Vol. 45, Writers as Exhibitionists: Why Tell All

Posted on 5 August 2004

Antioch University E-Conferences

One aspect of the requirements for a distance learning degree is participation in Internet discussion groups with your classmates. Antioch has a number of optional, as well as mandatory, discussion groups. I love it when I have some downtime at home, my daughter’s sleeping and I’ve done all the housework I intend to do, and I say to myself “Well, I guess I’ll go to school.” I log on to the Antioch conferencing software, tickled by the concept of fitting school into the free hours of my daily life. I love taking the conversations an hour or two at a time… at my own pace, whenever I can spare the time.

On one of the discussion groups, we recently launched into a conversation about writers revealing “too much” personal information. We arrived at this conversation through a discussion of Joyce Maynard’s memoir At Home in the World, in which she details difficult childhood experiences as well as the ins-and-outs of her life as the 19-year-old lover of J.D. Salinger, who was 53 at the time. One participant on the discussion group felt Maynard had revealed too much in writing the book. “Why tell the world that your mother used to rub Vaseline on your vagina?” the participant mused. “In fact, why write memoir at all?” This particular participant had no patience for writers airing their dirty laundry. She felt that memoir, as a genre, reveals too much for no good reason. Joyce Maynard, I’m sure, is deeply familiar with such criticism. Many protested the book, cynically suggesting that, in revealing the intimate details of her affair with Salinger, Maynard—a “minor writer,” as one critic characterized her—was riding the coattails of J.D. Salinger’s fame. Many were angered by her audacity in sullying the legacy of a “great writer.” People asked over and over again: Why write something like this? Why destroy the reputations of others and mercilessly reveal the cracks in your own character? Why not keep the twisted facts of a painful past quiet, in memory, where they belong?

The back cover copy of Maynard’s book explains she was compelled to write this memoir when her daughter turned 18, the age she was when she began her relationship with Salinger. Maynard, a review by Kerry Fried states, “had published intimate essays since her early teens, and long been feted for her ‘honesty,’ it has taken the overachiever many years to realize that she had carefully left out her most personal burdens—her father’s alcoholism, her mother’s nighttime “snuggling” and [other] overwhelming intrusions….” I myself am a writer who strives to be “honest” and tell it straight, yet there are those overwhelming intrusions… those most personal burdens, that I too leave out of my writing.

These overwhelming intrusions came up during Eloise Klein Healy’s “ABOUT” seminar. When the class came back together after separating for group discussions, one group revealed they’d discussed the topics they are afraid of, the topics they avoid writing about. The entire room went silent immediately. Eloise said, “Did you feel that? Someone mentions the topics they are avoiding and all the air goes out the room. We’re suddenly quiet because we all have them. We all have those things we don’t dare write about.”

Eloise suggested we write a list of the things we avoid writing about.

I never wrote that list of overwhelming intrusions. Yet, whether I engage with the list or not, those intrusions are with me when I write, with me when I think, with me when I love. I may keep my lips sealed to preserve my image, but I’d like to be brave enough to reveal the full truth of any story I tell—the WHOLE truth. I’d like to be able to quell that human instinct to hide as much of my warts, foibles and failures as possible and present my true face to the world. Then, when I sat down to write about those scary things, the things I don’t want to mention to anyone else, I wouldn’t try to write it nice. I would engage with it fully, I’d write about it in its totality.

When I think about revealing “too much” of yourself, when I think about a writer who presents her cracked face to readers and seems to stab herself again and again with truth, I think of poet Toi Derricotte’s The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey which is an intensely personal exploration of race from the perspective of a black woman who looks white. In this book, Derricotte isn’t afraid to look at the scary emotions and experiences of life. She reveals not only the racial arrows she’s had to dodge, but the ugly racially-motivated thoughts she has about herself, other black people, and even her husband (who, though black like her, is dark, rather than light, skinned). Wow. When I read Derricote’s words, I was uncomfortably moved. I felt so much admiration for her ability, daring, and courage. Her willingness to cut herself open and pin herself to the page made me speechless.

After reading The Black Notebooks I was so inspired by Derricotte’s realness that I told my friends I was going to write a piece called “Ugly Things” in which I would disrobe and examine the things I hide from the world. (The impulse to be starkly, painfully honest lasted exactly a week. I never even attempted to write the piece.) The self-mutilating honesty of Derricotte’s work asserts that—when writing the difficult stories—anything less than full disclosure is a lie.

Certainly, engaging with personal commentary and memoir is a complex dance. Why do we tell our own stories? Why do we publish our secrets? Are we telling the truth if we tell only the truths that fit in with what we want the world to know about us? Is it possible to tell a personal tale while wearing a mask the entire time?

As a writer, I’m usually compelled to reveal my secrets when a particular experience is weighing so heavily on me I’ve got to get it out of my head and on the page. Often I’ve used my personal experience as a prompter to explore social issues. In Navigating to No, an article on date rape, I revealed an experience I was ashamed of. I didn’t go into graphic detail about the event, but I detailed the personal challenges and difficulties I and others grappled with while trying to make sense of unwanted sexual experiences. When the essay reached print, however, it immediately stopped being all about me. It became public discourse, social commentary, an intimate conversation that spoke to the reader’s experience way more than it revealed the secrets of mine. (Interestingly, though, for those readers who did NOT share my experience, who had never been in such a situation, it was more about me, the author, than them the reader.) As a result of the article, I got a minimum of 100 emails from women revealing their date rape stories. “Yesterday my best friend forced me…” one woman wrote. “I’m a Ph.D., and this shouldn’t have happened to me, but when the cable guy came…” wrote another. “I’ve felt like this all my life and I couldn’t admit this to anyone, but when I was 15…” wrote yet another.

It is totally understandable for people to ask why? Why would you reveal these things about yourself? Why would you tell the world about this terrible moment? But for as many people who ask, why reveal?, there are hundreds of people who read and say, thank god you told. They read it and feel, “Oh my god, someone else lived through this. Someone else survived this and she is living, and breathing, and surviving. And she has the nerve to tell the truth about it!” For those readers who recognize their own difficult histories in a writer’s disrobing, there is no question of why. There is only gratitude and relief. A weight is lifted because they reader has just learned that their experience is part of the human experience.

So many of us blame ourselves for the terrible things that happen to us. When writers record the unspeakable, when they write or speak their horrors out loud, the experience shifts. The power the secret has over writer (and reader) is altered. I’m not sure what it is about the power of the word, but self revelation touches people (and never leaves the writer untouched). As writers, we never know how many people have battled the exact same traumas that plague us. We don’t know how many people read the intensely intimate details of our lives and, as a result, breathe a sigh of relief, clear out the cobwebs, kill the nightmares, and finally embrace themselves as normal.

One of my classmates uncovered this quote from The Black Notebooks:

“This book is about the search for a home, a safe home for all our complexities, our beauty, and our abhorred life. It is about not finding that home in the world, and having to invent that home in language.”—Toi Derricotte

The abhorred life. What a wonderful combination of words: abhorred life. I think about the abhorred life. What I abhor in myself, what others abhor in themselves, and how we allow the abhorred elements of ourselves to convince us that we are damaged, bad or wrong. When we supress our abhorred life, we give our negative self images more power. In keeping “terrible things” a secret, we agree with those who would condemn us for our terribleness. We say, yes, this is despicable, and I will not speak of it. Yes, I have reason to be ashamed, so I will not reveal it. Writing about these secrets is a way of flinging it from your body and saying, this is not mine, I will not bear this cross. This is ours, world. Why do we do this? Why do we feel this? How do we get through this?

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam

: : : September 2002 – present : : :

Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 2

Publications: 5
Grants/fellowships: 2
Residencies/workshops: 1


No acceptances or rejections this month.

Kiini’s Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 – August 2002

Publications: Acceptances = 6; Rejections = 6
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 1
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 4