A friend of mine once said to me, “I’m constantly so in awe of how honest you are on your blog. You are so brave.”
I suppose you can call it bravery. It did take me a long time to muster up enough courage to expose my personal pieces to the public, pieces that I wrote in high school that I never intended for a soul to see. And I’d like to think that I strove to write in a similar manner of pretend-blissful ignorance ever since. It was a great relief and release from my journalism training where I was constantly whacked over the head to “Remember the audience.” In a way, those pieces were a little easier to write, required a little less “bravery” if you will, because your voice is not your own, at least not entirely, and so the impartiality of it all meant you were safe, and any attack would be on your reporting, your execution and not your style or personality.
So I suppose it was a brave feat to project my unfiltered voice to the world. But I think the honesty that my friend was referring to also had to do with how readily I used the people in my life as talking points. While I never used names, people could usually tell who they were, and I’ve gotten one or two snide remarks through the grape vine when the reference wasn’t in their favor (hello again if you’re reading!). “I could never do that,” my friend concluded. “I’d be too scared they’d see it.”
I’d like to think that my references to people in my life are in good faith, that they’re not so much the main subject as the agent with which to expand upon a larger theme. But my friend’s comment made me realize that the same qualm that might rack her nerves never did cross my mind the same way. It’s almost like in signing up to be in the realm of writers, I’ve committed and become resigned to the fact that sometimes I’m going to have to draw upon my life experiences, and my life experiences will often include other people. And if I’m going to be terrified of it and apologize for it, I’ll never be able to put pen to paper.
I remember during one of my Medill classes, a GQ editor and Medill alum who recently published a memoir came for a brief meet and greet. In the Q&A portion, a girl asked him, “In your book, you dig up unpleasant stories and memories about some of your family members… did you brace yourself for any repercussions?” The GQ editor paused for a moment, surprised to be asked a question about something other than “How do I get an editorial assistant position in a dying magazine industry.” He then shrugged his shoulders and said, nonchalantly, “I mean, yeah, there will always be repercussions, but they were important to the story.” Ah yes, The Story.
I guess the ever-lofty Story is the writer’s justification for essentially numbing themselves towards other people’s feelings, a willful ignorance, if you will, of said repercussions. In many ways we’re no different from Taylor Swift—the moment you start writing songs about your exes, the harder it’ll be for your next boyfriend to trust you. It’s like this failed novelist I read about in a recent article in The Atlantic. Besides having to deal with a bust book and continue to live in anonymity and poverty, she also lost the good graces of her loved ones. Whenever her and her mom experienced any sort of friction, her mom would yell, “What are you gonna do now, write about it again?” Or when a New York Magazine writer did an exposé on the founders of a laundry app, I have no doubt he was fully welcomed into their graces in order to obtain the level of detail that he reported but the resulting piece was laden with sarcasm and judgment: “The brightest minds of a generation, the high test-scorers and mathematically inclined, have taken the knowledge acquired at our most august institutions and applied themselves to solving increasingly minor First World problems.” Ouch. I have no doubt the eager interviewees must have gotten quite the surprise when they read this disparaging account of their livelihood. There goes another bridge.
It’s the high price you pay for the Story, the many bridges you burn in the ironic attempts to get to an elusive destination that is the Story. In a piece I wrote about my mom, she read it on the bed next to me and started crying. I thought it was a good kind of cry, maybe she was touched or just nostalgic, but then she put the paper down and glowered at me, “I didn’t know you thought of me as such a villain!” I was absolutely confounded, having no idea that I depicted her in any other way but truthful. I was sorry she felt offended, but I realized I wasn’t sorry at all for writing what I did. It was then that it occurred to me, write with vitriol, write with grace, people will take offense where they want, so the only thing you can do is write the truth.
After the initial shock, my mother and I both became inadvertently aware of some of the unspoken emotions and tensions between us. It’s like all our dirty laundry that had been shoved into dark corners suddenly exploded into view and sure, it’s unpleasant to witness, but at least now we’re fully aware of exactly what items of clothing we own, especially things we’ve bought and completely forgotten about, and now we can start cleaning them.
In the wise words of the inimitable Gloria Steinem: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”