It happens like clockwork. At every reading or event I have done in the last number of years, at some point someone comes up to me and asks the following question in a semi-embarrassed, hushed tone. How do you deal with putting yourself…you know…putting yourself out there? All the details of your life? I mean, it’s very brave, but don’t you feel…exposed? For years, this question bothered me. The question itself made me feel exposed, as if the person asking was pointing out that my underwear was showing, or that I had been walking around for hours (years!) with something on my teeth.
Because the truth was this. I didn’t feel exposed. I didn’t. But I wondered if not feeling exposed by my writing–which clearly other people thought I was–meant something was wrong with me. That I was somehow missing a gene that everybody else had, a self-protective gene designed to keep private matters private.
But now I think of the whole idea of exposure as it relates to writing very differently. Now, when the question invariably comes up, here is my response.
You know, I didn’t publish my diary, I say. It’s a tremendous privilege to have the opportunity to craft something out of one’s life, to take the chaos and randomness and make order out of it. I pick and choose what I put in my work. Not everything goes in there–not remotely. I only include what will serve the story, and I am always conscious that it’s a story I’m telling. I didn’t publish my diary, say. If you had read my diary, I might have to kill you.
I am, in fact, a very private person. Sometimes, when having an intense, intimate conversation in which I sense that I’m revealing something of myself, I will feel myself grow hot, a wave of embarrassment and self-consciousness rising, literally rising to my face in the form of a bright red blush. I don’t speak easily, or often. At dinner parties, I am often quiet unless I really have something to say. I’m not terrific at small talk. I have good friends who don’t know about certain chapters of my life–unless they’ve read about them–not because I am withholding information, but because I don’t tend to talk that much about myself.
And so, the exposure question is a very interesting one. It brings to mind something that dear Frank McCourt once said at a dinner party, when his companion turned to him and asked him much the same thing.
You must feel like I know you, the woman said conspiratorially.
Darling, Frank said in his Irish accent that managed to make word sound gentle. It’s just a book.