A Lesson in Figuring Out Which Stories I'm Not Comfortable Sharing with the Internet

Friday, December 11, 2015

I made a mistake, & it's stressing me right the hell out.

As you may have seen, I've had a couple essays published as of late on some big-name sites, which is really exciting for me. I confess, however, that for the most part, I'm not going through the whole standard pitching process. I applied for & was accepted into a network of online contributors for a large publishing company.

Each day, they send writing prompts, & if any of them appeal to me, I write up a quick essay of 600-800 words & submit it via an online portal. If a magazine wants to run it, I get an alert saying it's been picked up... & then my name shows up in a byline on Country Living or Woman's Day or somewhere else excitingly recognizably. So far, I've had two pieces accepted & two pieces decline (though one of my declined pieces later ran on xoJane). The pay is low, but for someone with a full-time job who just writes on the side for enjoyment & exposure, it's a cool opportunity.

Yesterday, I responded to the prompt "I Have an Embarrassing Condition" by writing about a minor-but-embarrassing medical malady that I usually try to keep under wraps. It was an easy piece that took me all of 20 minutes to write, & it turned out pretty well - funny, relatable, exactly what a magazine essay ought to be. I quickly submitted it for consideration, knowing that it typically takes the network editors a couple days to consider submissions

A couple hours later, though, I started to regret it. Did I really want the Internet to know about my bodily issues? Sure, it was funny & relatable, but it was also embarrassingly personal, & while I feel completely comfortable writing about personal health topics like mental illness, this one just didn't sit as well with me. When I imagined everyone I know reading it, my horror led to the decision to retract the submission, which can be easily done with the press of a button, except...

When I returned to my computer, I found that it had already been picked up - by Cosmopolitan, no less.

At first, I was thrilled at the idea of a Cosmo byline... until I remembered that to tell anyone about it, they'd have to read the actual essay & know some very intimate things about my body. And then I started to panic - hard. I literally laid awake last night hyperventilating, chastising myself for selling out by writing very personal clickbait for $50. That's not what I do; that's not why I write.

And so I did the unthinkable: I emailed the editor & explained my impending humiliation, basically begging him to pull the piece. Though I felt like the world's least professional person, I finally slept easy knowing that I'd followed my intuition, even if that intuition came a bit too late.

I woke up to an email from the editor saying that my request was "highly unprofessional" but that he could kill the piece if I insisted upon it. Still, he encouraged me to allow it to run, saying it would help other women (though frankly, I doubt many readers head to Cosmo to learn about medical conditions...) I responded politely to say that I wanted to go ahead with the kill, & he in turn canceled its publication - though his follow-up email reminded me that this was a one-time courtesy that would not be repeated.

I suppose I would rather upset one editor this one time than have a humiliatingly personal essay live online forever, so I feel confident in my decision to pull the piece. Still, "highly unprofessional" is certainly one of those labels I try like hell to avoid, & the whole situation has left me feeling terrible. What if this editor won't work with me anymore? What if I am a shitty writer with bad judgment? What if I never get published anywhere ever again? I fought the urge to take a Xanax this morning & go back to bed, & it set the tone for a pretty crummy Friday.

Above all else, I'm disappointed in myself for getting so wrapped up in the excitement of a noteworthy byline that I allowed myself to write something I should've realized I wasn't comfortable sharing with the world. I've been blogging for a long time, & I know by now where my comfort level is - & it's certainly not at personal essays about my body. I actually like that essay - but it's not one I should've submitted for publication, at least not right now, & I should have known better.

I know, at least, that next time, I'll think twice - & then may three or four times - to be sure that I am completely OK with the implications & possible repercussions of sharing any particular story. Stressful though it was (is), this incident served me an important lesson about who I am, who I am not, & what I am comfortable sharing with the Internet. As it turns out, I am not a personal-humiliation-for-clickbait kind of person - & if I had to be a little bit unprofessional this one time in order to figure it out, I'm probably OK with that.

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