We have all contributed or at least passively listened to it at some point in our lives. For most of us it has probably been accompanied by an initial feeling of mean satisfaction. Later perhaps, a more guilty, icky feeling arrives. That is what happens to me at least.

I am writing about my family in my Capstone. More specifically, I am going to be using the personal essay as a medium to write about my journey (which is closely tied to my family’s journey) through my mom’s cancer remission. I am positing my work as a tell-all “things I wish I had known, because remission does not equate to a return to normality even though that is what I was led to believe.” I will be writing on several overarching effects of having a parent with cancer that I have worked such as depression, anxiety, and the responsibility and resulting pressure of becoming a parent figure to my younger sister.

While some of these topics include mere mentions of my family members, painting them as background characters to my own struggles and/or triumphs, others will require deep analysis of the dynamics between each of my family members. And since one of my primary goals for my Capstone is to keep everything brutally honest and devoid of sugarcoating, some of that analysis will probably seem harsh. I worry that my honesty in “writing about my family” will feel more like “gossiping about my family.” Because while I will not be telling lies, I worry that I will feel guilty afterwards. I worry that my honesty of the past few years of my family life will overshadow the beauty and love of my family life in the years leading to my mom’s cancer diagnosis. I worry that my family members, should they ever read what I plan to write, will be hurt. I am so worried that I have not even told my family what I am writing about.

I have not been able to start writing either. Every time that I lay my pencil point upon a blank page in my notebook, readying my wrist for the inevitable ache from the proliferation of my ideas and thoughts, I am overcome by a panicky fear that my work will be hurtful to those I love most.

Last Friday I met with my mentor Nick Harp who coached me through several personal essays when I took his English325 class. I brought my concern to his attention and he asked me if I had struggled with this guilt in my other personal essays. I realized that I had indeed struggled when I wrote about my experience with love as defined by my long distance relationship. I vividly remember wanting to talk about the passive fights and the conflicts that were driving our relationship apart at the time. In the drafts I made attempts to do just that. But in the final essay, out of concern that I would be “too harsh” and “too hurtful” I omitted the “ugly” details of our relationship. I did not realize it at the time, but when I look back at the essay, something about my omission rings false. Perhaps it is because I know something is missing. Or perhaps it is because I now sense that my writing leading up to the “ugly” parts of the story more than imparts my love to readers, and I therefore could have included the “ugly” parts without seeming hurtful. When I am writing, perhaps I have been confusing hurtful and truthful.

I do not want my Capstone to be a repeat of history in that I look back one day and regret not going into more “ugly” details. I am not sure how exactly to go about doing that, but I am going to try to stop feeling guilty about my honesty. If anyone has any suggestions on how to do so, let me know! In the meantime, I will be sure to share if I come to a cure to my writers’ guilt.

One thought to “Gossip:”

  1. Hi Madison,

    I identify so much with this post. I, too, like to write personal essays that try to be as honest as possible, and have run into issues with my portrayal of different people who are important to me. As I’m sure you’ve realized, it’s impossible to embody everything that a person is in one short essay–you’re always going to have to condense that person and your relationship with them down into something your audience can digest, a story or sound bite that most effectively furthers your purpose in writing the piece. I know this is necessary, but I also feel guilty when I do it, sometimes, like I’m betraying someone by not explaining every little nuance and intention behind their behaviors. There’s often one person I don’t want to read my essays, because I’m worried they’ll be mad at how I’ve portrayed them, even though it’s true and I’ve tried my best to be kind and understanding while still remaining accurate in my portrayal.

    For example, I once wrote an essay about my experiences as a Voice Performance major, and started out talking about how my mom can’t sing. I felt I had to offer so many disclaimers before I let her read it: “Mom, I know you CAN sing SOMETIMES, I just couldn’t explain that in a short enough way to include,” and “I’m SOSO sorry you really don’t have that bad a voice.” If you’re writing a whole Capstone-length personal narrative, you’re probably not going to have time to warn and apologize to everyone you’re worried about reacting to your portrayal of them. As you say, if you worry about each and everything you say about a person, you’re never giong to get started.

    My advice is to focus on the writing the truth openly and honestly and not worry about anyone reading your piece other than you. It helped me write my essay about to pretend my mom was never going to read it; it may be helpful to you to try to push outside audiences and judgement out of your head and try to write this piece just for yourself. It will resonate with your audience because it is real and raw, but because you pandered to one specific person or were careful and always kind in your descriptions. As you note, including the “ugly” parts will only throw the love and beauty into greater relief.

    It might also be helpful to consider: Who are you writing this piece for? Maybe ultimately you want your project to reach a wider audience outside of yourself, but what would happen if you viewed this first draft as a piece you’re writing only for you? Write for your own catharsis, rather than anyone else’s eyes. Maybe this lack of imagined judgement will help you get started–you can always expand your idea of your audience in later drafts.

    I know you know all of this, but I just wanted to reiterate it, and encourage you to do everything you can to remember that ultimately, your goal is to write the truth. Your family won’t be able to fault you for truthful portrayals of them. If you are open an honest, your writing won’t be gossipy, it will be moving and effective.

    Good luck!


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