March 14, 2006

Turning Again

It seems this blog reaches a turning point every month or so. It hit one yesterday, one that surprised and frustrated me at first, and still does actually, but that feels inescapable as I think about it.

I wrote a post that told private details about the life of someone very dear to me who did not have the chance to consent beforehand, and in fact legally is too young to consent. Although the intent of the piece was to express my love for him, my writerly confessional impulse led me to make statements that could have been seen as stigmatizing. After the post came out, other people very close to me protested. They told me I had no right to use the life and personality of a real person that way.

This is an issue that has come up for centuries in writers’ careers, and different people solve it according to their consciences. But now, on the Internet, the implications of writing about real people go far beyond hurting their feelings. We face an era when privacy will soon have disappeared, when anything anyone has written about anyone else will be instantly findable through search technology that will far outstrip the Google that we have today. It will become standard procedure (and has become so in some spheres) for prospective employers and admissions officers, prospective friends and enemies, to dig up all available data about the people who come before them. And nothing will be safe from scrutiny. Deleted materials will still exist in cyberspace for those who care to look for them. Someone told me that if I had written the post in a printed book it would have been more acceptable, but actually he was wrong in an age when all digitized books are, or soon will be, completely searchable. I may be especially vulnerable because I use my full real name, but in fact most bloggers’ identities are easily discoverable and will become more so with advancing technology.

So by sharing with a relatively small group of trusted readers an experience that meant a lot to me and my loved ones, I inadvertently put one of those loved ones at risk in the future. I have received requests, too, from other people in my close circle, not to write about them anymore. Of course I will comply with their requests.

It seems ironic to me, in an age when writers make millions of dollars telling all, and sometimes passing off invention as truth, that I come up against this roadblock, but I suppose that people who lack consciences do have the best chance in life. In any event I can’t concern myself with them; I can only consider what I must do.

So I’m going to have to change the slant of this blog somewhat. One important strand of its subject matter will fall away. How fundamental a change that will be remains to be seen. I didn’t start this blog intending to write familial gossip. I meant it to be for fiction and for philosophical and literary observations. The practical fact turned out to be that fiction and philosophical/literary observations don’t come to hand as often as cute or moving vignettes of family life. The family stuff was entertaining, and lots of bloggers write about their families, and I naively thought I was preserving lore for appreciative future descendants who would want to know what their ancestors had been like, how we had lived. Now this renunciation will tell them something about how we live.

My impulse in writing has always been to reveal myself. One could theorize about why, but I’ve put a lot of things on this site that could be held against me, and I don’t really care. If it’s just about me, I don’t care if people think I’m crazy or hostile or self-serving or smarmy or hypocritical. The whole enterprise is self-promotional anyway: my mind is all I have to put on the market. I’ve been living on smart remarks for a long time; they’re how I hope to earn remembrance, they’re why I get invited to the party. And I’m self-employed; I have no boss to answer to, and the people who rent my services judge me by my work, rarely even meeting me in person. But when my loved ones are involved, it becomes a whole different situation.

The first change I’ve made is to delete a comment of mine that earned particularly strong, and justified, criticism. I’m also going to edit one or more comments in which potentially damaging details from my post were repeated: I apologize to the much-valued online friends who wrote those comments, and I hope you understand that the deletion is not a reflection on you.

Someone wondered yesterday what the guidelines for writing about real people should be, and said that she had seen a set of such guidelines online but couldn’t remember the source. If anyone knows the location of those guidelines, I’d like to find them. A basic rule of thumb, I would imagine, is not to write anything that puts a private person in a dubious light; nothing that could later be used against him or her. And not to make real people identifiable, other than public figures.

At this point I have to think about what to do next, what to write next, what direction to take this blog. Maybe the questions will answer themselves: maybe when I give up one kind of subject matter, others will flow in to take its place. Or maybe I’ll struggle and not come up with an easy answer, and have to write less than I have done for the past year.

One thing I do know: I will value your thoughts about it.