This was originally published on TheVocal.com.au (Fairfax) in 2016.
I discovered personal essays when I was 14, with platforms like LiveJournal, and later, Tumblr. Fast forward a few years, and personal essays have taken the internet by storm. Entire websites dedicated to publishing one thousand word reflections on traumatic events or circumstances have appeared in abundance, with some not even attempting to hide the fact that they’re driven by profit, not genuine interest or concern.
Young writers who’ve felt moved by other essays divulge our innermost secrets over email to editors around the world, looking to be heard, to be told that our experiences are valid. Where we once wrote locked LiveJournal entries, or in diaries we hid under our beds, we’ve learnt how to sell our worst experiences to people we’ve never met and who almost certainly do not have our best interests at heart.
Publishers have realised that traumatic experiences get attention. Traumatic experiences with clickbait for headlines, doubly so. If you’ve had an abortion, apply here. If you had a threesome with your stepfather and high school English teacher, pitch us now. If you were hit by a car driven by your high school nemesis, send us a draft.
As someone who has written about certain distressing events or aspects of my life, I have found it to be therapeutic, in a way. I’ve also found it to be extremely stressful — having strangers tell you your experiences are wrong, or fabricated, or insignificant, can hurt. But being contacted by people who feel the same way, or have lived through the same thing, can make it worthwhile. I’m lucky to have only worked with supportive editors who have prepared me for the amount of attention my writing may receive, and not for publications built on exploiting trauma for clicks. I’m also lucky in that nothing I’ve written about has been heartbreakingly traumatic, and thus less likely to be turned into clickbait.
When you’re young and writing, you’re more likely to be primarily acquainted with other young writers, all just as likely to be fumbling around in the dark as you are. There’s no easy way to find mentors, or even just occasional guidance, so you’re left to fend for yourself. You have no idea how much your work is worth. You have no idea what’s standard practice and what’s exploitation. Throw editors and publishers driven primarily by financial interest into the mix, and young writers are vulnerable. Vulnerable to being underpaid, or not paid at all, vulnerable to having misleading or damaging headlines slapped onto their work, vulnerable to pressure to pour more of their heart and soul into revealing personal essays.
First person human trafficker, now there’s a job title
Mandy Stadtmiller, a former editor at xoJane, a website famous for its controversial ‘It Happened To Me’ series, described herself as a “First Person Human Trafficker”. The piece provides a unique and disturbing insight into the confessional marketplace. Editors with no psychological training coaching writers to give more of themselves to the confessional piece, to reveal more of their secrets and go into greater detail regarding their traumatic experience.
I’ve already acknowledged that writing can be therapeutic. Hearing that people relate to your experiences can help you feel less alone, and I’ve met many wonderful people through my writing. What goes on at these publications is not — being coached to reveal more when you aren’t ready to isn’t good for anyone, and it’s dangerous and reckless behaviour coming from an editor. Writers are reduced to their traumatic experiences, and ended up boxed in and unable to get pieces unrelated to their trauma published (the most prominent example that comes to mind is Natasha Chenier, who wrote a personal piece for Jezebel that went viral, and never heard back regarding her subsequent, unrelated pitches).
The solution is not to completely avoid writing about personal or traumatic experiences but to make sure you have thought about what it will mean once you do, and that you have a greater say in how the story is published. I wrote about personal things for a small publication with an amazing editor early on, and one was picked up by a much larger Australian news site, which led to me receiving phone calls about TV appearances that never came to fruition, creepy and inappropriate messages in my Facebook and email inboxes, and a huge influx of followers on the Twitter account I’d previously used to complain about the minutiae of adolescence. Having supportive friends helped a lot, and thankfully the piece was on an area I’m comfortable speaking about to whomever; if a piece about something far more personal gained that much traction, I’m not sure I would have handled it as well as I did.
Editors and publishers need to be more mindful of how they deal with young writers willing to bare their souls. I think websites with entire sections dedicated to the salacious personal essay need to reconsider using headlines that boil someone’s life down into a ten word attention grab. Editors have a responsibility to ensure writers know the various ways the public could respond to their piece, and ensure they’re prepared for that response, particularly in the digital age where it’s much easier for stories to go viral and be seen by a massive audience. There are more publications to pitch to now than there were twenty years ago, so your personal essay could get lost in a sea of them, or, if the publication has capitalised on a particularly salacious aspect of it, go viral for all the wrong reasons.
But young writers also need to be confident in discussing things like payment and editorial policies/behaviour with one another. We aren’t competitors, we’re just young people trying to work it all out. If we can’t rely on all editors to be upfront and honest, then we need to make other writers aware of what is and isn’t expected practice in the industry. Sharing our knowledge so we can learn from each other’s mistakes will undoubtedly empower young writers to pitch and publish with more confidence, knowing exactly where others have gone before us.
One of the key things you can do to build up a support network is reach out to people. Reach out to older writers whose work you admire, or reach out to writers your own age who have had work published. In my experience, most will be more than happy to answer questions you have and point you in the direction of a friendly editor.
Once you’ve made a few connections, ask around about how much different publications pay contributors. I know I was taught not to discuss money, but it’s important writers are open about which publications are fairly compensating their contributors and which aren’t. Just because your writing is published online and not in a traditional medium does not make it less valuable!
In addition, you can check out websites like Rachel’s List that display job listings, as well as a board for ‘shout-outs’ where writers can inquire about experts, case studies, or ask for recommendations. Organisations like Express Media focus on encouraging and supporting young writers to put themselves out there, so make sure to follow them on social media and get involved.
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, introduce yourself to other writers and editors, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to be upfront with editors. If something is making you uncomfortable, like a headline that is quickly entering clickbait territory, say something. While it is an editorial decision, many editors will take your feelings into consideration, so don’t feel you can’t say anything. At the end of the day, it’s your writing, and your story, and you should feel comfortable with how it’s being shared.