Can Writing Be Too Personal?

An examination of whether writing that is too personal can have literary merit, or whether too much truth can compromise writing.

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How can you be at all objective about writing that is clearly extremely personal? The answer is: with great difficulty. I found myself asking this question after being asked to review a poetry collection recently, I felt I couldn’t pass any meaningful judgement when gazing over a lifetime of painful memories.

The memoir A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer provides an interesting example in this debate. This is not a work of literary merit, it’s the account of extreme childhood abuse. Trevor Dolby from the UK branch of Orion publishing wrote, “We get 10 letters a day from people saying the first book mirrors their own childhood, which is very depressing.” Some people read this work because they could relate to it. However, the 1.6 million copies that it sold in the first five years of publication suggested it had a different appeal that you wouldn’t want to consider, one that was morbidly curious and voyeuristic. To add to the controversy of A Child Called It, the truth of the occurrences in the book were debated by different specialists and Pelzer’s family members, leaving one to wonder where the book’s appeal lies if it’s not in quality or potentially reality.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath provides an opposing example. Some have remarked that the period written about in the book is almost identical to Plath’s own life, with only names and places changed. Yet it is part of the canon of literature and a feminist must-read. The difference between these two examples is how they’re written, but also subject matter. Perhaps the abuse in A Child Called It is just too extreme to be literary. There are ways of writing about everything, and maybe Pelzer ‘told’ rather than ‘showed’ all the way through the book and didn’t focus on one or two poignant examples to illustrate a body of experience. American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis shows us that real-life horror and literary merit can co-exist. However, this is where A Child Called It being a personal account thwarts its reason to have literary merit. If it’s personal experience, perhaps Pelzer shouldn’t have had to make it anything more than his account of events.

Writers are often advised to write what they know, but in the case of A Child Called It this hasn’t seemed to work. Pain doesn’t necessarily mean good writing, to contradict popular writing myth. While bringing elements of places and people you know may be an effective technique, your writing won’t be successful if you don’t think about how you’re writing. The last thing a writer would want is for readers to pity them.

The question of writing being too personal also brings in the problem of truth in writing. Can a piece of writing sold as fiction or for literary merit ever be ‘true’? There is the issue of the fallibility of writer’s account of events and different interpretations of this, from the writer themselves to the readers, to consider. I myself have come to think of truth as a good speck around which the pearl of writing forms, but a meaningless concept otherwise, because it’s so hard to define.

As a writer, you must consider why you want people to read your work. If it’s to sell copies, then writing anything for salacious purposes (see the Fifty Shades of Grey series) will do. However, if it’s for literary merit, don’t think that simply a true account of events will do.

Setareh Ebrahimi performs regularly, and is a poet working in Faversham, Kent. She is the author of In My Arms from Bad Betty Press.

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