I absolutely agree that I’ve benefited tremendously from other people writing about their children or their spouse or themselves.

As a possible subject — someone who is very skittish when people write about her (while I don’t mind people writing about my words or ideas, I am very uncomfortable when people write about me) — I keep in mind how I would feel if someone wrote a blog about me, and I try to behave accordingly so the twins will do unto me in the future (oh please please please don’t start a blog about me, children).  I think this fact colours my thinking a lot.  If I was an extroverted person, it probably wouldn’t bother me to have people writing about me.  In fact, I might eat it up with a spoon.  But I’m not an extroverted person.  I’m most definitely an introverted person, and I always think about whether the people I’m writing about are introverted or extroverted people.  Whether they’ll enjoy reading something about themselves, or whether even an effusive, kindhearted post will make them squirm uncomfortably.

The twins know that you all know about them.  They know numbers — how many people read about them — and they know subject matter — what I post about them.  As long as I stay on one side of the subject matter line, and I afford them their privacy by not bringing them along to events, they are okay with things so far.  But I always worry that we’ll end up with an A.A. Milne/Christopher Robin situation that Marjorie Ingall wrote about in her Tablet magazine article when she explained why she’s not writing about her children anymore.

Milne said in an interview,

In pessimistic moments, when I was trudging London in search of an employer wanting to make use of such talents as I could offer, it seemed to me, almost, that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.

This sort of sums up my fears: good writing is always enjoyable for the consumer, but it isn’t always enjoyable for the subject.  And which way will it go: is the subject thrilled to be immortalized, to know that their life influenced the lives (or at least the thoughts) of others?  Or does the subject feel as if every word took something away from him?  That each word we place online or in a book scoops away a fragment of their being and individuality, until all that is left is a paper version of themselves, two-dimensional, like Jackie Draper turning into Jackie Paper.  And yes, Jackie Paper was created because Jackie Draper couldn’t go on the adventures; he was too depressed.  But still, we all know that Jackie Paper wasn’t real, wasn’t even close to being as three-dimensional and unique as Jackie Draper.  Is that what we’re doing when we write about another person: taking their Jackie Draperness and making a facsimile of their self to present to others?

And at what point does the need to transmit information, to giving away valuable advice, come before the feelings of the subject?  There are going to be times when the person doesn’t want us to write about them, but it becomes more important to get the story out there than it does to take the subject’s preferences into consideration.  But then aren’t there also other times when their feelings get to trump the dissemination of their story?  Even if we have a burning need to tell it?

Which I guess takes us to my role as a producer.  I think there is a fallacy here that few of us remember until someone points it out: there is a big difference between writing and publishing.  Sometimes they become wrapped together when we choose to publish something we write, but writing can also be kept as a separate entity from publishing.  I completely understand that need to write and can stand behind it without hesitation.  It’s the publishing part that gives me pause.  Do we need to publish?  Some would answer yes, especially if they get more out of the conversation than they do writing the piece.  And some, if honest, would have to answer no.  I don’t know where I fall on that continuum.  I used to believe I needed to publish.  Now, at a different age, I’m not sure.

I think there are things I need to publish and things I don’t, and the struggle for me is knowing which things I’m publishing gratuitously and which ones I’m publishing out of necessity.  There are things I need to write that can also remain as a draft; everything I need to know about myself or the situation extracted from the act of writing before I ever reach the act of hitting publish; and that is true for blog posts just as much as it’s true for books.

I don’t think it’s unethical to write about other people, nor do I think it’s immoral.  But I do think it’s disingenuous to think that what we write doesn’t matter to our subject as long as we’re getting something out of it.  To think that it won’t affect them, that they’ll be fine with it, that no harm no foul if everyone else is doing it too.  That is too weak an argument to support such a heavy truth.  It doesn’t matter how anyone else is treating their subject.  It only matters how you are treating your subject; whether that subject is your partner or your siblings or your children or your parents or the annoying neighbour down the street who comes to your bunco game.  Sometimes we know our subjects well.  And sometimes we don’t really know how our subjects will feel because our subjects themselves don’t know how they feel about the story floating into the universe.

Within a single story, I can point out the facts that belong to the twins and I can point out the facts that belong to me, and what I struggle with are the facts that are entwined around each other and cannot be picked apart or owned by a single person.  The twins are such an enormous part of my life that it’s impossible to speak about myself without mentioning them.  It would be unrealistic to never write about them.  Which means that it’s a balancing act of taking what is rightfully my story but then being mindful that when I take from what is our story, I am taking something.  And that act of removal might either add to their being or detract.  And I just don’t know which one.

On two side notes: One, I am so grateful for the comments you’ve made every time I write on this topic: it helps me make sense of my own thoughts (hmmm… a point in favour of hitting publish; of writing not being enough).  And two, I am finishing up the tutorial for moving to a self-hosted blog and I’ll have that up tomorrow.  It is kind of long, but that’s just because I literally walked you through step-by-step.  So feel free to skim.


1 Elizabeth { 05.29.12 at 9:37 am }

Hm. Thanks for elaborating on this. I was wondering what you thought of memoirists, for example, and whether you judged others for not having the same boundaries as you, and if you felt a contradiction involved when you read (consume) other people’s stories and images of their children. I think you answered all my questions with this post, as far as what your perspective on these various issues is. It is tangled, and it is complicated. I also feel like the choices you’ve made are probably closely aligned with your overall parenting philosophy, which you’ve alluded to here but I don’t remember you ever articulating in detail – something about respecting the autonomy and personhood of your children – I really would love to hear more of your thoughts on that sometime as well.

I’m still not sure what I’m going to do about my own blogs (I have two, the public family one and the “anonymous” infertility one) and blogging habits though. Still thinking about that one.

2 Lollipopgoldstein { 05.29.12 at 11:40 am }

I judge people who lie and people who won’t apologize when they find out they hurt someone and people who steal from the bulk food bins, but I don’t judge people who make other choices from me 🙂 Especially when their choices don’t affect me. By which I mean that I don’t think my boundaries are better boundaries or worse boundaries. They’re just… boundaries. Just as I think feeding is just feeding and don’t have strong feelings about breastfeeding or bottle feeding. Ass-covering is just ass-covering so I don’t have strong feelings about cloth vs. disposable diapers. I know other people feel strongly about those things, and I think it’s great that someone does. But I just can’t. I don’t even care if anyone else is a vegetarian or Jewish, things I feel pretty passionate about for myself. Perhaps it’s all my 90’s apathy being dragged into my middle age years 🙂

It probably does tie in a lot with how we parent. We put pretty much every choice they can make into their hands, whether it’s what they eat to where they go. And we’ve done that in an age-appropriate way since they were born. I mean, since they could talk, they’ve made choices that I guess some parents make for their children (what to eat, wear, do, go) so it makes sense that we’d also give them the choice about whether or not their story goes out there. And the only way to not make that choice for them is to not put chunks of their story out there.

3 Sharon { 05.29.12 at 12:23 pm }

Your posts on this topic have given me food for thought. So much so that I have gone to my blog and deleted photos of my sons (& my nephew). I realize that this doesn’t totally solve the problem–the photos could still be “out there” somewhere now, by virtue of the fact that I posted them in the first place–but at least they won’t be viewable indefinitely.

I haven’t written much about our sons so far–they’re only 4 months old–but I will definitely be thinking about this going forward.

4 KeAnne { 05.29.12 at 12:29 pm }

What about prosumption in the terms of merging “producer” and “consumer”? As we blog, do the commenters become part owners of our story? I was thinking about a comment I saw on another blog that chided the blogger for not mentioning how they celebrated the meaning of Memorial Day in her post on how her family spent the weekend. This blogger receives some criticism fairly often, but this comment was so different…it was like she felt some sort of ownership over the blog and this blogger’s story. Almost like she was reading a novel and critiquing it instead of a real family’s lives and experiences.

5 Ann Z { 05.29.12 at 12:44 pm }

I’ve struggled with these questions, too, though I think I come to a different conclusion. In one of my blogs, I encourage parents to publish their stories which, because of the topic, necessarily includes writing about their child or children. And different parents write about those experiences differently, some focusing far more on their own piece of the experience, others talking a lot about how their child is doing; some using a nickname, others using their child’s given name; some include photos, others don’t. But in all the cases, the simple act of sharing their stories at least seems to bring a huge benefit to others (based on comments, which is all I have to go on) and I would have a really hard time putting a full stop to it. In that case, I’m definitely the producer / publisher role, though often not the writer, and I really feel strongly that it should be published.

As I wrote on Sharah’s blog, we as humans connect so much through sharing our stories, and I honestly believe (some would say naively) that there is so much good in the Internet that comes from finding others with shared stories and realizing that we’re not alone. And when our struggles involve our children, there is no way to share our stories and connect with others without including at least some of our children’s stories. I do think it’s absolutely possible to do so in a way that is respectful towards the child and balanced, though what that is will probably vary from one person to another.

6 Justine { 05.29.12 at 12:53 pm }

Interesting series.

I don’t post much about my kids in my blog, nor do I post much about my kids on FB. I do some things. But I try to write them so that what I write is more about my experience of a parent and less “their story.” Still, as you say, it’s tangled. But I am their mother, and I can’t exactly kill off that part of myself, especially in a community that supported my journey to have them in the first place.

Here’s an interesting twist: how far back does ownership of their stories go? To their conception? Through pregnancy? I realize that people are going to have different (and perhaps even contentious) answers to this, based on their ideas about when life begins, but it’s worth considering. (I think about those pictures of embryos and fetuses that people sometimes post … )

7 Julie { 05.29.12 at 1:09 pm }

My writing about my kids could, I suppose, eventually cause them to feel two-dimensional. But if we’re all lucky, it will also help them understand me as three-dimensional.

8 Jen { 05.29.12 at 2:48 pm }

I love reading these posts, they really challenge me to think about how my ‘storytelling’ could one day be seen by my daughters as intrusive.

Some of what you have written resonated with me more than other parts but I think this is because I can’t imagine anyone other than friends and family reading my blog and they know most of it already. I love to write but find it difficult. So writing about the people I love most helps me get started, and usually leads me to what I really wanted to say but didn’t know how.

I might be very naive to think no-one else is watching. I’ll definitely be making a bigger distinction between creating and publishing posts. And from now on I’ll be getting my 4 year old’s permission for writing about her, on a post-by-post basis, reviewable as she gets older and her feelings may change. Perhaps one day she will be very thankful to you for that!

9 sharah { 05.29.12 at 3:09 pm }

Julie, I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. I know my kids won’t remember hardly anything that i write about now, but I hope my writing helps them see and understand me someday. We have a handwritten journal from M’s grandmother recording his birth and those passages are precious. Thoughts and feelings from that exact moment, unclouded by age and the passing of years and the historical revisionism that we all engage in in our memories.

10 Erica { 05.29.12 at 3:14 pm }

Thank you for asking these questions and helping us to ask them of ourselves, too. I do write about Dot on my blog, and I post more photos of her on Facebook than I would if left to my own devices (“More photos!” is something I frequently hear from family members who follow me there). I like to think that what I write says more about me than about her, that readers will recognize me as the unreliable narrator. I’m comfortable with this for now, but I am also certain it will change as she leaves toddlerhood.

And I’m also aware that some day I’m going to let her read the blog I write, that I’ve kept from the knowledge of friends and family. I want her to have the chance to read it so that she can get a better picture of her family, of me, of the brother we haven’t told her about yet, of why we haven’t told her about her brother yet. I often think that she and I share stories. Right now it feels like some of hers are mine to tell. But that will shift, and some day my stories (or most of them, anyway) will be hers. I find that more comforting than frightening for some reason (but in ten years I may think about this and not be comforted at all).

11 Stinky { 05.29.12 at 6:59 pm }

Oh very timely. Ive just run through this in the last few days and discussed this at length with Mr Stinky (mainly me discussing, him listening:-) – no, he got to discuss too).

I have referred to other people in my blog and I am aware its not always been complimentary. The unwritten is that I don’t dislike the people that I may have written about, but I disliked a behaviour or an aspect of them that came to surface when I was being all triggereded. I wrote about my reaction to the triggeriness and saw it very much as MY story (and just fervently hoped that no-one I knew would find my blog). I didn’t want to edit and edit to make it all as nicey-nice as I could as (a) I wasn’t feeling niceynice about whatever it was I felt drawn to rant about and (b) if I edited and edited, I would not ever publish anything.
And god knows I hold my tongue enough irl and usually am very mindful of the feelings of others, I wanted SOMEWHERE at least, to just be ‘authentic’ and if I felt bitchy, to just BE bitchy!

For one particular reason I was aware that if one certain person stumbled across my blog (and at that point they seemed more likely to do this, I’m not sure if they have or not) I would feel awful if they read what I had written. I felt physically sick, because I knew they would be hurt. I had not chosen my words carefully, I had reacted to MY hurt and just put it out there.
Mr Stinky said “don’t change anything, just write as you normally would” but I couldn’t leave it the way it was written. I understand that this was MY story at the time I wrote it, but we do overlap, experiences overlap and motivations overlap. And I think if you know something is out there about you, fair enough, you would go and read it, but I reason that it would be far far worse to stumble upon an account of something that you recognised yourself in instantly and did not cast you in the most favourable light at all.
Its hard to write without bias when you have that emotional link to something, and lets face it, how can there NOT be an emotional link to the reason most of us are here in the first place? We’re not fiction writers, we’re writing about ourselves, our lives, and none of us live in a cave, there’s always other people around to keep it all interesting.

I think that is a question that can’t really be answered – if you separate the entwined bit, are you removing something essential to the actual dynamic rather than ‘yours’ or ‘mine’? But as you say, does not separating it affect the ‘you’ in anyway?
Need to keep thinking on that one . . .

12 Stinky { 05.29.12 at 7:00 pm }

(that little comments box is misleading, I had no idea THAT comment god so long!)

13 Pam/Wordgirl { 05.29.12 at 8:12 pm }

Hi Mel,

I read this in a completely different way — as a writer first and someone who, before the internets and blogging and all — studied fiction and then meandered toward memoir and then threw my hands up with all of it — in some ways because my memoir — so much my story — is intertwined with my family’s story — and though I did feel I needed to write it and publish it and let people consume it in order to move on as a writer — I still feel uneasy when I write about my mother say — which I’ve wanted to do so much since entering motherhood — so much came back full force — and even though my mother gave me complete permission to write my truth — I don’t think anyone can imagine how it might be to stumble on a portrayal of ourselves that is difficult to read (let alone a published one — a well-reviewed one…no wonder so many people say they didn’t feel free to write about their family members until people had died…)

As for my children — I used to write about my stepson until he turned nine or so — and by that time I was writing less about my role as stepmother, blended family dynamics etc… simply in the interest of family harmony…as for Z I find that she’s often the trigger for what I write — but the post becomes something larger about me…I suppose I’m more of a memoirist that way.

As for whether a story belongs to us…I always think that this is a thorny topic for writers and largely resides with the ethics of the writer. I imagine the dramas a short-story writer, for instance, could mine in the blogging community — but I truly believe it’s an ethical issue — not that you can’t write outside of your own experience…not that at all — but that there’s an ethical dilemma if you choose to lift the subject matter of another person’s life and craft a story around it. That said, everyone knew the writer you should keep your mouth shut around lest s/he write a story about you (and there’s a famous writer included in that company.) I once had a person I was involved with bring a story to a workshop where we were both participants that was my story — the narrator essentially a version of me — and I made it clear a boundary had been crossed — not only emotionally but professionally…but I’m sure there are other writers who would argue it’s all fair game….

Sorry this isn’t more coherent…just catching little snippets of time to catch up…



I remember how viol

14 Pam/Wordgirl { 05.29.12 at 8:15 pm }

I guess I was going to add but didn’t revise well — I remember how violated I felt at the time… and it always gives me pause when I write even about my own family…

15 Mali { 05.29.12 at 8:25 pm }

My first blogging adventure was to write about 365 people (one every day for a year) in only 44 words (as I was 44 years old at the time). It’s why I used a pseudonym. And I changed some of the names, but certainly not all of them, and tried to be careful about what I wrote. Now that my blogs and IRL identity are more closely linked, I’m a bit more careful, though I am aware I probably write more about my in-laws than I should.

I’m also working on a piece though that deals with a year of my life. Other people played a critical part in that year, and so I’m grappling now – should I fictionalise it, or keep it honest as possible? Can I keep it honest about me, and me only, rather than implicating others? Lots of questions I’m working through. I think at heart I’m a non-fiction writer – and would love to write others’ stories. I debated that here:

16 a { 05.29.12 at 9:47 pm }

That’s it! I’m changing my (rarely updated, pathetic) blog to a fod blog! First entry: Today I am eating popcorn.

17 a { 05.29.12 at 9:47 pm }

*food It’s hard to type when one hand is covered in butter and salt…

18 jen { 05.30.12 at 3:06 am }

So after reading your last blog, I’ve thought a lot about E’s privacy and his right to tell his story. I talked about it a little with my husband but have mainly just stewed over it. The stewing came because I actually felt a little angry after I had digested your words. After reading it, I felt guilty for sharing what I have. I really HATE feeling guilty (which made me feel angry). Go figure. The result = still thinking about it, but I’m happy that you brought it up. So thanks. 🙂

19 Elizabeth { 05.30.12 at 4:31 am }

Pam, I’m so glad you chimed in here – I was hoping you would, since I know this is a question you’ve grappled with extensively, both with writing about your family of origin and early years, and with blogging about your blended family, and I really respect the thought you’ve put into it.

I have to admit I felt a bit like Jen, too, with the guilt part of it, which is why I was glad you, Mel, posted this follow-up – I overreact to feeling judged (I’m working on that, it really doesn’t serve me well) so I was grateful you clarified that you’re not judging me on choosing to post photos of my children.

I’m working on a long thought piece about this – as a social science researcher, I’m coming at it from a perspective of informed consent as that applies to minors – hopefully will get that up this week. And as a de facto (if not self-identified or self-defined) mom-blogger, I have a personal take on it as well.

20 Ellen K. { 05.30.12 at 10:15 am }

Mel, I think you’ve raised very good points, and I believe that children deserve more privacy than they are often granted online. I do my best to make sure that my twins have minimal Googleability; thankfully there is a singer who goes by both their names. : )

But the application of these points seems a delicate business within the infertility blogosphere in particular. Most parenting-after-IF bloggers began blogging well before becoming parents. Some bloggers work anonymously; others do not. So I have practical questions: Where and when do we begin to build our story in a way that protects children who may be a very long time coming? Is anonymity the best policy from the very beginning? Should posts be edited after publication to remove identifying information? Should blogs be renamed, moved to other platforms, or go password protected after parenthood? (Personally I think it is imperative to uncheck the “permit search engines” box on a blog account.) Do we have the right to go into our comments and delete a comment because someone referred to our existing child by his or her name? Should other people’s children be cropped out of photos?

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