EDITOR’S NOTE: Full disclosure: I was the instructor at the writing workshop summarized below. The essay was pitched by the contributor — not assigned — after a discussion about the ethics of using intimate information. At my request, Page did not use my name in the post, but we later agreed that, for this site, it needed the transparency.
By Chloe PageFor about the last 15 years I have struggled with the nagging need to share a story of which I have been a part, but didn’t know how.
I phrased that awkwardly — “a story of which I have been a part” — because I couldn’t quite bring myself to say: “to share my story.” This hang-up probably points to the crux of my problem, which is questioning the appropriateness of sharing details about my own life in a story. There are parts of my life that feel relevant and true to topics I want to write about, and I harbor hope that these personal experiences might resonate with others. At the same time, I harbor fears about indulging in literary naval-gazing or the presumption of self-importance.
I recently wrestled with this question in a writing workshop and found guidance for answering it, which, in a manifestation of irony, I want to share by talking a bit more about myself.
First, let me stipulate: I am not a journalist. I am a neuroscientist, and my writing portfolio consists almost exclusively of academic journal articles in my research domain, which is the biological underpinnings of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. The writing workshop I attended was a weeklong dive into creative nonfiction; it had nothing to do with my field of study, but I hoped to find and hone a voice suitable for writing about science for the general public, making sense of topics like the marvelous inner workings of the brain and how best to conceptualize depression.
Next: I have depression.
That feels like a weighty confession, but in truth it shouldn’t. As many as one in three people experience a major depressive episode at least once in their lifetime, so statistically speaking it would be more noteworthy for me to share that I am left-handed (one in 10). The ubiquity of depression is one of my reasons for researching it. My own condition isn’t directly related to my professional interests, but my personal experiences relate to how I want to write about the topic. So the question of whether or how to share a personal story was on my mind as I sat in this writing workshop.
“When is it appropriate to share personal details, and when is it right to maintain privacy?”
In one session, we had been discussing how intimate details within a story connect us to one another and become windows into the universal joys, sorrows, wonderings and experiences that all human beings share. We also discussed the value in privacy and the ethical responsibility of not treating personal information as a spectacle for shock value or page views. So I asked the question that had been nagging me: “When is it appropriate to share personal details, and when is it right to maintain privacy?”
The workshop instructor’s answer was, to put it mildly, unexpected: “Do you know ‘Star Trek’?”
Do I know “Star Trek”?! I thought. It’s only sci-fi at its best, making us contemplate questions about life, time and space as we dream about the future and reflect on the present. The mission of the Starship Enterprise was pure exploration, not conquest, of the cosmos; the Prime Directive was an anti-colonial mandate of non-interference with other worlds. The “Original Series” ran from 1966-69, overlapping with the civil rights and women’s movements, and catching the beginning of the gay rights movement. It portrayed an ethnically, racially and culturally diverse crew in high-ranking positions aboard the starship and the first interracial kiss on television between an African-American woman and a white man. Later series like “The Next Generation” depicted even more racial and gender equality; disabilities like blindness were accommodated without stigma.
Do I know “Star Trek”?!
“Yes,” I murmured.
Others in the workshop were, no doubt, baffled. But the instructor went on to explain how she found a guiding ethical principle for sharing personal stories in “Star Trek:” specifically, the movies “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” She summarized how, in the first of those two movies, Spock sacrifices himself to allow the Enterprise to escape a deadly explosion. Moments before his death, Captain James Kirk — Spock’s best friend — implores Spock to explain why he is choosing to die. She quoted the crucible moment when Spock calmly replies to Kirk: “The good of the many outweighs the good of the few.”
I couldn’t help but correct her: “The needs of the many.”
She obliged me with a laugh: “OK, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Then she continued with the story of the following movie, in which the crew of the Enterprise embark on a dangerous journey to reunite Spock’s surviving life force with his body, effectively resurrecting him. When Spock revives and recognizes his old friend Kirk, he turns the question back: Why had they risked so much for him? Kirk replies: “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”
The instructor called it her “Trekkie Ethics Guide” to sensitive stories, whether yours or someone else’s: If the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, then yes, tell the story. But if the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many, honor the one.
Attaching ethics to purpose
Much ink has been spilled by “Star Trek” fans (aka Trekkies) debating whether saving Spock was indeed ethical or not, but regardless, the Trekkie Ethics Guide works for writing, or at least for hopes and aspirations for my writing. It’s another way of asking: “What is the purpose of this story?” That question is entwined with other key questions in the writing process, such as: “What is my story really about?” “What is the key message I am trying to convey?” “Why does it matter?”
In nonfiction writing, I am learning, it is important for the purpose of a story to be greater than the personal details it contains, but at the same time to connect to the universal experiences of being human.
…sharing personal information can be a selfless act of setting aside ego and fears of vulnerability…
I am trying to take the Trekkie Ethics lesson to heart and recognize that, in the right context, sharing personal information can be a selfless act of setting aside ego and fears of vulnerability to let a story be told. In the words of writer and performer Will Reynolds: “An artist processes their lived experience in public so that others may process their lived experience in private. Art is always an act of service.”
This is not to say that I don’t still struggle with fears of being self-indulgent, or even selfish. But I know I’m not alone in that fear: In Andrew Solomon’s seminal book “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,” he shares a snippet of a correspondence with a friend who also suffers from depression. The friend writes: “I have a need to share my self-obsession. I am so aware of it in my life right now I wince every time I hit the ‘I’ key. (Ouch. Ouch.)”
When the personal is the universal
As I continue to venture into non-academic writing, I am doing so with the needs of the many in mind. Mental health struggles are extremely common and are still in need of de-stigmatization, and everyone can benefit from a better understanding of how their brains work. If any of my personal details help me tell those stories, then I want to share them. If they don’t, then I won’t.
When to share something personal in a piece of writing is not an objective question, and Trekkie Ethics is not an objective answer. Writers will always disagree whether personal details are serving the needs of the many, what those needs are and if the benefits outweigh the costs. Still, the Trekkie Ethics Guide is helping me find ways to approach this problem, and I hope it can help you, too. When handled conscientiously and intentionally, even the smallest personal details can serve the larger needs of the many.
* * *
Chloe Page is a neuroscience PhD researching the mechanisms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety as well as the basic biology of how we experience and process emotions.