There’s one comfort that keeps writers going when everything is going to hell and there’s no handcart in sight. ‘I’ll write about this one day,’ we mutter, surveying the wreckage of our lives.
But should we? Is everything really copy, or are there limits that we can and should set to protect ourselves or other people? Women In Journalism staged a debate on Tuesday in the St Bride’s Institute off Fleet Street, featuring four doyennes of personal journalism: Louise Chunn, Bryony Gordon, Kathryn Flett and Rebecca Armstrong. These women have regaled the world with tales of infidelity, marriage breakdown, mental health problems, serious illness and funny things kids say – whether from their own experience or as editors, encouraging others to ‘spill their guts’.
Louise Chunn, who as Guardian women’s page editor published the story of Jilly Cooper’s husband’s lover’s account of their affair (as well as an article I wrote on smear tests that I still get emails about), says that she’s changed her views over the years, not least because ‘everything lives forever online’. ‘I have had times when it’s really blown up in my face,’ she says. ‘Telling stories really does help other people, but sometimes people doing the writing are not as careful with themselves as they might be,’ she said.
Kathryn Flett talked of how a travel piece, to Bruges on Valentine’s Day, became her first ‘confessional’ piece when her husband announced he was leaving her, the day before they went. The resulting piece, which she wrote in one draft and entitled “By Waterloo Station I sat down and wept,” made her name. She went on to write a blow-by-blow account of the end of the marriage, and says she felt no need to protect her husband: ‘You married a writer: deal with it’. Spouses of writers, beware.
Bryony Gordon, the daughter of a journalist who wrote about her kids, now ‘gets her own back’ on her mum Jayne in a two-part column they write for the Telegraph. She shared memories of posing for a photoshoot at her mother’s request as a teenager, only for it to appear under the strapline: “Is this the worst teenager in Britain?” Now a mother herself, she says she’s conscious that ‘I don’t want it to hurt anyone else.’ She defends personal journalism (she hates the ‘confessional’ tag), saying it takes bravery and strength to share your life honestly. ‘Men do it, and it’s art.’
The last panellist, Rebecca Armstrong, began writing about her life with her husband Nick after a terrible accident left him in a coma. She said she talked to his parents and his ex-wife before deciding to start writing about him, as she couldn’t ask Nick himself – although she spoke to him all the time. He’s now out of the coma and, she says, is thrilled that she writes a column, and sometimes contributes a few words to it. However, she said, she does hold back on some details, to protect his dignity.
The evening was thought-provoking, raising questions of where to draw the line to protect oneself, while sharing experiences that might just help someone else. It’s tempting to put it all out there – but do you want any future children or employers to read all about it?
Image: Tran Mau Tri Tam, via Unsplash.