Articles You Wouldn’t Take Home to Mother: How to Write About Embarrassing Topics
All too often our assignments–or our artistic sensibilities–require us to expose our foibles, rehash humiliating anecdotes about our friends and family, or reveal intimate details about our sex lives. How can
we deal with the dilemma of writing for an audience of thousands on topics we wouldn’t mention to our own mothers? How does a writer write about, say, his search for the perfect toupee, knowing that his friends and family will soon be privy to his hair-raising secret?
Lie Like a Rug
I subscribe to this technique, myself. When my mother-in-law recently asked me what articles I was working on, no way was I about to tell her that I had just finished an article for Redbook called “The Better Orgasm Diet”; instead, I told her I just finished a piece on “nutrition.”
Greg Blanchette is another writer who uses this approach. Blanchette undertook an ambitious sailing voyage around the world in a small, open boat, and wrote a series about it for a sailing magazine. “My parents, of course, wanted copies of the articles,” says Blanchette. “What makes a good article in a sailing mag is thrills, danger, narrow escapes–of which there were plenty. But that’s not what a parent wants to read. So I assured them that the hairy parts were played up for dramatic effect–they weren’t.”
Protect the Innocent
You’re reading an article about people with a shoe sniffing fetish, and you notice that one of the names is marked with an asterisk. Your gaze drops to the bottom of the page, where it notes, “This name has been changed.” Is your enjoyment of the article any less now that you know that the fetishist’s name has been changed? Of course not.
Before you try this tactic, check with your editor. Redbook was once interested in a slightly raunchy idea of mine, but their new policy was to print sources’ real names. The result: Although I got plenty of anonymous anecdotes, I couldn’t get a single person who wanted to talk about their bedroom romps on the record.
Fake Your Name
By day, Jane Simons* writes service pieces for family magazines. By night, she becomes Tanya West, a risqué writer who pens erotica for a living.
Pen names are yet another tool for the wallflower writer. “My erotica writing might prove both embarrassing to my family and detrimental to my other writing projects, especially for the family magazines,” says Simons. “Using a pen name allows me to write erotica, which pays fairly well, without compromising the rest of my assignments. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I write; it’s just that I’ve seen other writers lose the bulk of their more legitimate writing assignments when it was discovered that they wrote erotica.”
The one drawback to using a pen name is that Simons can’t take credit for her erotica on her writing resume, “so it appears, at the moment, that I have no fiction writing credits.” However, adds Simons, ” I’ve received some strange ‘fan’ mail, and I’m just as happy that those people can’t easily find me.”
* This name has been changed. (See, I follow my own advice.)
How about you — have you ever written on a topic you didn’t want your mother (or spouse, or kids, or friends) to know about? What did you do to avoid embarrassment? Let us know in the Comments below!
This article first appeared in Writer’s Digest.