Writing About Ourselves: Up Close and Personal

What about writing about ourselves? How personal do we want to get? What is the fall-out if we do?

These questions are almost a moot point for me: it seems that I just naturally spill my guts. My writing often reveals more about myself than I would be comfortable telling an acquaintance or a casual friend. So why am I willing to share my secrets with total strangers?

I don’t think I’m alone in this. What makes us bare our souls in print where anyone can read it when we would be extremely hesitant to do so in any other context? As for me, when I write, I reveal; I can’t seem to help it. It’s as if the pen or keyboard is a confessional or a psychiatrist’s couch. Want to know how many times I’ve been married, what my social class and income are, whether I believe in God, the mistakes I’ve made (and paid for)? Just hang around and keep on reading and you will eventually know me better than my own parents or children do.

But is it wise to be so revealing? What does it cost us emotionally and socially? Do readers really want to know about our inner demons and private joys or will they get tired of hearing more than they want to know about us?

Of course it depends upon what we’re writing and the context in which we’re being read. But I have a theory that people are willing and even eager to learn what makes a writer tick. Writing is a mysterious act, even to writers. Some readers feel that writers are bigger than life and more than human. (There are many more who think that anyone could write if they wanted to, so what’s the big deal?) The words seem to float in space, in some kind of intellectual miasma, where only the writers really know what they mean or why what they have to say should matter. To some, personal essays are as difficult to access as poetry: not knowing where the writer comes from makes it almost impossible for the reader to understand what the writer wants to say. And yet, if we are not willing to reveal something of ourselves in our writing, our words may never connect with our readers.

But to what extent and at what cost? That depends on the writer. I recently wrote a piece that was quite explicit about a chronic problem I have (no, I’m not going to reveal it here, or at least not now). In fact, it was more revealing than was probably appropriate considering the topic and context. (It was the first assignment in a creative nonfiction writing course.} I dashed mine off pretty quickly (two revisions, and that was mainly to cut down the length), but was left with emotional fall-out to the point where I was afraid that I would get emotional when I read it out loud (in other words, cry). I should have thought of that when I wrote the piece, should have made sure I kept it lighter and less personal. But maybe what I wrote was what I needed to reveal, and not trusting my instincts kept me from sharing it with people with whom I’m going to be working closely over the next three months. (I skipped the class.)

I don’t exactly regret that I missed this opportunity; I know there will be others. What concerned me the most was the way I was affected by what I wrote. All that day and the next I was emotionally raw and exhausted. And that was over a simple little writing exercise. Sometimes I wonder if I’m going to be able to keep this up. Other times I know that I have no choice.