I have a lot of respect for and have gotten a lot out of how vulnerable you can be in your writing. It’s been a strong influence on me even in my own non-writing fields. Can you talk a bit about where that comes from and how you think about how much of yourself you put out there in a piece?
This is such a lovely question, I feel like crying.
No, “creative nonfiction” doesn’t need to be a perpetually oozing sore. I often worry that’s what I’m doing. I also worry that, without my parents’ interminable march toward death, I now have nothing left to write about. And I don’t mean I’ve run out of “material”; I mean, I worry that everything I loved is gone. I worry about that a lot.
Ugh, that’s some emo crap. Let me actually step back several years.
When I first began a new job in 2006 — a very visible, “full-frontal” job as a CM — I quickly learned the score. People online wanted to figure out everything I’d ever done prior to the age of 23, and violate that. (Now we call that process “doxxing.”) And I reacted! I reacted by burying my Internet presence, which had begun in 1995: I concealed all my writing, all my essays, plus my decade-old journal; I erased the Chicago plays I’d been in; I hid my old songs and my old band. And when that CM career ended, people — not the same group of people, a broader swath this time — felt really bizarrely entitled to discovering what had “happened to me.”
At this stage, and convinced I’d never work again, I went into further seclusion with my parents. My father had descended deeply into Alzheimer’s by now; a year later my mother would experience septic shock and organ failure for only the first time. It wasn’t until her sepsis that I realized *I wanted to talk about that*. And in 2010, writing for the first time about his Alzheimer’s and her sepsis for Kill Screen Magazine, I gnashed my teeth a little: “I’m finally writing about what everyone is DYING TO KNOW, but this isn’t anybody’s fucking business.”
But I liked writing about it. I felt really bolstered by the idea of writing a 10,000-word piece in a print magazine — how could anybody ever even read it? If no one ever reads it, I figured, I can write down whatever I want.
So that was the first time I ever wrote exactly what was on my mind, and I really credit my editor, Chris Dahlen, with that. Afterward I kept thinking about how invigorating that two-month writing exercise was. My next big piece, for Unwinnable, was maybe a third of the length, and a third of the intricacy, of that Kill Screen thing I’d written. I realized I could make “easier” versions of that piece of writing for a web audience, make the same type of writing faster, more relatable, more consumable.
And there was a huge benefit to that: Instead of deliberately concealing my life, my history, and my family’s life, I could *write my own origin story*. I could finally take ownership of all those old horrors that popped up when you google my byline. I could change them into something, not positive exactly, but human.
I’ve never really become “at ease” about writing about myself, but I understand some people do want to “know” and, rather than hiding myself, I put it down onto paper or screen. It’s actually a way of taking control of my own identity, of “protecting myself.”
Mind you, I don’t want to make myself look “good.” I realize the worst thing about creative nonfiction essay writing is the author’s dying need to absolve herself over this or that or the other. Rather, I paint myself in as ugly colors as possible. If the author doesn’t have a religious experience — if she doesn’t completely eviscerate herself in search of her point — what does it matter? What does it all mean?
If I include other people in my nonfiction writing, I usually (but, admittedly, not always) run the piece past them for fact-checking. If it passes my friends’ and acquaintances’ “veracity” tests, I publish. If not, I revise until my version of reality matches my friends’.
If I were to start over right now — if I were to become 23 again, and become my old precocious self — I hope I would not hide. I hope, when people prodded at my accomplishments and my history, instead of hiding those, I would write a nice big full essay about being happy and fulfilled. If people were to wonder about my lack of productivity at work, I hope, instead of hiding beneath my desk, I’d describe my father, that great old man with his great big hands and his gravelly voice, and explain what that loss feels like.
What I’m saying is, there’s nothing to be lost via openness and receptivity, and everything to gain. I’ve never actually hurt people by being open; I’ve only hurt others by closing myself off.
And I DO think there’s lots to be gained from those realizations: Writers, creators, makers of all ilks, would do well to practice authenticity. Because the reality is, people CAN tell when you’re lying! No, being a festering wound of truthfulness isn’t “cool” by any stretch, but at least you’re trustworthy and reliable. And those count for a lot more than being “cool.”
So thank you, anonymous querent. No, you don’t have to divulge every life detail when meeting a new person, but I do think imbuing your interactions with authentic anecdotes — coloring moments where you have to do PR, introduce new people, introduce yourself — makes you much more reliable. Just make sure you aren’t fibbing. If you have to, make sure you’re uglier than usual. Just make sure it’s the truth, or at least that it sounds like it. People can tell.