A friend asked me a great question recently: how do you know when to put a difficult life event out there in the world, either on a blog or as a submission to a publication? She asked wonderful questions about motives: what are we doing when we share the hard stuff?
My first motive in writing is sometimes exploratory and sometimes to vent. When I’m upset about something, I mull in a journal. But I also take notes as a writer. I notice the details that accompany the cataclysms because I know I’ll need those details later for essays. I also record the details because they anchor me to life when my feelings get huge and threaten to blot out the texture and complexity of a day.
I write first drafts from anger, or confusion, or lost-ness, or a desire to make a feeling go away. I think I keep coming back to writing because it does change things emotionally. It undoes new and older knots in my heart through the discipline of reflection. Some people shake their heads at “writing as therapy” as if therapy is a bad thing. I love therapy! Thank you, my legion of therapists! What people mean when they shake their heads at “writing as therapy” is only that they don’t want to read someone’s first or even fifth draft. They want art. You have to keep writing to get to what you can share.
The real emotional benefit of writing doesn’t even come with the first draft. When I am forced to make something art-ish out of this raw material, I have to fit it into a structure that takes a reader into account. I have to create scenes, think about implications, ask myself the hard questions. Trying to make art gives the benefit of perspective—not necessarily a distanced or calm view, because I’m not always calm, nor should that be our ideal, because it’s such a thin slice of the human experience, and sometimes we write with righteous clarity. Writing and drafting provides three or four different perspectives, usually including one where I ask myself what is really really at the heart of the hard question my essay has found itself asking. And that’s the surprise that only an essay delivers, because only the challenge of a decent essay demands that surprise. So it’s not therapy because your therapist (thankfully) doesn’t sit down and say, Make something beautiful.
So my motive in writing something is to explore, to get to a new perspective. My motive in publishing, however, is more complicated. Sometimes I want words on a subject out in the world because I hope they will help someone else. Sometimes I am feeling isolated in my struggle with something and I want to have that sense of connection for myself. Sometimes I know something is “done” or at least as done as it’s going to get. Sometimes I am feeling that a wrong needs to be righted, and that if I put my perspectives out there, those words will do something: expose, heal, reveal.
I have had that experience with publishing my most personal essays. People respond and say thank you, and that feels good—but it always feels strangely removed. I learn that affirmation from strangers is good—it’s amazing. But it’s also raw and makes me feel shaky and exposed.
I’ve shared important chunks of my life in my writing, and I will continue to do so. Some people say this is exhibitionism, and that memoir along with Facebook are somehow responsible for the oversharing nature of our culture. I don’t believe this. I think this shaming about oversharing is an attempt to get people to be quiet about their real messy lives, because honesty about our messiness leads to people getting together around that messiness and leads to social change. Instead, we live in an exhibitionist culture because conspicuous consumption is so, well, conspicuous. This was something that the sociologist Thorsten Veblen was fascinated by. Bragging about your fancy vacations is exhibitionist. Driving an extremely fancy car and making reality shows about your over-the-top lifestyle is exhibitionism. Rush Limbaugh is incredibly over-the-top exhibitionist with his rage. Compared to that, pushing “publish” on your blog to share a hard and honest truth about your life is not a big deal unless your motive is to get attention in order to heal a wound. Attention itself doesn’t heal wounds, and in some cases it creates them.
So I want to turn the conversation about publishing to one of self-care. When you’re deciding whether or not to publish something, ask yourself how the characters involved would react if they read it—not because an AWP panel is going to judge you if you don’t, but because it will hurt you if your relationships suffer. And you’ve probably already suffered enough if you’re contemplating revealing something hard. The conversation about publishing should be also about whether you yourself are safe enough, supported enough, and strong enough to take and process whatever might come at you as the result of sharing something hard. Do you have a good shrink (if you go for that sort of thing)? Have you showed this piece of writing to a few good friends? Are they solidly in your corner?
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty: Have you been sleeping well lately? How have you been eating? I’ve been crappy about both of those things in the last few weeks, personally, so I know I’m under stress. When I’m stressed is not the time to publish something really hard, because putting something personal out there is going to add an additional layer of stress. But maybe—and this is often the case—I’m partially stressed partially because I’m mulling over something that needs to go in a hard essay—so back to the writing, and I know I can publish later.
The question of whether to publish is a gut question. Try to write directly about your motives in the essay: what do I want the reader to get from this? Do I want someone to say that what I went through is shitty? I have found that when I want readers to affirm something I went through, the writing is not ready yet. That’s when I show it to friends, and they tell me that what I went through is shitty. They pound on the table in the coffee shop. Then they tell me that paragraph two is filled with abstractions and bad analogies. They get me to the point where I’m trying to make art—and that is the payoff in and of itself.
Somehow, when my writing buddies push me toward art, I let go for a second of my rage or my sadness. And oh my god, that there is the most delightful feeling in the world. That is half the joy of art, I think—an absorbing task about something awful that ends up with twinges of beauty. This is also why people ride motorcycles: they are dangerous and they demand your complete attention to operate, and it is that undivided dangerous attention that provides a release from your habitual thoughts. So yay for us: a laptop is much cheaper and doesn’t need a parking space.
Part of the beauty in an essay is you: Are you giving yourself enough credit in this piece of writing? Are you at a place where you can see you did the best you could? Being harsh on myself in an essay is a sign that I haven’t mulled the material over enough. Another hard question: Have you found something raw and surprising in the experience, and have you put it in a bubble of perfect language so that the horrible memories themselves are transformed like Christmas ornaments into paragraphs that hang together somewhat at a distance, where maybe they won’t hurt as much anymore?
If that’s the case, press “publish” or “submit.”