This is a version of a post that originally appeared on Writer’s Bloc as part of their May series on balance. Republished with permission.
A few years ago I wrote a blog post about Taylor Swift’s anti-feminist lyrics. Perhaps ill advisedly, I used an example from my friend’s love life to illustrate my point about Swift’s detrimental view of gender roles in her music without my friend’s consent.
This friend has a soft spot for Taylor Swift, along with Twilight, Glee and young adult fiction, and I believed these biases informed her actions when she started hooking up with my roommate. When their courtship fizzled out a short time later, she revealed to me that because they were friends first, she didn’t feel that as lovers their relationship was any different: where were all the grand gestures on his part, she wondered?
Now, at the time I thought this observation would perfectly prove my assertion that Swift’s lyrics and anti-feminist rhetoric in interviews enforced an ideal that heterosexual relationships must take the shape of fairytale romances that are performed primarily by the guy, while the woman is just a passive receiver of surprise weekend getaways, jewellery and flowers.
In hindsight, perhaps my opinion about my friend’s love life wasn’t something I should have published on my blog, or even passed judgment on in the first place. Needless to say, she didn’t think so either as we’re no longer in contact.
Funnily enough, after that shit went down, I suffered a bout of writer’s block that lasted the better part of a year. Karmic retribution, perhaps?
This is not the first time I’ve gotten into trouble with a friend for airing their dirty laundry in my prose. About a year and a half before the post that ended a friendship, I wrote about how I thought one of my friends wasn’t very socially adept due to a sport-focused sheltered upbringing and how this informed my broader point that sportspeople shouldn’t be held up as heroes (a topic that was doing the rounds in the news that week). Understandably, he was very hurt that I used personal details he’d told me in confidence to further my agenda and that I had those opinions about him. He’s a bigger person than both myself and my former friend, though, as he was able to see both points of view and hash it out with me like an adult and our friendship has since recovered. (Yes, I ran his inclusion by him prior to publication!)
The irony is that the singer herself is all too familiar with mining her and others’ personal lives for her work. I’m not trying to equate my writing with Swift’s or that using other people’s stories is the same as using your own, but I’d like to think she could relate. Either way, we both wrote and write about people who are no longer in our lives, a feat some writers are more adept at that others.
But how much of the personal anecdotes of the people in our lives do writers have the permission to share? Obviously, I had permission to share neither experience, but in the absence of anything happening in my own love life and the desire to act as therapist to another friend, respectively, I crossed a line.
And it’s a fine one to write on when you’re crafting memoir. Increasingly, I’ve been delving into the personal essay and wondering whose stories and lives I share I have the permission to make public.
How specific can you get when using identifying details in your writing? At the time of publishing the pieces in question, only a few of my friends were reading my blog and would have realised who I was writing about. The majority of people who read my work are unknown to me. But just because only a handful would recognise the subject in question doesn’t necessarily mean writers have free reign over how they’re represented.
Writers such as Lena Dunham and Janet Mock share that problem on a global scale. Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, drew controversy last year when she wrote of her curiosity about her sister’s body parts and an alleged date rape in college. Though names and other details were altered, a fellow student of Dunham’s alma mater was falsely identified as her attacker. Mock shared concerns about the portrayal of her family in Redefining Realness, her memoir about growing up trans in Hawaii. When the stakes are that much higher—being perhaps the most influential millennial in a decade and coming out as a gender identity much of the world is yet to accept as legitimate, respectively—there’s an increased likelihood that your audience and subjects take issue with your words.
Call it the life of a writer or chalk it up to my own narcissism or lack of imagination but it would seem that I haven’t learned my lesson as I’m still writing about the people and situations that caused friction in my personal life in the first place.
Related: Taylor Swift—The Perfect Victim.