May 19, 2020 § 11 Comments
As a widely published writing coach, NYU writing professor, and assigning editor, my current and former students have been sending me pitches, op-eds and essays about why they are “breaking the rules of quarantine.” Sometimes they offer the justification that they have health, mental or emotional issues, and that’s why the rules shouldn’t apply…not to them.
In the midst of this crisis, it’s not the time for writers to grasp for splashy pieces founded on flaunting their ethical failures or illegal methods to sell their memoirs or build their platform. It will backfire.
As a writing teacher, a big part of what I do is save people from their worst instincts on what stories need to be told and how they need to tell it.
Students share their darkest moments with me and I help them craft their pain into stories that are published in top tier publications. I believe that care is a key reason I have been entrusted with training teens in journalism in NYU’s summer program.
What I don’t do is encourage them to exploit their pain to get a quick clip. Let me break it down for you:
We tell our kids with social media that once it’s up, it’s out there forever. So let’s take a slice of our own advice. If you broke the law, faced down a cop, stole money, betrayed your marital vows, or played a prank on someone that ended with tragedy, why would you want to advertise that? It can’t possibly benefit you or your family. People will get mad, and may want revenge. Whether they send your essay to the cop you proudly thwarted, testify against you in a child support hearing, or take action to have you pay what you took back to society, think twice about writing about it.
Instead: If you’ve done something that shouldn’t be publicized and you are compelled to share it with the world, write it into a novel. You will get points for imagination, even if it is the truth.
Let’s also not confuse revealing, first-person pieces with clickbait. I have noticed that many writers make the mistake of producing humiliating stories that never take their careers anywhere.
The reason that happens is that those clickbait stories—even those written well—shared damning details of something that happened to the writer, but offered no further insight beneath the events. The writer didn’t dig deep.
I’m all for a revealing, first-person piece and have written many of those pieces myself. But those pieces need to do something important: the reader has to relate to the writer and to do that they have to understand the emotional underpinnings of why the writer did what they did, and then some transformation or learning has to take place.
Anecdotes need to have a broader focus. Vivian Gornick’s brilliant book The Situation and the Story references the external—the logistical situation; and the internal, which is the story. The story is the heart, the part that shows the emotional underpinnings which make up the narrative arc of an essay. Without it, the essay is simply a situation, or clickbait.
Bottom line: This is a fraught time and there are people suffering, so please think twice about sending essays into the world that open you up for many legal and emotional ramifications and attacks. There is no smart way to sacrifice your integrity to get that byline. You may get notoriety—but not for your work. Just for being a jerk.
Estelle Erasmus, an award-winning journalist and writing coach, has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Week, Insider, The Independent, Parents Magazine and more. She is an adjunct writing professor at NYU and an ongoing guest editor for Narratively. She also teaches for Writer’s Digest, writes a column for Forbes and hosts/curates the podcast ASJA Direct: Inside Intel on Getting Published and Paid Well. Estelle can be found giving publishing advice on her website, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.