Remember Lena Chen? She was big on the internet a few years back for being a compulsively oversharing sex blogger while she attended Harvard. Anyhow, she graduated, and stopped sex blogging, and we forgot about her. Now she's back! And we're going to use her story as a peg for some completely unsolicited advice-giving.
In Salon today, Chen writes about the shame and anxiety she felt after her sex blog got popular and everyone started judging her, and how she learned some lessons about human nature, and how she decided to "retire" from sex blogging and pursue an actual writing career, and now she's a regular writer and she has a regular boyfriend. Fine, fine. We'll chalk up the moon-eyed self-examination of her personal "brand" to harmless navel-gazing.
Your standard tale of tortured college self-absorption morphing into real-life wisdom, right? We should all remember how dumb we were during our college-age years before we judge others. But all this is merely Chen's prelude; the drama (as it were) of her Salon essay comes as she explores how—just when she thought she was out—a call from Marie Claire pulled her back in:
So when Marie Claire approached me (along with four other women) about a story on my sexual history and number of partners last fall, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk about double standards. There was only one glaring problem: It brought me back to a person I tried mightily not to be anymore, and the "fearless" sexual provocateur they were hoping to interview was now terrified what others might think.
She does participate in the story, despite the fact that "by participating in the interview and shoot, I was afraid of threatening the entire image I worked to build over the past three years: one of a confident broad who'd been around the block and had a few things to teach the world about sticking it to the Man."
And this is what we want to talk about. There is nothing wrong with talking, writing, or blogging all about your sex life, if you so choose. But here we have a young woman who made a conscious decision to get out of the personal sex-writing game because it was affecting her negatively, only to jump right back in simply because Marie Claire called and asked her.
Here is what we're trying to tell you, young writers of the world: You don't have to do shit just because some media outlet asks you to. You are a writer. You are not a "brand." You can write about any topic in the whole wide world. You do not have to write about yourself. You do not have to write sexy, salacious, crazy, wild, demeaning, shocking, depressing, or self-glorifying stories about your own life in order to get published. The fact that such stories may be easier to sell does not mean that you have to write them. You can write about—never forget this—other people.
Writing about yourself as a character is a process that feeds on itself. If you set out with the intent of making yourself a "brand" with a certain image and persona, you are locking yourself in a prison of your own creation. Media outlets will always be interested in cheap thrills. Your mom died in a fire? You were molested as a child? You slept with five different dudes a night every year at Harvard? You did something, anything, that will titillate a bored office drone slacking off on the internet? Sure, write it up. It's "exposure!" It's good for your career! Blah blah blah!
Do not believe it. It is not necessarily bad to write about yourself; but remember that there are six billion other people in the world with equally compelling stories. Part of the reason that media outlets like to publish these types of confessional first-person essays is so that we, the readers, can mentally scold the writer for being so self-absorbed and unwise. First person writing about ourselves should be unleashed only on special occasions, like that Christmas sweater in your closet. Don't rock it every day. You'll just look ridiculous.
The world is full of crap to write about. Go find it. And never be afraid to tell Marie Claire to fuck off.