In 2011, I wrote an article about my ex-boyfriend for The Hairpin.
A former grad student in Connecticut, I was both new to New York and new to media, and those two things fueled me with a drive to get ahead that, as an older, more jaded New Yorker, I already deeply envy. I worked for pennies at a D-list internet company, but in addition to running a blog for them full-time, I wrote freelance articles on nights and weekends from my cramped Williamsburg bedroom.
I’d been trying to rationalize writing up a certain eyebrow-raising story about my ex-boyfriend, in the name of boosting my portfolio. The Hairpin had a regular series called “The Best Time I,” in which writers completed that prompt with different personal anecdotes. I’d written somewhat confessional articles before, but in this case, I was sitting on a real juicy slice of headline orange: “The Best Time My Ex-Boyfriend Dumped Me To Be On Reality TV.”
It was a goofy but raw story, one more personal than I’d ever had the heart to put in print. But I hadn’t spoken to my ex in over five years, I rationalized. And anyway, the jabs I would take at him in the piece were what he deserved for being so dickish to me years ago. And to be even more honest about my motives, I could almost taste the Twitter buzz and the flurry of Facebook likes that would no doubt ensue. Visions of “Wow, so awesome you’re on The Hairpin!!” emails floated like sirens before my eyes. Finally spurning my hesitations, I untied myself from the mast.
I wrote up my story on spec, hunched over my cheap Ikea desk and with a glass of wine one Saturday night, and emailed it. The Hairpin took it right away. Before long, it was live on the site.
I sat and stared at my published confessional that day, under the hot fluorescent lights of my midtown Manhattan office building. It had gone up at the prime bored-at-work hour of 2 p.m. on a Thursday. My byline glittered quietly on the screen.
For the next few hours, I pretended to myself that I wasn’t watching for the little “(1)” notifications that popped up on my social media tabs, indicating a new reaction to my piece. I pretended I wasn’t simultaneously refreshing the article every 30 seconds to read every ego-massaging comment. I’m not going to lie: The praise and the sympathy for poor, heartbroken me felt good. It felt really, really good.
Soon, though, I started to feel nauseated. I’d been careful not to mention his name or any identifying details in the piece, but savvy readers were already deducing who he was. And if he ever googled me, he’d see that smug headline nestled in my search results — and he’d undoubtedly click. It was really only a matter of time before the story got back to him, something I’d obviously acknowledged to myself but that only now hit me like a stepped-on rake.
Later that night, I panicked. I cried. I called friends. Maybe I overreacted. And eventually, I got over it. I was within my right to write that piece, I told myself, which is something I believe to this day. And in the grand scope of things, maybe he wouldn’t have even cared that I’d written about him.
But still, two and a half years later, the aporia of violating someone else’s privacy to get ahead still subtly haunts me. Occasionally when I’m trying to get to sleep in my slightly larger Park Slope apartment, the thought of him reading my article tosses fresh in my mind. To see him squinting at the screen. Reading my raw thoughts about him. Feeling the heat of my almost palpable bitterness.
In Sartre’s Nausea, Roquentin is so horrified by his own existence that he lets inanimate objects and their perceived meaning propel him into near insanity. My dyspepsia over writing that blog post, of course, was a crisis of action, one that I had caused, not one of being. But on another level, Roquentin’s fear was the same as my own. I was haunted by something static that gave off more meaning every time I thought about it. This piece of writing, typed out and whisked off by my own hands, would lurk in pixels forever. I didn’t get my ex’s permission. I didn’t contact him to hear his side of the story, which was undoubtedly different than mine. Should I have done that? Could I have? Had I used him as navel-gazing capital? There it sat, like the leaves of Sartre’s chestnut tree. Having it on my résumé, which was all I’d ever wanted, made me feel significantly cheap.
This brings me to my larger question, something I still wrestle with now: the ethical boundaries inherent in writing about one’s life experiences. Memoir has a long and rich history, of course, but putting one on the internet means it will be both instantly and permanently cataloged, and almost stupidly easily accessed. Unlike the days when you could intentionally leave a regretful published poem off your portfolio, the magic of Google means your writing — in many cases, not editable! — will be forever attached to your name and thus searchable by future dates, prospective employers, and any person you dare to write about.
In the digital era, how do the rules change when others, either loved ones or enemies, are involved in an author’s personal writing? If I date someone and he writes a blog post or a Tumblr rambling or, hell, a subtweet about me, maybe that’s a risk I assumed in dating. But for myself, I’m still uncomfortable deciding to what extent shared experiences are a commodity.
Now I work for BuzzFeed for a living, where I mostly write lists about a variety of goofy topics. I’m no longer trying to drum up freelance essays to lob around to editors like desperate softballs, and I don’t feel pressure to strip-mine my life for sexy click-bait stories. Did that ex-boyfriend post catapult my career? Not single-handedly, no, and I can’t quantify whether it was, for lack of a better phrase, “worth it.”
I don’t think writing about yourself is always something you’ll rue in the sharpness of hindsight. Many people rightly find solace and community in both reading and writing personal reflections. But when I see other young writers spill secrets online, I hope they’re not pimping out others or themselves in personal stories they’ll regret telling. Because someday, we could all be that ex-boyfriend, anti-memorialized in characters on a screen.
As someone like Sartre might say, freedom is the most important thing about being human, and also the most terrifying. Writing anything on the internet — whether it’s a “Modern Love” column or a Tumblr post — is one area where we all exercise that freedom, writ large on a blank page onto which we can drag people with or without their permission. I’ve been in media full-time for only three years, but I’ve learned my lessons quickly, mostly by making mistakes; some of them about how to exercise this strange power of freedom to write whatever I want.
The Hairpin piece is still up, and I never had the nerve to apologize to my ex. He never contacted me or indicated otherwise that he’d read it, either. I sometimes wonder, way deep down, if all that worry can be attributed to my projecting of my own guilt.
I suppose I’m still writing about myself; I’m writing this right now and reviving an article that I’d much rather leave buried in the past. But I bring it up now because I’ve learned from it, and I’ve decided that while I’m free to paint myself as an idiot online, I’m not going to bring other people into my words either against their will or agnostic of it.