Truth Telling in Blogging: Do you feel like a fraud?

Are you an avid blog reader? Do you read for industry insights, confessional tidbits or something in between? Top blogs are serious business—even personal blogs can earn upwards of $100,000 per month.

If you have a point of view and a unique voice, you can reach millions of people just by writing about your life. People will come to you, as they came to blogger Heather Armstrong, to live vicariously.

But if you write about your personal life, you may have to pay a price. And that price is feeling like a fraud. (Not to mention dealing with the haters.)

What do bloggers owe their readers?

A recent internet ruckus about mommy blogging got me thinking: what do personal bloggers owe their readers? Let me fill you in.

Back in 2002, Heather Armstrong single-handedly—and totally by accident—launched a new journalistic genre: the confessional blog. (Here’s a great summary from the NYT on how she became such a powerhouse.) As journalist Lisa Belkin writes, “Readers of personal blogs return again and again for the connection, the feeling they really know the writer.” Readers love the no-holds-barred nature of this kind of writing. It’s what they come to the site for.

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It’s the reason personal bloggers get paid millions in advertising revenue.

Heather was fired after her boss discovered her blog and read about himself. She wrote about the experience and her readership skyrocketed. When she had her first child, she wrote about it: page views went up. When she moved back to Utah, up. Had her second child, up, up, up. Got shingles, up.

Got divorced? People screamed bloody murder. There hadn’t been so much as a hint on her site that anything was wrong. Readers felt cheated.

Since then, Heather has been seriously on the defensive. Does she have to write about her divorce, given that she wrote about her happy marriage? Recently she posted this explanation of where she draws the line, and it got me thinking…

The rules of nonfiction

I am working with a Pulitzer prize winning journalist who is on deadline for his first nonfiction book. He was having trouble shifting from only the facts, ma’am to a more leisurely—and compelling—storytelling mode.

Most of our discussion centered on finding the comfort zone around truth telling. In nonfiction, when is embellishment a lie? Is creative nonfiction really fiction in sheep’s clothing? For example: Can you recreate a conversation if you weren’t even present when it took place? Is that considered embellishment or lying–or neither?

Frey's not-quite-totally-truthful memoir

I found the James Frey debacle endlessly fascinating. He was discovered to have fudged some facts in his memoir and readers were horrified. His publisher recalled his books. Oprah raked him over the coals on national TV. When I was studying journalism, my law professor told us that we risked getting thrown in jail if we made up as much as one word of dialogue. That high standard stuck with me. The lesson I learned was that real writers never “lie.”

But what does that mean? Not everything David Sedaris writes can be 100 percent true, can it? What does truth telling actually mean in this new confessional genre? And are blogs held to the same standard as books? Should they be?

What do you think?

I don’t have an answer to these important questions. Personally, I don’t think Heather Armstrong owes me, an anonymous blog reader, an explanation of why she got divorced. But was I taken aback when I read that what I thought was a cool, fun, happy relationship (because of stories she chose to tell over the years) was actually such a mess that it ended in divorce? Yes, I was.

Do I still read her? Yes, I do. But do I enjoy it as much—absolutely not. Am I skeptical about everything she writes? Yes, and that takes away much of my pleasure.

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As I read her posts about how she deserves her privacy, what I see is a personal struggle with reconciling herself to her career. I see a woman who feels like a fraud. Ultimately, I think it’s not about what she owes us, it’s about whether she can keep making money from this kind of work and live with herself at the end of the day.