To Tell or Not to Tell: The Conundrum of the Nonfiction Writer

August 24, 2022 § 4 Comments

By Holly Hagman

TW/CW: Mention of sexual assault

While I was in the process of earning my MFA, constantly drafting but never sending out any pieces, a friend of mine announced their first acceptance to a literary journal. While celebrating over dinner and white wine, they told us the essay was about their mother’s alcoholism. I asked them if they had told their mother about the piece – its existence, acceptance, and pending publication. 

“Hell no,” they told me, “And I don’t plan to.”

The concept, to me, was foreign and bizarre. At least, that’s what I thought, until I wrote the piece I never expected to write. 

About halfway through my MFA after most of the writers in my close friend group had been published, I was spending my down time on Submittable, sifting through calls for creative nonfiction writing when a title labeled “Recipe for Healing” popped up in my feed. It was a call for submissions to a magazine that published true stories from survivors of sexual violence and assault. Suddenly, my fingers moved across the keyboard involuntarily. Before long, I had a completed draft in front of me that shared a story I hadn’t told anyone – not even myself – since the night it happened. 

I agonized about whether or not to send it out. I closed my eyes and clicked submit, then breathed a sigh of relief. I figured it was a rite of passage to get rejected before the idea of publication was even a remote possibility. Soon, I would be sure to receive a form email from Submittable telling me this work was not ready to be shared with the world.

“Thank you for sending us your piece,” the email read, and where I expected to see a “We regret to inform you…” instead was a “We are delighted to let you know…”

Flabbergasted. Astonished. Bewildered. Someone wanted work that I wrote? An editor read my writing next to a bunch of other talented writers selected me?I wanted to shout it from the rooftops or pass out business cards to random passersby on the street that read “Holly Hagman – Published Author.” When taking into account the fact that the editor could have slept poorly the night before or gotten into an argument with their spouse or spilled their morning coffee on their pants before reading submissions, it’s a miracle when anyone gets published.  

In my excitement, I responded that I would be happy to publish this piece, which was both true and false. I was happy that my work was being recognized, but I was terrified to share this work with anyone, especially my family. The “Hell no, and I don’t plan to” from the year before seemed more appropriate now than it did at the time. I no longer wanted to rush to Staples and invest in business cards. Instead, I wanted to wake up from this dream, check my email, and find it had all been a figment of my imagination. 

Leading up to the publication date, I thought of my options. I could email the publishers and pull the piece, which, let’s face it, was not a real possibility for my “hungry-for-a-publication” self at this time. I could reach out and change the name associated with the essay to a pen name, like the one I made up for the time I almost got a job as a ghostwriter. That didn’t seem fair either, though, because, after all, this was my story, and if anyone was going to share it, it seemed like it should be me. 

I decided to tell. Luckily, it went surprisingly better than I expected. Since then, my confidence has been bolstered such that I’ve published work about my strained relationship with my father, my mother’s physical disabilities, a toxic workplace, my period, and many other proverbial taboos. 

The desire to share our stories is innately human, as is the instinct for self-preservation. In the end, it can be nerve-wracking to make ourselves vulnerable, our skeletons in the closet exposed in black and white for all the world to see. The option to remain anonymous can only be determined right or wrong by the sharer of their story. 

There is something to be said, however, about the sense of community surrounding the subjects that seem impossible to write. I find that the stories that are hardest to share are often the ones that are most needed. 


Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in creative writing and an MAT in secondary education. She also earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University where she has been an assistant editor for Brevity and the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit. She is a former nonfiction editor for Variant Literature and the current nonfiction editor for Porcupine Literary. She teaches high school English at a therapeutic school for students with emotional and psychiatric illness. She tweets @hollyhagman.

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