Our cultural moment is characterized by public displays of incredibly intimate information. People outdo each other in telling all, including gruesome tales of abuse and even voluntary self-debasement recounted with relish. Just look at the nonfiction best-seller list.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’m a private person (that’s become such a cliche, but sometimes cliches are accurate). The two forms of exposure I find most disturbing are boasting and the sharing of stories that evoke pity. You could say there’s not much in between, but there is something. I don’t have many inhibitions about describing my errors of judgment or political missteps, youthful follies, that kind of thing. But that doesn’t exactly make me fearless — quite the contrary. Yet as a writer, I must be in dialogue with questions of exposure, questions of personal boundary. If I stay in my comfort zone of privacy, what do I have to say?
Last Sunday’s \New York Times\ Style Section carried “Truly, Madly, Guiltily,” by the novelist Ayelet Waldman, about the wonderful sex life she has with her husband (fellow novelist Michael Chabon), a lengthy boast very lightly veiled with charming apology at not sharing other young mothers’ lack of interest in sex. Waldman lives here in the Bay Area, where she and her husband have a very public profile as reviewers and participants in writers’ forums, lectures and reading series.
I kept imagining myself in her place, taking the stage at an auditorium to interview a visiting writer, having just run a gauntlet of teases from my hip and cool friends backstage. I thought Waldman might have intended the piece as a love letter to her husband, which it is as well. Or just may not share my aversion to boasting (perhaps not having received the kind of training my grandmother dished out, to avoid speaking of one’s good fortune lest the evil eye destroy it). I wondered if I’d write about my own sex life that way if it would guarantee me half a page in the Sunday \Times\. I wondered if she would have published the piece if its point had been the opposite, if it had been a lament for the suffocation of her erotic life under an avalanche of soggy diapers. Maybe in her system of boundaries boasting is okay, but not airing shame or pain.
As you can see, I thought about it quite a bit.
Scratch the surface of my thoughts and you will find a feeling I’m not very proud of (but neither do I find it too shameful to utter): envy. Of course I can’t comprehend the motives of a total stranger, Ayelet Waldman, in exposing her marriage in the Sunday papers. But the more I think about it, the more my puzzlement edges over into wondering how I can get published there too.
You see, right now the shameful emotion I’m battling is discouragement. In contrast to Waldman, as a writer I am a bust. My application for a fellowship I coveted was just rejected. Although I’ve gotten some great responses to my novel \Clarity\ from its small readership, I haven’t been able to get it reviewed and in terms of sales, it is dead in the water. In the last year, I’ve sent off perhaps half a dozen essays to various journals for which I thought they would be perfect, and the response has been total silence, not even a “thank you for your submission” email. All of this plays much too perfectly into an idea that experience has engraved on my heart, that I will never be received as I wish to be. Although I know there are writers who are content with the process of writing, pushing their completed manuscripts to the back of a drawer, my desire is to be in conversation with readers, to be read and to have what I have written make a difference. For me, the signs are not encouraging.
This is coming up for me now because I have a new project. I have an idea that seems very right — the exact container for all that I see and all that I have to share — and I wake up each morning with my head full of opening sentences and story fragments I know will fit wonderfully into the framework I have devised. Normally, I would be racing to the computer each day. I would get lost in the act of writing, forgetting to stretch my legs or even to stop and eat. But instead, I am well and truly daunted. Each time I begin to get excited about my new project, a voice sounds in my head: “Yeah,” says the voice, “but you were excited last time too, and look what happened.” The voice tells me that I cannot judge my own work, that I have no idea what will appeal to or resonate with publishers and readers. The voice tells me I am deluded even to think I have something to say or a way of saying it that deserves to be read. And if I listen to the voice, I feel very hopeless and sad.
A friend who studies the transit of souls through their various lives told me that my persistent frustration is rooted in a previous incarnation, when I saw great danger approaching, made every effort to warn people, and was not heeded. I have absolutely no idea whether our souls come into their lives with shapes or assignments somehow formed in previous incarnations. If I were forced to declare a position, I suppose I would say that the idea is more deep metaphor than reality map. But the thing is, as deep metaphor, it rings a very loud bell: this feeling I have that I will not be received, it echoes from a very old place, bouncing off the walls of my life in so many ways.
People who like my writing are generous with consoling reality-checks: publishing is messed up, there are fads and fashions, conventional definitions of success are narrow and disabling. As one whose lifelong path has been speaking truth to power, they ask, what can you expect? You don’t become popular working with struggling artists and communities. You don’t endear yourself by writing about matters of culture, politics and spirituality in a way that leads to questioning, unless your framework is comic, like Michael Moore’s or Al Franken’s. The trouble, as always, is that the world corroborates any hypothesis: all these assurances can be substantiated, but it is equally possible to name critical and principled writers who succeed in reaching a substantial, authenticating readership, so the opposite points can be substantiated too.
For most of my life, I’ve known what to do next. I can’t remember ever being quite this daunted before. I can’t remember mistrusting my own judgment quite this much. I’ve thought it over long and hard, and I’ve made up my mind to go ahead anyway. Part of me thinks my new project will be better if it comes from a place of not knowing. Part of me thinks that if my friend is right about the issue I have brought into this world, the pain of not being received lies in the dialectic of hope and disappointment, and the \tikkun\ — the repair — my soul needs is to proceed without the insulation of hope, the armor of faith in my own judgment.
I don’t entirely trust myself to do this, so even though it makes me feel exposed, I decided to reveal it to you. If you think of it, silently wish me luck, please, in proceeding with eyes open, in being able to do what I think right, without expectation of being received.