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Should Some Things Remain Private?
How can a heart expression find?
How should another know your mind?
Will he discern what quickens you?
A thought once uttered is untrue.
Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:
drink at the source and speak no word.
— From “Silentium” by Fyodor Tyutchev (1830), translated by Vladimir Nabokov
Чужая душа потёмки (Another’s soul is darkness.)—Russian saying.
“You write things on the Internet that I wouldn’t tell my own mother,” a friend once told me. I’ve always had a strong urge towards nakedness both literal and metaphorical, a love of full disclosure.
I’ve been thinking about this more than usual lately, since one of my confessional essays has reached a wide audience, as it appeared in the Times a few days ago. (There’s a link to the paywalled online version here. You can probably also read it by zooming in on the image below.) The piece is an expanded version of a guest post I wrote for Farrah Storr’s Substack, Things Worth Knowing.
That in turn was a substantial rewriting of a more lavishly evocative piece, which focused lovingly on the Brisbane setting of my sad tale.
I’m an oversharer in my personal life, as well as in my public writings. The thing that most thrills me in personal relationships—perhaps the element of being alive that most excites me, full stop—is intimacy. Sexual intimacy isn’t always possible—nor do I usually desire it. But in almost every close relationship, there are mutual confessions, disclosures of information too graphic, too compromising or too shameful to be widely shared. Being the recipient of such stories is almost always a peak experience for me.
Two separate male friends recently told me things they wouldn’t want generally known. Each began with a long preamble of warning “I’m not sure whether I should tell you this”; “I’m not going to tell you the worst thing, but I keep thinking about the worst thing.” In the end, in both cases, I was almost disappointed that the stories themselves weren’t more deeply humiliating or taboo. Part of me wanted to be shocked—because that would show how much I was trusted.
I’m overly blunt in my own comments to people, too. Over the years, I have become more diplomatic and reconciled myself to telling the truth in a way that is more palatable—but I still often choose to say the socially unacceptable thing. “You’re the only person who has ever told me I’m fat. I love it,” a friend told me recently. I remarked to one friend, on first acquaintance, that I noticed he has Asperger’s and told another that I had immediately spotted the characteristic gait of cerebral palsy. I don’t have autism myself: this is a deliberate choice, not a failure to appreciate social niceties or a difficulty in anticipating other people’s responses—much less is it callousness (I’m careful to avoid sore spots and I only remark on things that I think the other person has no reason to be ashamed of). But I want the truth to act as a catalyst, to accelerate the process of growing intimacy.
In writing, a tendency towards full disclosure bordering on reckless can be a strength. Paradoxically, the more deeply personal your story is, the more it is likely to resonate with a wide readership. In the surface details of our lives—in age, sex, occupation, location, skin colour, sexuality, religion—we all differ. But deep down, buried in the secret corners of our minds, is a stratum of shared human emotions and experiences through which we are connected, like tree roots linked by a mycelial network. The best writers can tap into that and, by writing only of their own most intimate feelings, can make us feel that we are looking straight into a mirror, make us want to exclaim, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” They strum our souls with their fingers and kill us softly with their song.
“Write drunk and edit sober,” goes the maxim (usually misattributed to Ernest Hemingway, who actually made a point of getting his writing done in the mornings, before he began his daily bender). Back in the days when I had a popular tango blog, I found that the raw essays I posted last thing at night—three generous glasses of Malbec deep, with wine splotches on my pillow, chocolate biscuit crumbs in my cleavage and balled-up tissues on the floor beside me—the posts that made me consult my social media the instant my eyes opened, in an anxious frenzy, afraid of what I might find—those were always the ones that readers liked best.
As a personal essayist, your dignity and privacy are a sacrificial layer: you should expect them to be exfoliated away, eroded by the elements to reveal the emotional truths beneath, which are all the more pristine and bright for having been hidden beneath the deposits of bashfulness and decorum.
Of course, presenting your teddy-bear-soft pink underbelly to the world like that makes you vulnerable. It can create a power imbalance. Readers will feel that they know you—and some will be casual sociopaths, delighted to use that supposed knowledge to try to hurt you. But of course those people don’t really know you: as Gurwinder Bhogal has pointed out, they are attacking an illusion, a product of their own imaginations that has little to do with the real person who wrote the words. And though we notice the negative comments more—and for good reason (I’ve written about this here)—most people are empathetic, supportive and surprisingly kind.
In fact, it’s uniquely consoling and life-affirming to expose your most shameful secrets and receive the sympathy of strangers in return. It feels as liberating as skinny dipping. If you can overcome your nerves at the initial reveal, being naked in front of others quickly becomes relaxing and natural and makes you feel accepted as you are, with all your lumps and bumps and fat rolls.
There are things I choose not to share, of course. I’m wary of telling stories that involve other people, who might recognise themselves and feel hurt or angry. On the very rare occasions, I write about romantic partners (such as here), I not only keep them anonymous, but restrict the audience. As a writer, you have an unfair advantage over people you quarrel with in real life: you know how to elicit pity, to make your readers agree that your date was a weirdo; your husband was a wanker; your friend was a bitch. There are a thousand essays that mine that endless vein of cheap sympathy. Reading them always makes me feel the need to take a long, hot shower.
For Farrah Storr, the best personal essays relate an experience the writer has had and muse on what she has learned from it. I agree. You can’t just vomit your feelings out onto the page: there must be a reason to tell the story—and that reason is often that the experience has deepened your understanding of the world, i.e., it has changed you. But when you write, you also alter the experience itself and, if the gods smile on you, can turn it from something painful into something beautiful. And it’s that hope of connecting the personal and pathetic to the universal and sublime that motivates me to write.