probably shouldn’t publish mean essays about people I love. But sometimes I get a little ragey. A little ranty. A little four-letter-word-happy, even with those I love, but who have also done something that gets me more than cranky. And because snark (my default attitude when I’m frustrated) is embedded in my DNA, well, if you make me mad, then I’ll bite back with some fightin’ words. But here’s a question I eventually have to consider with every bite I make and word I write: Should this rant turn into an essay and should I submit this possible essay? It seems like it just wouldn’t turn out well to publically embarrass a loved one. Because remember: a side effect of submitting and then publishing a literary OH-HELL-NO-YOU-DIDN’T piece of writing is estrangement. I speak from experience.
This is why I write about dead people.
My grandmother wasn’t dead when I wrote an essay about her and sex. I didn’t consider how she would respond to the essay because she was eighty-eight years old when I published it, and by then, she couldn’t really see well enough to read. She did still have good hearing, which is why she could hear her best friend tell her on the phone about the essay I wrote, and that friend had just read it in my recently published book. (I sent my grandma’s friend the book, which means I’m fairly stupid.) I didn’t hesitate for even a millisecond when I initially submitted the thing for publication. Certain that my grandma would never read it if she couldn’t even see it, I let the creative juices flow in a sex essay about Grandma. It’s a damn funny essay, but my grandma’s sex life isn’t really my story to tell; therefore, as a result of its publication, and with the aid of a magnifying glass and 42-pt font, my grandma wrote me a rightfully mean email saying that my sex stories about her are lies and not my business to be writing (true story). Grandma also said I was never to write about her again, which I honored until this column, but she’s dead now, so here we are.
Like I said, it’s safest to write about dead people.
This leads us to a huge question in the literary community, especially for non-fictioners: What story is my story to tell? Recently, one of my students got an acceptance letter for her memoir; because she reveals in her manuscript how her father abused her mother, the publisher is concerned that the author’s mother might sue them for publishing something as secret-revealing as that about her.
Other genres are not immune to this predicament. Yes, it’s generally safe to write about dead people and risky to write true stories about the living, but this doesn’t mean that fake stories are necessarily safe either. Whether it’s characters based on your momentarily-hated loved ones or even just a taboo subject, fiction writers might face a lot of flack for what they submit and publish, too.
I was at a literary event, and an author decided to read to a large audience a rape scene from his latest novel—one that seemed a little too glorifying of the sexual assault. That was ballsy—forcefully ballsy, one (such as myself) might say. Because I never read his entire book (his reading didn’t encourage me to do so, by any means), now in my head, I refer to him as “The Rape Author.” So even though his novel was, well, fiction, by reading something that could be considered offensive (or at least something that made the audience uncomfortable and not wanting to read the rest of his book, no matter how amazing it might have been), he took a risk that made him vulnerable to his readers’ ethical stances in terms of what they considered something to share at a reading.
“A story of someone being a jerk to you is not just the jerk’s story, but it’s your story, too.”
Poets face this predicament, too. In one of my previous columns, I interviewed poet Tammy Robacker on what it is like to write about really personal issues in her poems. After receiving so many rejections to her poems about childhood trauma, Robacker explains what her experience was like when reaching for the deep stuff in her writing and then deciding to submit that to the world. “I began to panic as to whether I was expecting too much to have such taboo and difficult subject matter accepted into publication or put into the world,” Robacker explains. “But then, one after the other, these acceptance letters for the poems began coming in, and it finally hit home. That realization of: Yes, the world is ready for me. There is a place for me, for my voice, for my secrets, for my pain, for my way of seeing. It was an empowering moment.”
And so, the question: how do we decide if something that is hard to read (whether it’s a snarky essay, a taboo novel, a deeply personal poem, etc.) is really something we want to publish—is really something we want the world to read?
Writing isn’t meant to harm or offend anyone; it’s meant to tell a story. (Well, mostly. It depends on if you have a specific audience and some grand intention in mind). All of our stories are intertwined because we don’t live in a vacuum. My story is your story is her story and his story and their story and our story. Writers have a right to tell their stories.
So what do you do when someone gets mad because you published a story that makes this person look like a jerk? Think of it like this: A story of someone being a jerk to you is not just the jerk’s story, but it’s your story, too. So when that story is published and the jerk gets offended that you submitted an essay for publication that contains a very private interaction between jerk and you, here’s something you can say: “If you didn’t want the world knowing that you kicked me, then maybe you shouldn’t have kicked me.”
Maybe the question here is twofold:
- Does this story need to be told?
- Am I the one to tell it?
“Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truthsayer with quill and torch. Write with your tongues of fire.”—Gloria Anzaldua ”
If the answers to the above questions are “yes” and “yes,” here is a follow-up question to ask yourself:
- Are you going to be okay with the possible repercussions of having this essay/story/poem published?
If you don’t know the answer to that question, then I say get a little gutsy (though not forcefully ballsy) and submit something even if you are unsure if you want it published. When it gets accepted, you’ll know in your gut if you want the world to know that story or not.
“Get a little gutsy (though not forcefully ballsy) and submit something even if you are unsure if you want it published.”
Speaking of spilling guts and gut-knowledge, here is the perfect personal story to reinforce this final point:
I wrote an essay about a lie. The lie was that I was voluntarily throwing up my food every day, and I wasn’t telling anyone about it. Bulimia was starting to make me really crazy, though, so I had to—fittingly—purge myself of my secret. I wrote a short essay about it, revised it that day, and then submitted it a handful of hours later. The words just spewed out of me. I knew I wasn’t ready for the piece to be published yet, but I figured I’d have a good few months until I heard anything back from anyone, which meant I could have some time to try and stop doing the bulimia thing. Then I could say to my now-ex-husband: “Oh, I wrote that essay a long time ago! I’m not doing that now!”
And then the essay got accepted in a few hours.
And then the essay was published a few days later.
So then, I was just like, “Okay. Well. Here we go!”
Actually, everything turned out perfectly fine as the essay gave me a way to talk about my problems without directly talking about them. In the three years since that essay was published, I have not once ever regretted publishing it. It was my story; I needed to tell it. No matter how scared I thought I was to have that information public, once it was accepted, I could just feel that I was ready to face life already; and two days later, I did.
When you submit a super-personal poem, a revealing-of-others piece, or a taboo story, you have to be prepared for anybody and everybody to read your work. Because once published, you’ll need to be prepared for all types of responses, including possible backlash. But this is your choice to make. So choose wisely—though straight from the gut, too.
Next column, we’ll chat with Red Hen Press’s Marketing Manager, Tobi Harper!
Chelsey Clammer is the award-winning author of Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017) and BodyHome (Hopewell Publications, 2015). A Pushcart Prize-nominated essayist, she has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Normal School, Hobart, The Rumpus, Essay Daily, The Water~Stone Review and Black Warrior Review, among many others. She is the Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.
Chelsey is also an instructor for WOW! Women On Writing. She’s offering column readers a Submissions Consultation of up to 12 pages (4,500 words). Find out more.
Q&A with The Sub(mission) Columnist: Chelsey Clammer Answers Your Questions!
Building a Community: An Interview with Becky Tuch, Founding Editor of The Review Review
What to Expect when Expecting to Work with an Editor
Them Fightin’ Words
Writing Contests: You Have Nothing to Lose
Breathe and Proceed: Poet Tammy Robacker on How to Submit the Hard Stuff
How to Hold Your Horses
Caring About cover Letters (because nothing says “please reject me” like a terrible first impression)
Find or Fling? Figuring Out Where to Submit
Rejection Acceptance: Interview with author/editor Jac Jemc
Hard-Working Writer Seeks Widely-Read Journal
What My Submissions Spreadsheet Teaches Me
Submit ’Til You Make It