Writing From A Place of Honesty

Image   I love reading memoirs. I am fascinated by how a writer structures the chaos and complexities of a life into a narrative.  I also wonder how you get over the fear of exposure, of being judged, of hurting friends and family? As Anne Lamont says, “We write to expose the unexposed.”   How many writers out there still fear exposure, though, when we live in an age of overexposure?

I am a private person and have become more so as I’ve gotten older.  In this cyber age of platform building and social networking, no writer is an island.  Nor can she afford to be.  I may have the life material to craft a compelling memoir, but I am not ready to run naked through the streets. And I may never be. For now, I prefer to select excerpts from my life. Exploring ideas, insights, and truths in this way allows me to both shape and contain the experience and still keep some curtains closed.

This June, I opened a curtain when my essay, “Letting Go” was published in Tablet Magazine.  The personal essay expressed my mixed feelings about my 20-year-old daughter’s engagement and marriage. I hoped my experience would help other parents of kids who take-off early.  Tackling this particular topic was a big leap in terms of my comfort level. The published piece is much different than the one I had originally submitted.  The editor, Wayne Hoffman, pushed me to dig deeper–to write from a place of truth and honesty–from the heart. I almost didn’t make the requested revisions, but once I worked through the fear of vulnerability, I found my real voice. The result was very satisfying.  An added bonus was when the Tablet editor called to say how much he loved my revised essay.

Readers responded to this honesty. The online comments and email feedback, mostly positive, provided me an instant connection with my readers, which was both exciting and scary. Here is one of my favorites, (sent via email).

Evelyn

I’m sitting at my desk at work wiping tears from my cheeks. Your article is so beautiful and right on target. It resonates so deeply- you captured the emotions and dialogue perfectly.  

“Letting Go” was picked up by the New York Times Motherlode blog the same day it appeared in the Tablet. Instantly, my audience (and exposure) widened. Blogger KJ Dell’Antonia invited readers to share thoughts on the topic of marrying at a very young age.  I was surprised by how many NYT commenters seemed not to have read my entire essay, yet still had a strong opinion about it.  Writing openly about your life opens you up to the critics, of course. No dodging that bullet. The diverse reactions on Motherlode reminded me how we each project our life view into what we read and that being “open-minded” is easier said than done.

So, my advice to other private-by-nature people who want to write about very personal experiences in today’s online world? Grow a thick skin; you won’t die of exposure.

And what about you? Do you find it hard to draw the curtains when you write about your life?  How do you decide what is okay to reveal about family members, especially your children?  Or are you happy to run naked through the streets?

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11 responses

  1. I’m generally a very honest person, so its not myself I am scared of revealing – it’s the people around me who I care about. Unfortunately, reality slaps me in the face when I end up hurting someone around me..so yes, I do constantly deal with this conflict. I’ve even asked authors who are heavily published and all admit there’s no right or wrong answer, you just have to learn to deal with the truth you’re putting out there. One thing I have realized though is that some of the people in your life will be able to handle the truth better than others, and you have to learn to recognize the difference.

    • Thanks, Sarah. Your blog post offers much to think about. Would you say there is a difference between writing articles/essays in magazines, columns as opposed to blogging in terms of revealing more of your personal life? I am new to blogging and just beginning to find my focus. (Being a juggler, I am heavily involved homeschooling, books, teaching, parenting, Judaism, publishing and the writing.) But this question has plagued me and I have been getting different answers from writers. It seems like the younger and newer writers are more comfortable with opening the curtains.

  2. Congratulations and keep up with the excellent work, Evelyn! When I wrote my memoir of growing up in South Africa under apartheid, I wasn’t thinking about “exposing” myself–maybe foolishly. Thus far my memoir has touched the hearts of my nephews and my family, and as an unexpected bonus has made me new friends. My daughter, in college at the time, said she thought I was very brave to do it. I did have one negative response from a cousin. We met several months later in Australia and I made her peace with me.

    • Nice to meet you, Claire. I’m glad to hear that baring your soul has brought positivity in your life. I enjoyed the book trailers on your website.I had never heard of “eco mysteries” before. Your memoir and The Nine Inheritors sound fascinating.

    • Thanks, Amy. I think I still prefer fiction-writing best where I can hide behind my characters, entice them to do things I may or may not ever have considered. I can take the worst trait from my (fill in the blank) and twist it into the character of a teenage boy. I can maim, kill, destroy, rescue, marry, and love whomever I please. I can live lives I have never lived. I can create people, a world, a history from nothing–nothing but imagination and words, which, if you really think about it, is truly awesome.

  3. Because we never know when something we write might be passed along and go viral, we must be very careful. It’s one thing to be honest about your own personal experience, a sexual encounter, petty theft, whatever. If you put it out there, you bear the consequences. However, if you use your own name, and write about something very personal about your daughter, your son-in-law-to-be, etc. you can cause real damage. He will marry your daughter. They will have children. And they may never forget your words. I’ve written and published extensively for the past 40 years. A few times I stepped over that line and though the consequences were slight, I resolved each time to imagine the effect on the unwitting family member. Revisit this issue in one year, in five years. Then decide about future revelations that involve your family.

    Arlene

      • Aha! That makes a big difference. Since we’ve entered this digital universe, every word we write becomes indelible. And that is why some thoughts, actions, though absolutely true at the moment, may be best left in our secret journals. If we write a mean review about our mother’s chicken soup (actually she did make a decent soup), when we become as famous as Shakespeare, people will say we were unkind to our mothers. It’s after midnight in CA, so I may not be making sense. Write on! Arlene

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