I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way, I stopped caring what people think of me. I don’t mean that I stopped caring what the people I love think of me – I care enormously about that – but I stopped caring about the big, wide swath of people who have opinions of me based on their own projections. I wrote an essay about this recently which seems to have struck a nerve, so I thought I’d offer some further thoughts here – in part because a dear friend of mine was lambasted publicly, earlier this week, in such a wrong-headed, ill-informed, factually misleading and hostile way that it’s hard to sit back and just say nothing about what it means – whether you’re a writer, an artist, a teacher, a doctor, an actor, a trapeze artist, whatever – to put yourself on the line. Every day. Whether you feel like it or not.
I’ve been putting myself on the line – literally, on the line of words forming sentences, paragraphs, pages, books – for so many years now that it has become second nature. I use my own life as a laboratory, or perhaps an archaeological dig. I burrow down, searching for tarnished nuggets of truth. I do this not because I think my own life is particularly interesting or special, but because it’s the lens through which I can come to understand the world. I go deep into the specific, the particular, in order to be able to make a larger sense – one that hopefully resonates and weaves its own tiny strand into the universal thread.
Over the years I’ve been accused of many things: of being self-absorbed, narcissistic, spoiled, privileged, and so forth. I’ve been accused of these things by people who don’t know me, and who make certain assumptions when they read into my public persona. A newspaper comes and photographs my house – it looks larger than it is, neater, prettier, more nicely-furnished, because that’s what photographs do – and the next thing I know, I hear I live in a house straight out of a movie set. I post pictures on Facebook or Instagram of lovely moments: a favorite barn at dusk, my son playing tennis, a view from a writers’ conference. A schoolmate of my son’s who apparently follows me on Instagram recently said: “You seem to really enjoy your life.” It was such an interesting thing to hear, and it took me aback. I mean, I do enjoy my life – sometimes. And those are the times that end up on Instagram or Facebook. Right? We don’t pause partway through a marital squabble and take a selfie. We don’t snap a picture of the dog pee stain on the rug. We curate our lives, airbrush them. I’m on the cover of a magazine this month, and boy oh boy, I wish I looked like that all the time, or even some of the time. I had a team of the best hair, makeup and stylists in Los Angeles taking care of me that day.
I try to tell the truth of my life, even as I curate it. My husband and I are writers. We live modestly. I can’t remember the last time we took a vacation in which at least one of us wasn’t working. Those Instagram posts from Aspen, Provincetown, Taos, Positano? Working. Yes, in lovely places – I’ve figured out how to do that, living by my wits – but nonetheless, I am teaching intensively for many hours each day, and often, after workshops, all I can do is go back to my (very nice) room and take a nap. As a writer, I work pretty much seven days a week on my own work, and on the work of others. I wouldn’t trade it for anything and feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do what I love, and to live in a way that feels examined and meaningful. But it isn’t easy, and I refuse to pretend that it is – even as I post the glowing photos.
On my office wall hangs a poster with wisdom from one of my favorite human beings in which she shares seven lessons she learned over the course of her first seven years of curating Brain Pickings. Among these lessons are: Be generous… it’s so much easier to be a critic than to be a celebrator. To understand and to be understood, these are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
Isn’t it all any of us really want? To understand and to be understood? To bear witness to all of it – the good, the bad and the ugly? The real? Let the critics float away on their own toxic cloud. Count me among the celebrators.