Caitlin Kelly is a freelance writer who has written for The New York Times, The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Glamour, Business Week, Town & Country, Family Circle and Penthouse to name a few. She is also the author of two non-fiction books: Blown Away: American Women and Gunsand her latest Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.
Today and next Friday, July 1, Kelly shares some writing insight with us. Having been in the business since 1990 and worked as a freelance writer in addition to salaried writing jobs since 1996, she has plenty of hard-earned wisdom to share. As a bonus, if enough people ask questions (you can comment or email me directly at oc2seattle dot gmail dot com), Kelly has generously offered to do a Q and A to answer those questions, so don’t be shy, give us your questions!
Without further ado, please welcome Caitlin Kelly.
Thoughts on Disclosure
By Caitlin Kelly
Writing about yourself is a dangerous business.
You know how you think and what you feel. You’ve got strong opinions and powerful memories. Why not use them as material for essays, articles or books?
What if you’re wrong? Does it matter? To whom?
And, once you start your emotional striptease, when do you stop? When is a coy flirtation insufficient – or a raw flood of confession the cringe-making equivalent of a lap-dance?
Welcome to the minefield of disclosure. The only way to know you’ve overstepped is when you’ve lost your legs. Which is where a tough agent, editor and first readers are essential.
I’ve written a great deal for publication about my own life: my marriage, my divorce, my desire not to have kids, putting my dog to sleep, a noisy hospital stay.
For Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, my second non-fiction book, I had to dig much deeper than ever before. I found it difficult, painful and frightening — what would the people I was also describing have to say about it? I did not tell them they were about to be in a book, that our private conversations were now scenes and dialogue, shaped by my memory and the exigencies of the book’s narrative arc.
There’s no rulebook on how much to disclose. Every writer, and editor, has their own notion of too much or not enough.
In my first draft of Malled, two close friends and first readers – one of them my sister-in-law – both cautioned me to purge the manuscript of a specific family member and our ongoing conflict. “It’s too much,” said Salley. “We don’t need to know that much. It makes me uncomfortable.”
“You don’t want the fallout,” warned Sheena. “Do you really think it’s worth the family drama to leave it in?”
Now that Malled is out and widely reviewed – with 34 amazon reviews as I write this, plus some terrific professional assessments from USA Today, The Globe and Mail, Forbes. com and others – I’m also facing the cost of my own candor, of disclosing facts about myself and my worldview that people are now using to attack me, not as a writer but as a person.
For daring to feel them, and daring to include them.
I’ve been called a princess, a racist and an elitist, partly because I chose to disclose that – before working $11/hr in retail – I’d traveled the world, worked for three major daily papers, speak two languages. These are deemed problematic because….?
I could have said nothing.
I think not, and I’ll tell you why. Context.
I recently read a memoir by a young woman, whose quixotic life choices seemed silly and misguided to me. (She found then charming and compelling, and so did her agent and publisher.) When I dug a little deeper, it was clear she came from significant privilege and had graduated from one of the nation’s most costly and exclusive colleges. Did her background shape her narrative? Of course it did.
Maybe it’s because I’ve worked as a journalist since college, but I want to know the facts! I want the larger contextual framework of who is talking to me, demanding my full and undivided attention for the length of their book. Not for fiction, obviously, but for non-fiction – for me – this is an essential element. Writers who try to disguise their filters cheat us, their readers, of the truth.
Whether we like it or not, we all see, think and write through multiple filters: race, age, education, ethnicity, class, religion, politics.
With no signposts at all to my narrator, a silence where I need context, I lose interest fast.
Who are you?
Why should I listen to you? Or believe you?
So, while some Malled readers continue to beat me up for candidly and honestly admitting in print who I am, where I come from and how I think, I’ll take the hit. I’d rather be that than James Frey or any one of the many “memoirists” whose work — it turns out later – is more deceptively artful fiction than accurate disclosure.
If you’re not willing to share your truth, don’t write.
You don’t have to share everything, nor can your readers listen to it all. It’s up to you, your agent and your editors to determine how much is too much, or too little.
And, no matter what you all decide, someone is bound to hate it.
And love it.
Welcome to the writer’s world!
Part 2: On July 1, Caitlin Kelly gives us her take on the writer’s life.