Tonight I went to a party, a going-away for Uptown, a private little wake for the paper we loved. (Not like the public fete we’re throwing this Thursday, to which I hope you all come down.)
We had a little discussion about honesty: honesty in writing, and in blogging, and in hanging our life out on the line. And since I’m in the middle of writing something for the Spectator Tribune that hints at things I’m still a little hesitant to share, I thought I’d take a break to muse on the topic of honesty in personal writing, for a moment.
Young writers read this blog, and young writers ask me for advice, and the best I can give is this: when drawing on your own life for the stories that you tell, trash the filter. Share everything. Respect the privacy of others — this is why anonymous voices make their mark upon my blogs — but save as little as you can for yourself. The scarier it is to say something, the more you know you’re on the right path.
The feeling that you have to hide a truth, is just a method of control.
The primary way that social and cultural institutions exert power is by enforcing which stories get told: the company that restricts who can talk to media. The abuser who ensures his victim is too afraid to speak a word. The man on the verge of committing suicide who, paralyzed by the shame we’re taught to feel of sadness, can’t make the call that could save his life.
Someone blasted me once for writing that I flunked my way out of school.
But really man? It’s no big deal. There’s no point in maintaining — even by a silence — the million little lies needed to pretend that life all went as planned. Let’s say it all together now: it totally didn’t. Whether we’re happy where we’re at or not, some things went off the rails. We can hide that, or we can say: “I own my flaws and my failures: they do not own me, and I will not respect their power by protecting their anonymity.”
Everything in its place and time, of course. But in general, life is better under less control.
In 1935, a young Hollywood starlet named Loretta Young told the tabloids she was sick with a stomach ailment. But the gossip in the movie industry was thick with the truth: she was pregnant out of wedlock. The baby’s father was the superstar Clark Gable, married and completely unavailable.
Young, a devout Roman Catholic in a tense and sometimes puritanical age, gave birth that winter in secret, and sent the infant to an orphanage. Eighteen months later she announced she had decided to adopt a child: just an odd coincidence that the girl looked oh-so-much like her.
When little Judy was seven years old, her mother pinned the child’s ears back so she wouldn’t look too much like him.
Judy never knew until just before her wedding that she was not, in fact, adopted, and that her biological mother was also her very own: when she confronted Loretta Young about it, the then-retired actress broke down. Called her a “mortal sin” and begged her not to tell a soul. Other than that single conversation, Loretta almost took her secret to her grave.
Shame is a powerful weapon of control, even after the risk of repercussion has long since ebbed away.
As for Judy? She did the only thing she knew to do: she wrote a book about it.
None of us are so different: it’s true, if painfully cliched. We all hope while holding our breath, and we are all, in our own ways, afraid. A writer’s power is being able to give our hopes and fears and failings all to light, knowing that someone will read it and feel — maybe for the very first time — that they are not alone. That they do not sit in the shadows of this life alone.
In the process, you will burn bridges, as I know I’ve recently burned a few. So be it, so long as the cost is not too great. Sometimes, the power of what you think might happen if you speak, can only be broken by the strength you find when you actually do.
And if I’m being honest: there are still things in my life I can’t yet commit to an imaginary page. This is the final way in which an invisible set of fingers dig white into my arm. I’m still protecting people, even though they are not owed the protection of my silence: that I maintain it, however shakily, is a lingering reminder of just how much power I had given up. Like I said: control.
Someday, though, I will write about that stuff, and at least a few voices will read it and say, “me too, me too.”
That feeling is what keeps me in this game.
So to all the young writers who ask me for advice about how to pour your voice into more personal public writing: I won’t say “don’t be scared,” that’s silly. Do be scared. Be scared, and let that be a map towards the stories you alone can say. The sky will not fall on you, and in the end, everything really is going to be okay.
And if it’s not, then write a blog, and tell the world that I’m the one to blame. Ha.