Why we write what we write

Sibling! (Photo credit: Gus Dahlberg)

Great post from Romanian writer/blogger Christian Mihai:

A lot of writers out there, if asked, will say that writing isn’t easy. But it’s not because of the rules you have to obey, or the conventions, or the need of a vivid imagination. Writing isn’t easy because you have to relieve the most painful moments of your life, over and over again, and then you have to write them down, hoping that they’ll matter to someone else other than yourself.

I plan to write a second memoir, some day, about my family, as people have urged me to do and as I want to do. But it won’t be easy or simple or fun. I have three half-siblings, one of whom refuses to speak to me and one of whom I’ve never met; the only time we spoke, on the phone from London to Quebec in June 2003, she said “See you at the funeral.”

Like that.

Readers of this blog know I occasionally touch the third rail of true honesty about some of the darker, tougher stuff in my life, like this post about how my mother and I have no relationship anymore, and have not spoken since May 2011. That post has 66 comments, and prompted some of the most honest and compassionate conversation we’ve ever had here.

My mother and I probably won’t ever speak again. I’m her only child. It hurts every single day.

But I don’t write about it, here or elsewhere for a few reasons:

— There’s no solution. She has dementia and is attended to by a woman I loathe who has made sure to paint me as a demon and she as the avenging angel. That script is deeply seductive to my mother.

— She lives a six-hour flight away from me and my limited time and funds for leisure travel don’t make me eager to step back into that minefield. I spent too many miserable years watching her gulp alcohol while I waited for the inevitable shit to hit a very large fan. It did.

— I loathe confessional writing that’s supposed to tug at my heartstrings. I don’t write it and I don’t read it. If I even have heartstrings, they are wrapped in five layers of Kevlar by now.

There is much I will never write about here. One female reader, from Kenya, asked me to write more about my struggles. I wrote her back to ask what she meant, but she never replied to my email.

Frankly, I’m not persuaded that focusing on struggle by writing about it to an audience of strangers accomplishes much. Writing about it can feel whiny and self-indulgent.

Although this writer, (a journalist and Hollywood veteran), who has produced only a few blog posts — each of astonishing emotional clarity — makes me feel differently about this subject:

I don’t know what my boss saw in me but I was relieved some good quality shined through. It was clear on the first day that we had a connection. She had lost her mother recently, and when she asked why I was jobless I said I’d moved home to take care of my mom while she was sick with cancer.

The day my boss hired me, she asked about the type of cancer and my mom’s age, and I told her the story. She was so sympathetic, I had a hard time not crying. Finally a workplace that was sensitive and nurturing, capable of seeing my pain and not finding it a turn off or unattractive.

Suddenly, all the things I didn’t enjoy about working in media and in Hollywood became obvious — the unspoken competitiveness between writers, the constant insecurity that you’re not young enough to be employable, the expectation that you will always be or act happy, the arbitrary way with which your work can be cast aside by a studio exec or an editor after months of toiling. Not knowing why they said no to publishing or producing your writing. It all creates this paranoia and lack of trust that permeates every action.

If you never read Freshly Pressed, you must start! I read it every day and almost always find something astonishingly good there; they’ve really upped their game from a few months ago when all they featured were photo, food and travel blogs.

I know someone, only peripherally, on Facebook, a male writer my age who is suffering — and that is truly the word — from Parkinson’s disease. I have very mixed feelings about the endless medical and emotional detail he spills there. I feel compassion but I also, I admit, feel irritation at so much uninvited intimacy.

That may be my problem, of course.

Here’s a lucid and lovely blog post by novelist Dani Shapiro on the disconnect — and it’s a very real one — between how private many writers really are and how public we must be in order to grow audiences for our work:

What I’m getting at here is the complexity of being a person at once deeply private and shockingly public.  A person who spends days — weeks — speaking as little as possible, a person for whom the word “hermitage” is appealing, and a person who sits in front of an audience, speaking into a microphone, telling stories (jokes, even!) and looking — in fact, being — comfortable.  It’s a split-screen, this writer’s life…It requires a kind of armor…

The absolute vulnerability necessary to write something real, honest, and universal is at odds with the public self.  Yesterday, during my event, there was a woman in the back row (there’s always one) who, every time I looked her way, rolled her eyes.  I mean, really rolled her eyes.  A full eye-roll, heavenward.  Her body language said: I’m not buying it.  It said, I’m bored to tears, when will this be over?  Now, the rest of the audience seemed very engaged, even rapt.  But because I’m a writer––because I am a sensitive creature with less armor than most––and, because in order to give a good talk, I in fact need to be vulnerable, I directed my talk to the eye-roller.  I couldn’t stop thinking about her.  How was I failing?  Where was I going wrong?  Why, oh why, didn’t she like me?  It’s the next day, and I’m thinking about her still.  This is no different from writers who can quote you chapter and verse from their negative reviews, but not a word from the glowing ones.  Or writers who troll their Amazon pages, only stopping to take in the one star reviews.

So what is the armor, then, that allows us to take part in the world around us, a world that will sometimes feel like just too much, a world that might insult us, or hurt us?  For the writer, I think there’s only one answer, and I’m doing it right now.  It’s to return to the solitude

What are you not writing about — and why?

What do you choose to focus your writing or blogging on — and why?

46 thoughts on “Why we write what we write

  1. I’m sorry about your mother, Caitlin. But if there’s a bright side to this, the mother you knew–the woman you loved and whom you looked up to–is still in there, in your heart and in your memories. That’s where she truly exists, and the woman you hate can’t touch.
    As for what I don’t write about and why…well, I’m not writing about it here because it’s a bit too personal.

  2. I have been thinking about this very subject. I tend to reveal a lot about myself in my writing and blogging. I find it easy because I’m comfortable with myself and with my flaws. My willingness to be open often resonates with people and we have some great dialogue.

    What I don’t write about are things that I am not circumspect about, where I haven’t worked out a bigger picture or a resolution or haven’t bothered yet to see all sides of a question. I want to be reasonable and thoughtful. So far, it’s made blogging a positive experience and I’ve interacted with some really terrific people – yourself included!

  3. Interesting point…I think some of us like to work it out in public, although that can be a little hairy. I like being reasonable and thoughtful — but I do so enjoy a RANT. I have a biggie lined up for later this week. 🙂

    It was so fun to meet you in person, indeed!

  4. I don’t write about specifics about where I live and work (for professionally privacy issues as much as anything), too much about politics, nothing about religion or spirituality, and I protect the privacy of my friends by not writing about them with their own names unless they already do so themselves. Huh. You could probably psychoanalyze all of that.

    Mr. Shapiro’s words hit the nail on the head – I’m a private person who doesn’t wish to or admire people who overshare (I adopted the Sex and the City phrase for revealing too much too soon: emotionally slutty). I never really considered how that affect my ability to write, but I know it affects my desire to “put myself out there” in a professional sense.

      1. Truth be told, where I live, where I work, and knowing a certain few people who could make my life unpleasant read it hampers me. Yet another reason to look forward to moving…

  5. In my blog I haven’t written much focused on my job with the police, some of the stories cut deep even when dealing with someone else’s tragedy. I also haven’t touched on many aspects of my personal life beyond the more humorous stories for the same reasons. I will though as my exploration of writing continues… I currently blog politics, and society issues balanced against more humorous stories about life. Not because I want to feel or be “whiny and self-indulgent”, instead in my own experiences, writing allows me to detach and re-examine the things I write about and I feel that I achieve a deeper understanding about those things. My future plans are to leave no stone unturned as far as what I write about, I’m allowing my writing muse to be the guide at least for now…

    1. Journalism is somewhat similar — we are given access to great intimacy with people’s lives, often tragic — and retailing others’ pain is a tough decision, or should be. I admire your thoughtfulness about that.

  6. I don’t avoid writing about anything. Trying to write about other things when one or two personal situations are weighing on me drives me mad. I have to get the funk out to get to the good stuff.

  7. thisintersection

    Thank you for this topic, especially the family issues and solitude bits. Nice to know others struggle with the same. I have volumes about family deaths and grief, kept private. Wrote an 85-page manuscript about my terrifying and life threatening experience of allowing an Internet dating connection into my home for many months, with stalking as a chaser. This person was a psychopath, with Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple personalities). I was savvy enough to make it out alive, and embarrassed that I fell for such a ruse. These things are painful/traumatic to expose and edit. So, I continue with my blog, with perspectives and philosophies about experience, but hinting at painful times that drive me to find solutions with which to remain inspired.

    1. I would NOT be at all embarrassed about your scary beau…I dated a convicted con artist (oh yeah) in 1998. He was very smooth and very skilled and people like that are also very good at choosing victims — and then counting on our shame or embarrassment to keep us quiet and stop us warning others. So silence ends up helping them further. Sorry you had to go through that.

      1. thisintersection

        Appreciate your commemts, thank you. It is true that it is more like shame than embarrassment, and they are good, no matter how intelligent we may think we are.

      2. Oh, their skill at deceiving us has **nothing** to do with our intelligence. I have thought long and hard about this since my terrifying experience — the people who truly empathize are cops. They deal with liars and criminals all day long and know that civilians (what I know deem people who have never become crime victims) have a sort of innate trust and innocence that assumes (as we must) the best of people we meet. So there is a sort of cognitive dissonance when someone we have allowed into our lives becomes a vicious predator…as they did. There is a whole book to be written about how gullible and trusting women tend to be; if you ever want a book that is helpful, read The Gift of Fear by Gavin deBecker. It’s brilliant.

  8. Nemesis

    “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

    At the decided risk of sententiousness, I figured it was worth a shot.

  9. Thanks for this post! It was beautiful and so true! I’ve been thinking a lot in the past few months about “authenticity” and what it takes to write something authentic and not completely self-absorbed. It’s such a tricky balance, being personal and universal at the same time. I try to always write my posts thinking “What sort of stories do I like reading/want to hear from people?” I try to write for my audience, but dismiss my concerns about whether or not they will like the post. It’s not always easy, but it’s my only way to approach that balance. Luckily I’m also in the phase where I can really write for myself and don’t have to worry about whether people like it or not… That said, there are lots of things that I don’t include, and I rarely discuss big crises or struggles unless I can spin it as comedy or a growing experience.

  10. I read this post about 5 this morning, and have been thinking about it all day. I have a list of things I won’t blog about, and they all come down to one thing. I won’t blog about anything that will cause anyone real pain or harm. Thought provoking posts? I hope so. But there’s a line. Yet…I blog to have somewhere to be whole and honest. Doesn’t mean I’m splaying my insides across WordPress, but I doing and being for others, writing (both blogging and fiction) is for me to be me.

  11. 99.5% of my personal life I do not write about. I have, however, blogged (and spoken) about my diagnosis with breast cancer last year and my mastectomy. I’m considered a “young” diagnosis (early 40s). I was very, very fortunate, and the blogging I do is to encourage others to get checked (if they can), and to hopefully provide a bit of a road map through the tumultuous period that commences from diagnosis through treatment. And hell, yeah, it was cathartic for me, as well. I’m not going to deny that. It helped, talking/blogging about it, and some people contacted me off list to tell me how much they appreciated my words and I was able to offer them some encouragement and others offered me encouragement. It was a pretty f***ed up time, but I decided I needed to talk about it, and I’m glad I did. I did not need radiation or chemo, so my journey has been different than what others have gone through with a breast cancer diagnosis, but the writing I’ve done about it has been a sort of document that I hope can help others facing similar circumstances, if only to encourage them to talk about it and hopefully find support. I’m glad I opened up about it. Has it made me want to talk about other things in my life? Not really. I tend to work that out through my fiction.

    Thanks for this, though. It’s something I think about quite a bit.

    1. I know from experience how hungry we all are for validation and affirmation and help in times like that…It’s very interesting how intimate blogging can become when (as we do) we connect to others in need and connect people to one another. It’s very satisfying.

      Good to hear from you. I’ve missed your comments! 🙂

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  14. As I’ve moved through my adult life, I’ve had different phases of writing. During my first two-three years teaching, I had plenty of personal and professional struggles. It was therapeutic–I know, cliche–to write about the up and down experiences. I shared many narratives via e-mails to family and friends. Now, as a blogger with what I’d like to think as some solid insight to share, I’m not comfortable or interested in writing revealing personal pieces. But I do think it’s important to reveal my personality and the “I” in commentary.
    I used to read more memoir, I think, during high school and into my mid-twenties. As I’ve grown more comfortable with myself personally and professionally, I have little desire to read or write much personal writing. I wonder if anyone else has had a similar experience.
    Thanks for another solid post!

    1. I read memoir for a variety of reasons, sometimes as a fellow professional writer curious to see how well they have handled a difficult genre — sometimes I’m just really interested in their own story. Keith Richard’s was fantastic, for example, and I didn’t expect it to be.

      I think bloggers can reveal whatever they wish…but I do lose interest quickly in those who only opine (then who exactly am I supposed to be listening to?) or confess. I really hate it when a blogger can’t be bothered revealing much of their details…maybe that’s the journalist in me, but I want to know who I am listening to and what inherent biases they may be bringing to their material.

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  16. Ah, such an interesting post. And conundrum. In terms of blogging, I have only one rule: no fiction; in other words, writing fiction is the main game, and since starting my blog in 2009 I haven’t once broken that rule. That means in the blog context I tend to write about the process of writing, or about books, music, visual art, anything cultural really (I used to write about politics but don’t anymore, only because I’ve disengaged with that topic). Within that broad church of ‘art and culture’, I write about anything, and sometimes get quite personnel. However, never THAT personal. For example, something quite sad and tragic has happened in the last week, but I haven’t written about it, and maybe will never write about, at least not publicly. And, no, I’m not fishing for someone to ask, what is it? So, in short, in terms of blogging, I don’t get overly confessional and intimate and personal. However, with my fiction, despite it all being smoke and lies and mirrors and general deception all-round, there’s a lot of me in those made-up sentences. Go figure!

    1. The dilemma of blogging is that it feels intimate somehow but it’s still speech read by strangers, no matter how benign or pleasant. I used to blog at OpenSalon until, twice, I was flamed so viciously I actually went to my local police department — some wacko (apparently in Florida, but who knew for sure?) threatened me with bodily harm. Even if it was an idle threat, it is against the law and I got him kicked off OpenSalon. There are some seriously angry people out there seeking a target, and the Internet — for its many charms — exposes you to that as well.

  17. pinkbriefcase

    For me, my Dad reads my blog and loves it. It’s one of the first things I’ve done that he’s been so outwardly excited about, so I always check myself to make sure that what I’m writing wouldn’t ruin that — I love the new grown-up relationship we are developing and can save topics that might hurt that or embarrass him for other mediums.

  18. Patti Poa

    Sad to hear about your Mum. It is her loss cos you sound like an intelligent and loving woman (sorry I know, I’m complimenting someone I never met which is too intimate from a stranger). I’m lucky to have a Mum I can talk with, fight with, laugh and cry with. She made me the passionate, strong, confident woman that I am. My partner had a mother much like yours and he is a passionate, strong, confident man. You sound a lot like him, you’ve determined your own destiny.

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