Nonfiction Writing Tips from the Advice Goddess

May 18, 2012 § 6 Comments

Syndicated advice columnist Amy Alkon, also known as The Advice Goddess, offers some writing advice for us all.

First the question:

Dear Advice Goddess: After my girlfriend and I split up, I wrote a creative nonfiction piece about our breakup (changing some identifying details).

I published it on a popular blog and linked to it on Facebook. We’re back together, and things are great; however, she saw the story and was humiliated.

I explained that what I wrote was beautiful and vulnerable and true, and many people were moved by it. She really wasn’t down with that and told me to consider her off-limits in my writing.

This seems unfair. I write nonfiction. What will I write about if I can’t write about my life?— Expressive

And the answer, as printed in the San Angelo Texas Standard-Times:

Dear Expressive: As lame as some creative writing exercises sound — “Write a haiku about what you had for lunch!” — a thinly veiled portrait of your chicken salad will cause way less relationship stress than “Turn your fight with your girlfriend into a blog post!” (And no, you can’t just change her name from Molly to Holly so nobody but your 546 Facebook friends will know it’s her.)

Yes, I’ve heard — privacy is reportedly dead. It was pronounced dead in 2006 at an Internet security conference. This doesn’t mean that it is actually dead or should be — just that lots of people are finding their dirty laundry uploaded to Instagram and their private conversations turned into content….

But, wait — if you and your girlfriend have a fight and nobody comments on it on Facebook, how do you know your lives are worth living? The answer is, decide which you want more, this girlfriend or an audience. This isn’t to say you have to stop writing about her; you just don’t get to hit “publish.” Try to see this as an opportunity to expand your writerly horizons.

Go do things you can write about: Climb something. Fish for marlin. Drop in on the Spanish Civil War. And remember, everybody’s got a story, and lots of people are just dying to have theirs told. Seek them out, look deep into their eyes, and say, “So, tell me the horrors you experienced as a prisoner of war, and would you mind not leaving any participles dangling?”

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§ 6 Responses to Nonfiction Writing Tips from the Advice Goddess

  • jshdoff says:

    That’s crap. Like the Ross/Rachel debacle, they were on a break! So, it’s all fair. If you don’t want someone to write about you in a bad light, learn to behave better. Or don’t date writers. It’s that simple.

  • Elane Johnson Ulrich says:

    Dear Advice Goddess,
    The last time I felt this riled, I’d just discovered that a brand new bottle of a certain pain medication for those special times in a woman’s life when she already has homicidal rage required a chain saw to open its hermetically sealed package. But perhaps you are just joking in your response to Expressive.

    I mean, honestly, what if Adele took your advice? There would be no “Someone Like You.” What if Augusten Burroughs or Joan Didion or Anne Lamott had pondered the permissibility of telling their stories but then DIDN’T because there were no scaled mountains or war prisoners or mounted marlins in the lines?

    Yes, yes, a writer should write just for the pure pleasure of the creation, but stuffing reams of manuscript pages in a fusty desk drawer, never to be shared because their topic might be pedestrian or because their live subjects might get embarrassed is my new definition of insanity. Voices are meant to be heard, even if they are just lamentations of emotionally wrecked ex-boyfriends.

  • Just in case anyone is confused, I posted the advice column because it is funny, not because the advice is of any use. I’m with Elane.

  • melissacronin says:

    I agree with all of the above. Yes, our voices are meant to be heard. I’m a memoirist and have struggled with how much to expose about others in my life, say, my husband, sister, mother, brother or father, all whom I truly love. Or, should I even write about them at all? I’ve learned that the trick is all about balance. If you have something to say about an intimate someone in your life who has caused harm make sure its not written out of revenge – readers hate that.

  • The best advice I’ve heard about a similar situation came from Scott Russell Sanders, who kept “Under the Influence” (about his father’s alcoholism) unpublished until his mother felt OK with him publishing it (his father had already passed away; his siblings were already OK with publication). The question, for Sanders, for me, for most of us, I’d guess, is whether the relationship is worth damaging for the writing. I’d rather have deep, important relationships with loved ones than a publication (if it comes down to that). I even know of a fellow who wrote a whole book’s worth about his daughter and then decided not to publish it because she didn’t want him to… I agree with that choice whole heartedly.

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