Friday, June 16, 2023

When Private Becomes Public: Facing Criticism and Exposure As Your Book Gets Published

We all have a great deal of personal freedom with what we choose to write--or do we? I've spoken with many writers, of all genres, who are conscious of the reader looking over their shoulder, judging their words. Or family, people they want to include (fictionalized or real), who may get hurt or shun them for the way they tell their story.

Some writers don't care. "It's my story, I lived it, and I can tell it however I like," one student told me. More power to you, I thought. I knew her as a forthright activist, never shying from truth telling and confrontation. I'm not that way, and maybe some of you aren't either. You may, like me, worry a bit (or a lot) about judgment.

One of my long-ago students wanted to write a novel loosely based on his family, but the fear of their criticism always stopped him. No amount of hiding details behind the fictional wall soothed this concern. His older brother, in particular, haunted him whenever he sat down at his laptop.

Another student, writing a self-help book, was equally frozen by imagined comments from colleagues at the university where she taught. "In academia," she told me, "self-help is laughed at, and I'm afraid of losing credentials with my scholarly community." But both of these authors-to-be were driven by the need to write their stories, to share what they'd experienced and realized.

A third wasn't at all concerned about what she shared in her memoir--just that revealing her background (addiction, childhood trauma) would open her to intrusive curiosity. A very private person, she wondered if there was a way to set up sane boundaries about what she shared and how.

I have personally experienced both of these dilemmas: the fear of criticism and the fear of exposure and the resulting intrusion. Publishing today erases much of the boundary between public and private. Your private thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and facts get exposed to public scrutiny--even when you are writing fiction. (See below for more about that.)

I remember a story I wrote years ago about my grandmother's death. She was a wonderful woman, strong and true, and very faith-rich until she was mugged outside her apartment. She believed God had deserted her in that moment, and it started her decline. She died not long after, a ghost of her former self.

As a young woman, this change in my beloved grandmother shocked and haunted me for years. I wanted badly to write about it, about what happens when we lose faith in ourselves or our lives. The story ended up in my second memoir.

I wasn't prepared for the reaction from some family readers, after the book was published. Not entirely approving, that I'd shared this intimate detail about our matriarch. And not entirely agreeing with my version of what happened.

This is not an uncommon experience for memoirists. I asked friends whose stories I included to read and approve of my version but I hadn't asked my family. Too afraid of their censor, perhaps. Or just too stubborn to agree to changes, not unlike my student above. But soon after, I switched away from memoir into fiction. Family breaches healed, and I felt safer.

My novel changed the game again, It is inspired by my mother, a World War II pilot. I wanted to not only write a story about women pilots, out of admiration for those who bust through this traditional male work wall, I wanted to honor my mom.

The novel is clearly fiction, not subject to scrutiny, but the short essays I'm crafting in addition, about her and her flying years, are not. I'm back in tricky territory again.

But like my students above, I am driven to write this: to understand her strength as a survivor, someone who could fly bombers at twenty-two. We weren't a family who talked about the tragedies, so I only have a scattering of memories of conversations with her about my older sister's death or my uncle's estrangement. I had to go to other resources to find her stories. I notice a certain current of tension inside as I imagine publishing these. What will my family's reaction be? What will I expose about myself, my history?

I have the freedom, such as it is, the right to write whatever moves me. But I'm learning that it's a very individual thing, to find the intersection of this freedom and the place of comfort about how much to expose.

In her wonderful Substack newsletter, "Craft Talk," author Jami Attenberg writes "Boundaries must exist, and this is for everyone’s benefit. A good thing to think about in your writing: what you’re willing to tell and what you need to keep close for yourself. How much of yourself do you need to put out there?"

"Even if we write fiction," she adds, "the most beautiful literary subterfuge, we can tap into certain personal wells and it can feel (to us, at least) like those boundaries become translucent."

I think many writers--not all--start off with the specter of criticism and exposure very close. At least, I've seen this with my classes and private clients over the past two decades. We can write about anything when we're freewriting, but when it comes to sharing it, the gates close and the flow gets strangled. (There are exceptions, like the writer above who felt anything was game on the page, damn the consequences).

For most of us, there has to be a middle ground. I've found it through time, my own comfort zone, but then I'll release a new book, as I am this fall, and all bets are off once again. I loved the freedom of the writing, editing, finishing. Now I have to face the responsibility of the book going out into the world, out of my control.

Maybe that's why I take my sweet time with my books. I write and revise endlessly, trying to find that boundary that allows my free expression and also my safety--or at least a measure of it, call it sanity perhaps, that allows me to keep writing and keep believing in myself.

But these are good questions for all of us to ponder. Attenberg says it so well: "How do we travel the line between pushing ourselves to be vulnerable, honest, interesting and still make ourselves feel safe? How do we take risks as artists and still protect ourselves? How do we stay steady even as we explore and exploit the wildness of our minds?"

A final note about writer’s block, which is oh-so-connected to this topic of safety and danger. Sometimes, we feel pushed to share beyond our comfort zone. Class feedback asks for more about a topic you’re dancing around. An editor or agent does the same. You comply, but the writing flow reduces to a trickle. Suddenly, you just don’t feel like writing at all. Some gatekeeper inside has slammed the door because you’ve put yourself in danger, in its mind.

We writers are very attuned to this, and I’ve witnessed many cases of writer’s block from line crossing, in myself and others. It’s a learning process, for sure—we don’t always know where that line is. Or maybe we’re brave or defiant or rebellious at the core, and we think lines are meant to be crossed. Who dares to tell us where our freedom begins and ends! Nobody.

But we stop writing. Stop creating. Dry up a bit more each day we’re away from it. The critical inner voice gets louder.

This week’s exercise is a gentle soother for that voice. It allows you to revisit your personal boundaries and see if they are still useful, need shoring up, need relinquishing.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise: Make a list of topics, memories, ideas, thoughts, concepts you’re comfortable sharing with an unknown reader. Make a second list of those you’re uneasy about sharing with that reader. And a third of those things you’d never share. (No one will see these lists but you, so you can dive deep and be brutally honest with yourself.) Pick one from each list and freewrite for 10-15 minutes about your feelings of danger or safety with each one. Have you cross the line Attenberg talks about, even inadvertently, and your writing has narrowed or even shut down because of the danger you feel?

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