When Our Words Become a Commodity

January 31, 2023 § 11 Comments

What happens when we write private conversations?

By Trish McDonald

“Thank you for loving me,” he whispered as I turned up the hem on his velvet Christmas dress. No one had ever thanked me for loving them.

I look at my draft. Should our words be kept private? Am I cheapening them by sharing? Is this a fear other writers have? Do they parse their words to protect loved ones? I can write this, but never that.

“Once I published that book and my words became a commodity, something broke between us,” writes Lily King in Euphoria, a fictional account of a brief period in the life of the anthropologist, Margaret Mead. It’s the story of a field expedition to New Guinea, a love triangle, and professional rivalry between the researchers. At one point, Nell Stone (Mead) decides to publish her notes in her name only, instead of including her husband. In retrospect, she realizes her publication of their private conversations will destroy the relationship.

As I’m reading King’s words, I stop and reread the sentence. A warning. I copy the sentence down, underlining, highlighting. If I publish our words, will it harm our relationship?

Would our words become a commodity, publicly traded, like a stock? Would they yield merchandise like T-shirt sayings, coffee mugs, bumper stickers? 

I decide on autofiction as my narrative form and keep writing. I’m introduced to the voice, the method, and the stirrings of courage I’d need via Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. Chee used essays. In my story of gender fluidity, I would attack my own biases— perfectionism, shame, unworthiness. At the age of seventy-seven, amid the expectations of the culture where I live in Florida, in the current political climate, I plot my strategy to leave a legacy of hope.

After Paper Bags was published, I feared judgment by others because of my revelations. Curiosity had driven me to write about gender fluidity and a sense of wonder helped me to accept things I didn’t understand. I imagined I’d be an activist and stand on a platform, but for now I’m happy to be a bridge to a deeper conversation about human rights.

Who do our written words belong to? Once published they become a product—vendible, material, and for a lucky few, evergreen. I’m of the “No Expiration on Dreams” philosophy. I’ve picked out the artwork for Paper Bags greeting cards, sticky notes, and guest towels. They’re embellished with: Thank you for loving me.


Trish McDonald is the author of Paper Bags, a story of self-discovery, metamorphosis, and gender fluidity. According to her DNA profile, McDonald is 86% Irish. For a storyteller, this “blarney” heritage comes in handy when writing about issues of trauma. An avid camper, McDonald lives in a tiny house in an RV park in Southwest Florida. Her writing has appeared in Oldster Magazine, Maudlin House, and Shout-Out Miami. Learn more about her work at her website.

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§ 11 Responses to When Our Words Become a Commodity

  • Morgan Baker says:

    This is very thought provoking. My memoir comes out in May and now your words make me wonder if I should have done this in the first place. Too late now. Thank you for this- can use this idea for discussion in my classes.

  • Andrea A Firth says:

    thx Trish. Interesting how you show that the question: What happens when we write private conversations? extends beyond memoir to fiction too.

  • Amanda Le Rougetel says:

    You’ve got me thinking. “A word after a word after a word is power” writes Margaret Atwood, which is so very true. What we then do with those words is, indeed, the question. Once we release them into the world in one form (genre) or another, we lose control of them. That is the risk, but one that comes with potential reward, too. I wonder if the principle of ‘do no harm’ comes into play for writers and, if it does, then, maybe, some of the words we put on the page likely must be kept for our eyes only. Your novel sounds thoroughly intriguing, Trish, and I would buy your “Thank you for loving me” note cards.

  • dreliasonwriter says:

    Nice Trish. Thank you.

  • Melissa Hart says:

    “I plot my strategy to leave a legacy of hope.” I love this so much, Trish. Thank you for this beautiful essay. Also, I adore Lily King’s Euphoria; I think Nell is one of the great characters in literature, and I so appreciate your words and hers.

  • Joanna Eleftheriou says:

    how is “autofiction” different from autobiographical fiction?

  • Raman says:

    This really makes you think. In May, my memoir will be published, but after reading your thoughts, I’m not sure if I should have done it in the first place. Now is too late. Thank you for sharing this; I can use it to spark conversation in my students.

  • […] And Trish McDonald, author of the memoir Paper Bags, had this piece published: When Our Words Become a Commodity | BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog (wordpress.com) […]

  • LL Kirchner says:

    We all become characters when we write the stories of our life, and sometimes this—” I feared judgment by others because of my revelations”— is what keeps us from it. But we write, and so, we dream.

  • Great post with lots to think about. So many layers of vulnerability in this writing we do.

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