Wrestling with the personal: why it’s so difficult to be honest with readers, and why I’m trying now

As my 47th birthday approaches, it occurs to me that I haven’t been very forthcoming with my readers. In the decade plus since I started my blog, I have offered writing advice, book reviews, and the occasional bit of news, but for the most part I have kept my distance. I’ve never felt entirely comfortable–okay, comfortable at all–sharing my personal life publicly. As social media leads us into ever-more public exposure of the most private parts of our lives, I have resisted.

Case in point: yesterday, when a friend tagged me in a facebook photo challenge, with the instructions to “post one black and white photo of your life each day, with no people and no explanation,” I took a few photos in my very lived-in office, one of my living room in slight but livable disarray, one at a taco truck where I bought lunch to bring home, a few on my walk with my husband. Ultimately, what I posted was a photograph of a ceiling light, entirely out of context. It is so glaringly impersonal that almost nothing can be gleaned–beyond my taste in light fixtures (although, it could just as easily have been taken outside of my house, so really, it doesn’t even necessarily reveal my taste in light fixtures).

the completely impersonal ceiling light photo
The photo that felt too personal for the B&W challenge

Why this  discomfort with sharing? First, there is the knowledge that once it’s out there, it can’t be clawed back. Information is easy to find these days, but we don’t need to make it easier. For example, my bio vaguely says I live in Northern California. Some versions of my bio still say that I live in San Francisco, even though we left San Francisco eight years ago. Photos of the taco truck and of our walking trail would reveal my location with more specificity. One might call me paranoid. Such are the hazards of cohabitation with a man whose life has been threatened more than once by people with the means and quite possibly the inclination to make good on their threats.

Beyond that, I can’t shake the feeling that writing about one’s personal life is blatantly self-centered. As a teacher, I believe that I have something of value to share in a single sphere: writing. I’ve learned a lot about writing and publishing through two decades of practice, trial and error, big wins and fizzling losses. I assume that people come to my blog for that kind of information: things they can learn about books, writing, and the writing life. I have never been comfortable with the idea of a blog as a personal journal. I should qualify that: a named blog. I have on occasion blogged anonymouslywith some degree of freedom.

On religion and reticence

Perhaps my reticence, at heart, has something to do with my Southern Baptist upbringing, and the compulsion I felt from a young age to hide things from my parents. It took quite a bit of orchestration to hide things from my mother, whose world view was constrained by a deep-seated, moralistic way of thinking that grew out of her own strict religious upbringing. (Moralistic, not moral. There is in fact a glaring lack of morality in the Southern Baptist doctrine as it was practiced by the churches of my youth. In that sphere, morality was almost entirely about denying oneself and others pleasure in any form, never about generosity toward the less fortunate, tolerance of others, or love for those with differing opinions. In my adulthood, I have come to see the religion I grew up with as deeply immoral, but that is a subject for another post.)

On the occasions when I did publish essays or posts that revealed anything personal, I felt conflicted. Any such exposure has almost always been followed instantaneously with regret. I’m not talking about the times when I wrote quite openly and lightheartedly about sex?—?which I did for Salon, Playboy, and other publications. The fact that those essays are out there doesn’t bother me. In those instances, I was writing about the past, and I was also writing through a filter: holding my feelings close, never entirely showing my hand.

No, the personal writing that scared me was that which dug deeper and revealed more?—?about who I was, where I came from, what I truly believed or needed or feared. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night to delete a blog post or facebook update in which I felt I’d said too much. If it was an essay published in a magazine, of course, there was nothing I could do once the cat was out of the bag— but I’ve always been very careful about what I put forward in an essay to be published in print or by any publication that is out of my control.

The exception

In 2012, I published an essay online titled “I hope this letter finds you.” The essay is about being raped by my boss when I was working as a server and hostess in Knoxville in my twenties. I wrote it first for a print anthology about work, and I later posted an updated version of the essay on Medium as a response to those who attacked Bill Cosby’s accusers for not speaking up sooner. As I explain in the essay, I had my own reasons for not speaking up. While my rapist was not a high-profile career-ruiner like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or Trump, he did sign my paycheck, a paycheck I desperately needed. As soon as I published it, I began hearing from friends who had read it. This made me uncomfortable, so I made it private, then public again, then private again, too many times to count. Each time I post it or link to it, I do so because it feels important?—?not in its uniqueness but, by contrast, in its utter lack of uniqueness. It is so common, so unsurprising, so banal.

I post it or link to it each time a group of women come out publicly against a high profile predator and are reviled for not speaking up or going to the police sooner. And as soon as I unearth it, I think, “Who will see this? Who do I want to not see this?” The first time I posted it, my mother read it on facebook, and I was filled with regret. I didn’t like the fact that it opened up channels for her to pry, to turn my matter-of-fact past into a vehicle for her emotional intrusion. This is too complicated a dynamic to go into here. With the caveat that I had a mostly happy childhood and was raised by loving if complicated parents, I will say that my fear of my mother reading my work sometimes makes it difficult to write anything personal. Knowing she will see it , analyze it, and want to talk about it has caused many a thing to go unwritten.

On journaling & playing hooky from the “work” of writing

In A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life, Pat Conroy writes, “It has caused me much grief that I’ve never been completely seduced by the craft of journal keeping. A laziness takes over, and I abandon most of them over the course of a summer…”

I journaled obsessively as an adolescent?—?although I wrote in tiny cursive, and often in code, once I discovered that even my journals were not private in our home. (The habit of writing so illegibly that only I can decode my writing has stuck with me, much to my husband’s dismay, as he is my first editor on every novel, story, and essay, and he can’t make heads or tails of my handwriting). I dropped the journaling habit in college and picked it up again in my early twenties. Those journals were a repository for my truest thoughts and feelings. It was the 80s and 90s, and blogs had not been invented. If livejournal had existed then, I’m certain I would have used it, although I doubt I would have used my real name. After I had my son at 35, time became a more precious commodity, and I stopped what little journaling I’d previously done. I’ve started many journals in the past twelve years; the shelves of my office are littered with notebooks that contain a few pages of fevered writing, followed by empty pages.

My journaling has followed much the same pattern as Conroy’s —well-intentioned beginnings followed by laziness?—?although mine generally start when I am away from home. A recent perusal of my shelves yielded Norway journal, Paris & London journal, Iceland journal, China journal, and a whole slew of Hawaii date-here journals. With the exception of the China journal, which actually takes up three complete notebooks and is exhaustive in its recording of my time living and working in Beijing in my late twenties, the journals persist over a course of a day or two before being entirely abandoned. What this tells me is that I have to be in a state of utter relaxation to even contemplate beginning a journal?—?hence, all of those journals started while sitting alone on the beach early in the morning in Hawaii.

I can trace the end of my journaling for good back to two events that happened at roughly the same time. In 2004, our son was born. After his birth, I journaled for the first few months, recording with intense interest his milestones alongside the bliss and exhaustion of being a new mother. I didn’t want to forget a thing, and because every moment receded into the fog as soon as it occurred, I knew a journal would be my only reliable memory of those first months of his life. Six months after our son was born, my agent sold my novel, The Year of Fog, to Bantam. Although it was my second novel and my third book, it was the first book that had been picked up by a major New York publisher. A year of extensive revisions followed prior to the book’s release.

In addition to revising The Year of Fog, I had signed a two-book contract, so I had another book to write and deliver. I was on contract with the same publisher for various books from 2005 to 2017. Basically, as soon as I started getting paid to write, with deadlines to boot, I stopped journaling. My writing time went into my novels instead of into journals that I knew would not be published. When writing became my job, I felt guilty for any writing that wasn’t job-related. The deadline always loomed. Writing was my contribution to our family finances, and spending my limited writing time on anything other than the writing I was getting paid for felt like playing hooky.

Getting personal

I don’t expect I’ll ever take up journaling again in the traditional sense. For one thing, I’m trying to downsize my books in preparation for a big move, and journals just seem like more books to sift through and store. But I do want to take a more personal approach to my blog?—?which may, in some way, serve as a kind of edited journal. I am an introvert who listens, gathers stories and feelings, and selfishly guards my own. At parties, people talk to me?—?not just chit chat but real “This is who I am, this is what I want,” kind of stuff. Most of my life, acquaintances and strangers have revealed deeply personal things to me, only to look up with surprise at the end of a monologue and say, “I can’t believe I just told you that. I’ve never told anyone.”

I have gone through life collecting other people’s stories. In my novels, I reveal myself?—?as all authors do to some extent. My novels are never autobiographical, but for someone who guards my life with such vigilance, it is perhaps inevitable that the novels act as a safe confessional. I don’t tell my own stories, but some version of them seeps through.

I come back again to the question: is there any value in sharing my life in a more personal way? I grapple with answering this question in the affirmative. The only way, in fact, I can come to a “yes” is by thinking about what inspired me to write this post and take this new approach in the first place. As a reader, I find myself increasingly drawn to stories that reveal rather than conceal. There is A Lowcountry Heart, mentioned above. I found it at my local Books Inc. yesterday, began reading it yesterday afternoon, and was awake for much of the night, thinking about the border between the public and the private, trying to unravel in my mind the nature of my own strict boundaries. Other books of a highly personal nature have stayed with me over the last few years as well: Making Toast: A Family Story, by Roger Rosenblatt; Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro; Blue Nights, by Joan Didion. Something in these writers’ willingness to share has spoken to me, and more: it has drawn me in. These books have kept me in their grip.

I cringe when writers claim that writing is a particularly difficult profession. I’ve worked retail and restaurants, I’ve pulled auto parts from high shelves in a sweltering warehouse, I’ve pounded the pavement of New York City selling credit processing machines, I’ve gotten in cars with strange men in the middle of the night in China en route to a work meeting in a country where I didn’t speak the language, have a working phone, or have a single yuan in my possession. I can say with sincerity and utter truthfulness that writing is the easiest job I’ve ever had. I’d never want to go back to any career that involved a cash register, customer service, account management, or Mandarin. Writing isn’t a hard job, in my opinion. It’s challenging to write as well as one wants to write, of course. One can easily become mired in the narrative and lose the thread of the plot. One can get it wrong in a million different ways. But there are much more difficult ways to make a living than sitting down to write in the morning with my cup of coffee, after I’ve taken my son to school. Pretty much any way I can think of to make a living, aside from reaping investment dividends or a trust fund ATM (nice work if you can get it), is more difficult than writing.

But there are choices one must make in terms of whom we reach and how we reach them. The writing life is a constant negotiation with ourselves and with the ones we love or have loved, the ones we have left or been left by, the ones who passed through our lives and made any sort of mark. How much will we tell? When will we tell it? How much will still be visible to the discerning reader after all names have been changed? Will we reside safely for the entirety of our careers in the realm of fiction, or will we allow ourselves to say more? Will we?—?selfishly and recklessly?—?allow ourselves to be known?

It’s the question I’m grappling with now. I have no clear answer, and I may change my mind tomorrow or next week. I may delete this post tonight, in the middle of the night, after coming to my senses. But, for the moment, inspired by a few writers I admire who’ve elegantly traversed this terrain, I think I’m going to give it a shot.

Also published on Medium.