Can Creative Works be Too Honest?

If you can’t tell, a lot of my writing both here and elsewhere is based on personal experience. Maybe I’m just part of the personal essay fad. When it comes to creativity, I don’t know any other way to write about it. I’m not a scientist, I can only share what I’ve learned and experienced.

Still, a friend and coworker, J, asked me a hard question. How do I know the line between being honest and sharing, well, too much? The question left me speechless for a bit. While I believe in the line, I’m not sure where it is.

Ground rules

Still, when I look at my work, I see that there are rules I’ve made for myself over time when it comes to my work. Here are a few of them, especially when it comes to writing.

1. Not my stuff? Not my consent that matters

When it comes to doing work that highlights other people in my life, this is fundamental. I’m not putting my life up on a stage when I do that I’m putting someone else’s. Not only will I ask for permission, I’ll also ensure they get the right to see it before it goes live. The last thing I want is for people to be blindsided. In addition, I remove any identifying markers. They may be able to recognize who I’ve written about, but no one else can pinpoint it to them.

The system isn’t perfect: parents and family are hard to make anonymous. So far though, they’ve handled it pretty well.

Why does this matter? I don’t want the people in my life to feel like I will mine everything they share. Yes, other people’s stories inspire me but they have a right to privacy. Using someone else’s story without consent would undermine not only the kind of work I want to do but also the ethical person I try to be.

2. Does the detail enhance the piece?

Pondering the line

In high school I got the same critique multiple times: less details please. An emotional kid, it would piss me off. I wanted to make a story realistic, to take someone there. It took time to get over my pride and realize that I had to focus on the right details. What are the details that help set the scene? What does the audience need to know? What can they imagine for themselves?

This is also important for revealing personal details. For instance, this issue came up when I wrote about selfie photography. I shared my history of body image issues because it impacts my photography. Selfies became a new way to make my body beautiful for myself. Body image issues provide context for why these images matter to me.

However, there’s a line in revealing that. I don’t go in depth about my eating and exercise issues. My body image can, and has been, its own essay. The focus in that piece was on photography. How did my history relate to my photography? What details would help the reader understand?

Keeping the personal details focused ensures they’re relevant. They will help the reader understand your point of view without inundating them with information. You want them to make your point, not leave the audience feeling overwhelmed.

We all know that person who tells wandering tales that are full of unhelpful oversharing. Unless you’re creating a piece purely for yourself, ask yourself this question. Does this detail help your audience? If not, cut it.

3. Claiming honesty? Claim your ugly parts too

Part of using personal experiences means you’re claiming to be honest. You’re talking about real life and asking people to trust you about your narrative.

This creates some spider-man like responsibility: you have to shine the light back on yourself, even when it doesn’t show your best parts. For instance, when writing about ghosting and friendships, I had to own my bad habits that helped create toxic friendships and let them end without resolution.

Maybe admitting to those things makes me look weak. But not being honest about myself becomes a slippery slope. If I’m not honest about my bad parts, why should you trust anything else I say? This may not make me the most popular person. But it may make you trust my story a little more. In the end, trust matters more to me than being liked.


Walking the line between honest and TMI is a tight rope, one that constantly moves on me. Sometimes I wonder: will I regret sharing so many persona details? I can’t speak for my future self. That’s part of the price I have to pay for these essays. Even now, there are days where I make my friends reassure me multiple times before I’m ready to hit the submit button.

Creating my own rules around honesty helps me balance between privacy and good writing. They ensure I stay not only ethical, but also focused on honesty that helps, not overshares.

What’s the line for between honest and TMI? Leave me a comment and let me know! 

1 Comment

  1. This is something I struggle with so much! I would love to, for example, talk about romance and sex more in my writing but I feel that would hurt a lot of the people I love. Thanks for writing this piece, really got me thinking.

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