In his book, On Writing, Stephen King talks about how authors sometimes incorporate attributes of their own life situation into a story, without realizing what those attributes are. When he wrote the alcoholic protagonist in The Shining, King says, he wasn’t aware, he was, at that very moment, an alcoholic himself. Something similar has happened to me. I finished my first novel Communing with Saints a few years ago, and though I knew I was including some aspects of my personal story in that of my main character Lucy—her ambivalence about Catholicism, for one—I didn’t realize how much her fears were my own. When, in the first chapter, the ghost of Typhoid Mary finds herself invisible to all around her, desperate for attention, and tethered to this quiet 23-year-old, she recognizes right away Lucy’s trepidation about being seen:
She knew she had no choice, she must continue to follow Lucy, and to hear and to see as the younger woman attempted to hide from the entire universe. Mary shook her head, “Doesn’t that girl realize how terrible it is to be invisible?”
It wasn’t until some months ago, when I contemplated ramping up my internet presence—doing all the platform-building tasks that a writer is encouraged to do these days—that I realized, I too, am afraid of being seen. I am afraid of getting myself into something I can’t get out of, getting hurt somehow—or hurting others with what I have to say. Okay, Diana, so stay silent. Don’t put your two cents in. Be invisible. But, you see, there’s a reason that although Lucy starts out in an attitude of concealment, she slowly makes a journey to some level of comfort interacting with others—because being seen and heard is one of the most basic emotional needs humans have and, it’s one of the best ways we can help one another.
I remember devouring Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted and thinking, “Thank you. Thank you for writing this down in this way and thank you for sharing it with me.” My emotional struggles were different from Kaysen’s, but I felt liberated by her candor and her seeming lack of shame.
And yet, I feel reluctant—especially when I consider the crazy-making-ness of it all. The worst part is after I post. The doubting of my content, grammar, and punctuation. The subsequent liking and/or commenting. The publicizing on Twitter and Facebook. The incessant checking of my phone to see if someone else has yet responded to what I have put out into the ether. The wondering if I should be more public or less public. The agonizing over comments I write on other people’s blogs—wanting them to sound just right, to show that I am friendly and witty and smart.
Furthermore, in the current publishing climate where a writer is encouraged to build a platform by not only blogging, but social networking—in seeming competition with many other others, I might add—I find myself baffled by what the heck I should post. I like social media. I think it brings a cool kind of democracy to the world. I have seen funny posts, clever posts, poignant posts, and I enjoy them all, the problem is I never know what to say! As I wearily laid down yesterday afternoon and felt my mattress cuddle my aching body, I thought, “I am so in love in with my bed right now.” And then I thought, “Should I be tweeting this or putting it on Facebook? Is this the kind of thing people might find funny or simpatico?” I have to start somewhere, but the truth of that matter is, I didn’t want to. I couldn’t believe anyone would want to read it, and I didn’t want to make noise just for the sake of making noise.
Last week, I read a blog post by Felicia Sullivan in which she asserted that there is a lot of bad writing on the internet. I can’t say I disagree with her. Of course, each of us bloggers are hoping that we are not the ones she’s talking about! Certainly, there’s a lot of good writing out there, too. But how much of it do we actually read? How much do we have time for? How many individual words of this post are you reading right now? I don’t ask that out of mischievousness, merely out of interest. In a sea of verbiage, do my words matter?
Of course they do. Everyone’s words matter. How much? I don’t know. But, in all humility, I’d hate to think I might rob even one person of the kind of experience reading Girl, Interrupted gave me.
Being visible has not always been a safe experience for me. I have had several experiences in my life of people asking more of me then I wanted to give, of casting blame on me for being selfish—that by my withholding parts (or in some cases all) of myself, I was withholding their happiness. My response to these experiences has been to want to dig an even deeper hole in which to hide. That’s not the answer, but neither is being completely forward, and hang the consequences. I need to be brave enough to be seen—in any aspect of life—but also not too scared to be reticent.
Back in my performance days (during which the idea of wearing a slip on stage in the guise of a hooker seemed much less risky than being on the internet), I adhered to the guideline of scaring myself a little—not full on terror, not total security—just a small dash of apprehension. This kept me moving forward, but also meant that I didn’t end up in over my head. I am going to keep that in mind now, as I try to emulate my somehow wiser-than-me characters. Mary’s right. It is terrible to be invisible, to be unheard. We have a responsibility to act and speak with wisdom (if at all possible) and compassion, but we can’t let the burden of that task scare us from allowing ourselves to be seen.
Oh, and if you like your tweets intermittent and possibly rather boring, please feel free to follow me @audacioussm