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 an instant connection with my readers, which was both exciting and scary. Here is one of my favorites, (sent via email).
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?