I’ve been in book publishing for about twenty years, and I’ve lost track of all the manuscripts that have come in from people who survived tragedy, processed the experience through writing, and now feel strongly that their written accounts would help others dealing with a similar tragedy. We editors dread the arrival of such manuscripts because we know that 1) 99.999 percent of these are not publishable, and 2) regardless of their quality, they needed to be written. That is, people often need to process their lives by writing about their experiences, but needing to write is not the same as writing something that should be published.
That sounds cold, but honesty will take people further than polite denial will, and my desire is for people to move forward, whatever their situation. So, for anyone out there who wants to understand the difference between personal and public writing, here’s a distillation of what I’ve tried to communicate through workshops as well as carefully written reject letters.
Personal writing is for the person doing the writing. It doesn’t always have to be in journal format. I’ve written stories that were not publishable but that did my own soul some good. A LOT of poetry falls into this category—Lord knows, I’ve written enough of it. I have a couple of friends who enjoy reading my amateur poetry, and that’s audience enough.
Personal writing is too specific to one situation to translate well to anyone else’s situation. For instance, all the details of Molly’s battle with cancer are Molly’s details alone. Although many other cancer patients will share some of that experience, they don’t benefit from reading about Molly’s journey exactly as she recalls it.
Personal writing helps those close to the event make some sense of it. Most of the time, readers outside that circle don’t have the same need to make sense of that particular event. The audience for most tragedies is a limited one; even if a million other women watch their children die of a certain disease, not all of them will want to read about someone else’s experience with that. Each of them is already grappling with her distinct search for meaning in the context of tragedy.
Personal writing often works out an issue specific to the writer. In grieving for my deceased father, I’ve written some eloquent words. But those writings moved in a direction I needed them to move, and I don’t expect many other people to have exactly that same need.
Personal writing is usually emotional, passionate, and tunnel-visioned. This is as it should be, because the writer is working through emotions, living out of her deepest passions, and doesn’t need to see anything but what she must focus on. This kind of writing might work for religious or political tracts, but otherwise it’s not very useful for the larger public.
Public writing takes a long time to distill from the original personal writing that generates it. Years ago I lost my only pregnancy to miscarriage. I was journaling about it all along, and I wrote several versions of an article that I thought would help other women who experienced miscarriage. As an editor, though, I knew that this article was not ready for the public. It needed more time. I needed more time. It took me five years to produce a publishable version of this material. It takes time to gain enough objectivity from your own experience to shape the material for the benefit of others.
Public writing is shaped for the readers, not for the person writing it. This means that lot of the details and nuances meaningful to the writer get edited out. The structure gets reworked. I have to imagine what would motivate a person to read this piece—and I have to imagine what that person would expect to get out of it. Once I answer those two questions, my task as a writer is to shape the work accordingly—which often means that I am ruthless toward my own needs and preferences. Whole paragraphs will disappear. The tone will change as well, to be welcoming and respectful to the readers rather than merely expressive of my own passions.
Public writing takes the concrete details of a single, personal experience to generate a discussion of the more universal experience readers will relate to. This is tricky, because I’m using personal details, but they are carefully selected ones. The end result is that they don’t point so much toward my experience as they evoke in the readers’ minds their own experiences that fall into the same category. To write more universally is not to write in more general terms. Here is where, in the world of essays, the truly skilled writers shine above the rest of us. They manage to choose just the right details. They unfold very personal experience in such a way that to the reader it feels like her own life.
Please write what and when you need to write. Write for yourself. Write for those people close to you. Write until you accomplish within yourself what needs to happen.
Then put it away for awhile—maybe even a year or two. Take it out and read it and look for clues that the world out there might benefit from this story or reflection. Then do the work that must be done. I wish you well, because, in my opinion, this is the hardest writing of all. When we manage to do it well, the result is powerful and rich with beauty.
Copyright © 2009 Vinita Hampton Wright