Making the personal public

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen  
May 11, 2017

I write lots about my personal life, from my struggles with sex to mental health to the tensions between my Vietnamese and Australian identities.

Sometimes this is weird, like when I went on my second date with my ex-boyfriend and he told me he Googled me and read a story I wrote about my vagina, or when an old friend of my mum’s called her and asked in scandalous tones if she knew her daughter was writing for a national broadsheet about having promiscuous pre-marital relations (someone please call the cops).

Mostly, though, it’s cleansing, emboldening and valuable – as both a reader and a writer. It’s nice to feel like you’re not alone. It’s nice to make others feel that way, too.

I’ve often been called “brave” for my work, but to me, writing about my life is not an act of bravery as much as it is one of necessity: to make more sense of myself, my experiences and the world around me.

Here are some #hottips on how to do it well.

Know your limits

I’m working on a memoir about my family, and have written about my reservations and fears regarding how it may affect our relationship. But my friend Ben Law told me once that he left out 99 percent of his family’s life in The Family Law: “There’s so much stuff I honestly wouldn’t write about because it’s too exposing, or too terrible, or simply too boring/irrelevant,” he said.

He’s right: you don’t have to air all your dirty laundry. Weave stories out of the parts of yourself you’re willing to share – and give as much or as little of your personal life away as you like.

Figure out what you’re comfortable sharing. Know your limits. Consider the people you’re writing about: what is your relationship with them like? How will your writing affect that relationship? Is the story important enough to tell regardless?

What’s your point?

The trouble with personal writing is that it can get masturbatory. I often ask myself what the point I want to make with my piece is, and whether it’s larger than just me. If it’s not, it’s one for a zine (see below!), or a coffee and goss sesh with a pal – not for wider publication.

Amy Gray wrote a great piece about the “confessional” wave of journalism and how it can be downright exploitative. Some editors won’t hesitate to use your most traumatic or salacious moments for clicks – it’s important to be vigilant and know where to draw the line.

Work out what you’re trying to say and why you’re trying to say it. Ask yourself what makes you the right person to tell the story: Why is your voice, specifically, important? Has it been told already? Are you speaking over anyone who should be telling it instead?

Writing about everything that’s ever happened to you, and making yourself the only focal point of the story, does not make for good reading – and it doesn’t make you a good writer.

Fictionalise it

I write a monthly fiction column for Scum called Mai’s Super Sweet 16, which is very heavily based on my life as a teenager – but because it’s fictional, I have scope to play around with things, and no one knows which parts are real and which aren’t! (Except the people who some characters are extremely obviously based on: soz/thnks fr the mmrs.)

So many great works of fiction are steeped in real-life experience, and writing fiction can give the same sense of catharsis but offer a little more distance, if you don’t want to feel too exposed. Non-fiction essays or memoirs aren’t the only form of personal writing you can do.

Zines are a thing

For the stuff you don’t want to put on the world wide web in case you get an awkward email from your grandma asking you what fisting is (the internet is forever, friends), remember that zines exist! I’ve made a “perzine” (personal zine) about almost every breakup I’ve had in the last few years, and I love that it gives me the freedom to say whatever I want knowing that it can be anonymous, and that I know exactly how many copies exist in the world.

Zines are a great way to vent about the juicy stuff under the veil of some privacy, which in the digital age is an increasingly rare thing. Plus, they’re super fun to make, and you have complete creative control.

Buy tickets to EWF 2017 events featuring Giselle:

Amazing Babes

YouTube Party

Movie Night: Looking for Alibrandi 

For more #hottips, events, masterclasses and conversations, check out the full 2017 Program Here.