When the need for privacy tussles with the urge to publish—writer’s block

Photo of author hiding behind a notebook. Files and notebooks in the background

What to hide, what to reveal? A question every writer must confront.

Privacy issues can paralyse a writer. What to hide, what to reveal? That’s a question every writer must confront or suffer writer’s block.

The question is, why did I spend four years dithering instead of writing a particular book, namely Live Long And Like It: my boot camp for the bonus years. The first factor that blocked me from writing was this one:

1. Privacy. My boot camp was personal: at the time I hadn’t imagined it would be useful for others.

It’s true, when I launched into a solitary 12-month programme to prepare myself for the reality of old age in 2015, that was just for me. Solitary. No coach. No companions. Based on evidence but customised for me alone. Surely I couldn’t generalise from my personal trip to the needs of others. I did share in blog posts on the run, but only for a tiny audience.

For this to change, a few years had to pass. Time mellows, and it has brought me a wider view. Some lessons you have to learn again and again. Long ago I realised that whenever I experience something that seems uniquely personal to me, it always has a certain universality. If I’ve discovered some little truth, so has half the human race. I find that both shocking and liberating.

For a writer, there’s always a struggle to explore or document the personal without exposing what is best kept private.  I think this struggle carries on, often unwittingly, regardless of the form of writing. Writers of memoirs and poems and blogs grapple with this dilemma frequently, upfront and consciously. But even in science reports, journalism and academic writing (for example) writers are influenced by personal experience and some will include personal anecdotes in an article or book. But how much? and when? and why? As writers we need to ask these questions and own the answers.

Naturally I’m wondering where you, as a fellow blogger, notice yourself drawing a line. On social media in general people go way, way, way past what I feel is worth sharing and safe to share every minute of every day. I see the WordPress blogging phenomenon as a little more restrained and deliberate, less blurty. What do you freely share on your blog, and what do you deliberately keep private? How long do you sit on a post before hitting publish? Do you share news of your friends and family without permission?

The issues are different for a book. A book takes a pretty long time to write and gets rewritten and revised over and over again. You cannot blurt in a book. When you expose a secret in a book, it’s not by accident, but a deliberate choice. Facebook is deceptively named: your timeline may include thousands of faces, but it’s not a book, no way. By contrast, the names Twitter and Instagram reflect the instantaneous, chattery nature of the content. Not saying it’s bad. Just echoing that the medium is the message.

Impulse is the enemy of privacy. I don’t regret the time waiting until I was ready to write my book-in-progress. But now on every page I’m also weighing up how much to share. The art of writing consists largely of selection and rejection, and so I’ll stop now.

Rachel McAlpine cc by 2.0


30 thoughts on “When the need for privacy tussles with the urge to publish—writer’s block

  1. Rachel – I’m really enjoying these posts, and finding them timely and helpful. Thanks!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s great. I’m enjoying what I discover through writing them.

  2. LA says:

    Hmmm….I’m fairly open with my good and bad things, but I don’t expose my real name….so what does that say?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That you have made a practical decision that makes the privacy issues go away.

      1. LA says:

        Though my closest friends know I write this and read it on a regular basis…but only my good friends

  3. Claudette says:

    I was talking with a friend about this. It’s a big question casting a wide net. We talk about our kids freely, then apply filters or stop all together when they reach the teen years. Some people use fake names to protect for privacy when discussing other people (check out the dating blogs of the almost married or post-divorced women). Then there’s the ones who sometimes talk about a personal thing, but try to spin it to reflect on themselves, even though family or friends are mentioned peripherally. It’s very tricky to navigate this because the more honest you are, the more relatable you may be perceived by your readers, while simultaneously the more vulnerable you become to the trolls and haters.

    I love the term ‘blurty’… So true!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      At every stage of life we yearn to know that we are not alone in our troubles and joys. When writing as a parent that has to include mentioning one’s children, right? It sounds as if you and your friends have figured out that side, at least! We want to be ourselves online without attracting trolls. You manage that!

      1. Claudette says:

        Oh Rachel, I filter heavily though. I wish I could speak more freely but my mom reads my blog… gasp. 🙂 And both my partner and my teen son have made it clear they prefer not to be mentioned (and yet, sometimes, there is very little way around it what with the role I play in our life)…sigh.

        But yes, I try to hit a good balance so that I feel at least somewhat satisfied with my ‘output’ and that it reaches some people who feel the connection that way, without making it uncomfortable for those who do not want to be part of my blog. As I said, it’s tricky.

        Thank you for bringing it up on your blog, it is bound to incense a conversation out there with some of us again. 🙂

      2. Rachel McAlpine says:

        Claudette, as they say, it’s complicated, especially at this stage of your life. More memoir? More fiction? Hang I. There. You also have your rights!

  4. JT Twissel says:

    It isn’t necessary to come clean about everything to be a writer. We all have things we must face when we’re ready; not to make our work connect more fully with readers. At least that’s what I believe.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Integrity. Of course.

  5. It’s a perennial question for writers, I’d think, though I don’t think I’ve wrestled much with it in my very young writing career. But I appreciate your raising the issue – before I make a mistake that I can’t take back. Better to be safe than sorry, so staying sensitive to the issue should be a wise thing in and of itself.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Luckily, we can take back our words on our own blogs. I enjoy the Edit button.

  6. bone&silver says:

    Having been specifically banned from writing about either my teenage son or my latest romantic interest, I am finding it much harder to create personal content for my blog! But of course I have to respect their wishes: integrity is everything.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I bet you have other topics of interest in that big brain of yours 🙂

  7. alison41 says:

    Interesting post. Hmm. Much to ponder. Currently I’m writing a monthly round up about life in Cape Town – I’ve adopted a humorous, snarky tone – and I have to re-write plenty of the content – because I don’t want to get sued! SA has a very prickly attitude to many social issues and political problems. And don’t even mention the Race Card – OMG a tsunami of opprobrium. At this point, I think it would be wise if I shut up!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Good luck with that one!

  8. retirementconfidential says:

    I just published a post after sitting on it for three days, wondering if I should share. You are so right — as soon as boundaries such as privacy come into play, writer’s block joins the party. I finally erred on the side of share because I don’t want fear to guide me.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I love your reason for publishing. After three days, this was a well thought out decision.

  9. Dan Antion says:

    Thank you for sharing these discussions with yourself. They are helpful.

  10. Pre-social media, I spent decades writing creative pieces. I debated “should this be Fiction or Non-Fiction?” Lots o’ unfinished works. Never wanted to write a novel — my intention has been a collection of short stories. Most of my works are based on my Chicago Irish-Italian family. Still sorting through the weeds –Delete? Re-do as Non-Fiction? If I turn into NF, how do I work with the private stuff about the character without offending them in real life?

    Enter writer’s block. There are still sore, tender places in our crazed family (very common) and we live thousands of miles apart. To help w/these blocks, I am turning stuff into poems and this feels more liberating. Through poetry I can “tell it slant.” Laugh more, stress less.

    And WordPress? For the past two years I have been dithering with it. It still feels like a blind date, a distraction from the stories gathering dust on hard drive. (Do I “kill my darlings” as they say in the writing world?) At the same time, I like connecting with others in the blogosphere — we do find others who are going deeper here and I feel it does help me hone in more on the “big picture.”

    Please excuse. I need to either walk in the woods or get to water aquatics to relieve spine.

    So many paradoxes, so little time!

  11. Elizabeth says:

    I once taught a class called Personal Narrative at the art college where I was a professor. We explored this at length and I still think about it all the time when I write. Artists had the same challenge when deciding what to and what not to discuss in critiques or interviews about their art. I choose(as did Adrienne Rich)to leave my children out of it except in casual references to them or my grandchildren. I choose to follow my daughter’s advice to not post anything that I don’t want the whole world to know. That has been good advice. Until I find a purpose to discussing the depth of my trauma history, I choose to not write about it. I allude to it and sometimes the absence of some nurture comes through in the writing, but it is not my focus. Keep pondering. I like a chance to keep rethinking this one.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Your policy is well founded and wise. Blogging has new conventions with new challenges. The ease of publishing and access to readers who almost seem to be in the same room tempt us to discuss intimate things. And so we need to be ever alert, I think.

      1. Elizabeth says:

        I would always rather undershare than overshare.

      2. Elizabeth says:

        Perhaps because I started communicating with actual letters, I have always had a filter around what I share.

  12. Great photo.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I try.

  13. lynnefisher says:

    This is very timely for me! I’m writing a memoir/guide on midlife crisis and am coming up against how much to share for my own comfort/peace of mind. Of course, I have to share, be vulnerable, for authenticity and engagement and a host of other reasons but even if you are pretty sure you’ve sorted your past issues and have some great insights to offer which may help others and which motivate the memoir in the first place, to revisit them leaves one feeling a little ruffled, irked, uncomfortable – and this doesn’t happen to me with fiction at all. So I’m thinking this must be very common as a dilemma, especially for non-fiction memoirs.

    In my blog, I share snippets of the midlife work above, as I talk about a lot of other self care aspects for creatives, but i’ve never been comfortable to reveal my crisis in a single blog post. Someone recently asked me whether I would, as they were interested, but i said no, not comfortable, too much to go into on the blog.

    So as I say, timely, and I have to admit I’m finding this the main struggle with the actual writing easily getting into a flow and far quicker to write than a novel. The bugbear is the sharing, and that for a memoir, seems like an oxymoron! Thanks for the post, Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s interesting, Lynne. I am also trying to get that balance right. Today’s thought for my own book is to keep the two parts separate, first the memoir, then a brief how-to section. Different from your book as it will probably consist entirely of poems! Another approach is to write a how -to book but sprinkle in stories of individuals, not just yourself. I’m sure you will find a solution but yes, this is quite a challenge, isn’t it? It may all come right the day you find a book with a structure you can imitate. (Aha, that’s it!) Another technique which has never failed me is to write the whole thing with one specific reader in mind. Not an imaginary persona but someone you know. For some strange reason this makes it work for all your readers. Good luck!

      1. lynnefisher says:

        Well I think maybe we’re closer in what we’re doing than at first sight, Rachel. There will be no poems in mine, not my forte – but maybe you mean in yours? I’m using my own learning curve and all the lessons I learnt and reading I did to make sense of the whole transition thing which also is about shedding mindsets that simply are counterproductive or way out of date for where one is now. So it is to do with aging and maturing, like yours. In terms of structure, I’ll be closer to your first idea – the memoir seems to be coming first anyway, but I will want to do an guide/explanation of what’s going on and that might have to be part 2 – we shall see! I read something once about life writing, let the content define the form – I’m going to try to remember that.

        Just had a book arrive in the post – I’m eager to read it. ‘Why We Write about Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature’, Meredith Maran. Another lady writer recommended it to me, after she’s published her memoir.

        Cheers for now, many thanks for your post, and here’s to us both getting the balance of sharing right!