Real Talk – but not TOO real

11 May


Revisiting a favorite article from last year (which you should also read) about emotional labor, I was struck with the thought: how did this article go down at home? How did her husband feel about essentially being an unsympathetic subject in her piece? I don’t mean to say I’m disapproving or super concerned about it, I’m just genuinely curious.

I’ve been a writer nearly my whole life (no one has yet paid me for it, but that doesn’t make it less true). And, as evidenced in most of what is on this blog, a lot of my writing has focused around my own experiences. I am fascinated by the personal essay, by memoir and creative nonfiction. Blogs are ideal places from which to shout out into the void. You hope someone is reading, you hope someone is getting something out of it – but, in the end, it isn’t really for other people – it’s for you. (Although, hi, welcome, please come back!)

I struggled a lot in my marriage, which was also my first truly long-term, adult relationship. And I started a now defunct blog to write about my experiences. I shared my blog posts on Facebook, too. The project was for me, but it was also for others who might be going through similar experiences. I was seeking camaraderie and community and I wanted to put into words what I suspected many others also were feeling. Many of the posts were benign glimpses into our particular brand of marriage, but others asked big questions and many shared personal, even intimate, details of our lives.

My husband struggled with my writing. You could tell he was trying to be supportive, but wished I wasn’t so public about everything. A few times we got in heated discussions or fights because I had written something unflattering about him (or that he perceived as unflattering) and posted it on the blog. Other times I wrote openly about my innermost feelings, including thoughts I had not yet even expressed directly to him, but that were in some ways about him. During the later disintegration of our marriage, I came to understand how, not the blog itself, but the model of communication (or lack thereof) that it was a symptom of was fatally flawed.

I’ve come to understand the importance of certain kinds of secrets; the importance of privacy, of building a wall between your relationship and the outside world, to protect it. It’s a fine line that I still struggle to walk. I am an over-sharer by nature – I am an open book: ask me a question, any question, and I will answer honestly. I love a good, deep conversation – I love nothing more than getting into the nitty-gritty of relationships and love and life. And I love to talk. It’s both one of my assets (I’m good at it) and one my biggest flaws (because I don’t always love to listen quite as much).

Telling someone who loves to talk that they probably shouldn’t talk about that to everyone is a hard sell. Likewise, telling someone who loves to talk about Big Social Issues that they shouldn’t talk about how much emotional labor they do, how little housework their partner does, how they do money with their spouse – in short, how their own experiences inform their understanding of these issues – is also a hard sell. But I haven’t yet figured out how to publicly say “my partner is bad at x, y, z” without making said partner feel bad. It turns out that simply saying “he’s bad at this, but it’s not his fault” or “he’s bad at this, but I’m bad at this other thing” didn’t work great.

Don’t get me wrong – I understand why they don’t love this. If you wrote something about me pointing out my real or perceived flaws and shared it with all our friends and also a bunch of strangers, it would piss me off, regardless of how you couch it. I get the truth of that, but it leaves unresolved the question: how do you write about important things that matter to you, while incorporating your own personal experiences, without pissing off the people in those stories?

One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, has this saying: “you own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” And that has pretty much been my credo, for a long time. But it makes a basic assumption that the people in the stories who behaved badly objectively behaved badly. What if instead of writing about someone’s objectively awful behavior, you’re writing about how you feel about their well-intentioned but poorly executed behavior? Or what if you’re just wrong? Or what if your spouse doesn’t appreciate being used as Exhibit A in your feminist crusade for egalitarianism? I strongly believe I should be able to write about these kinds of things, but I’ve learned to moderate who else to include and how much to include them.

I’ve also learned to keep more of what I write private, to try to differentiate between what is essentially a journal entry and what is appropriate for public consumption, especially when it comes to writing about my relationship. In general, I just write about my relationship less now. It sucks for my ex-husband that he had to be the one to show me this without being the one who reaps any benefits from it later, but I guess he can at least rest easy that other men are no longer subjected to my tyranny-of-oversharing to quite the same degree.

Because let’s be real, I am always going to overshare. I am always going to want to talk about this stuff, and to want to use examples from my own life. But I’m also older and wiser, and I try to write more kindly. I try to use more nuance. I don’t exactly sugarcoat, but I’m gentler. I go easy. Because we’re all here with our own “big anxious brains and over-sensitive souls”* and I don’t want to contribute to anyone else’s misery, least of all my partner’s. So, my short answer to that question – the how do you write about stuff that happened to you that involves other people – is: carefully.

Just because something is true, just because it provides context or bolsters your argument, doesn’t mean it needs to be shared. I try not to write angry and if I do, I put it away and come back to it later when I’m not angry so I can make sure it isn’t unnecessarily mean. I aim not to lie in my writing, by omission or otherwise, but simply to be more forgiving, to assume the best, and to not try to ascribe motives or feelings to other people whose motives and feelings I can have no real knowledge of. That this is so wholly different from how I used to write about my then-marriage tells you a lot about how much I’ve matured and learned, and also about how fiercely I want to protect my current relationship.

I see the value now in ways I never did before of keeping some things to myself, and of keeping some things “just for us”. I still vent my frustrations in conversations with girlfriends, and I still use personal experience to illustrate advice I give during those kinds of conversations. But there are things I shared 3 or 4 years ago about my current partner, before these lessons really sunk in, that I wish I hadn’t – and that helps remind me to moderate what I share now. The secret is to get real without getting too real.

You learn pretty quickly as a young woman that when all that your friends hear about your partner is bad, they (logically) come to not really like that partner for you, or understand why you stay. In the same way, you learn that once you voice real disapproval of a friend’s partner, it will never be forgotten (and may never be forgiven). You learn how to tread carefully, in both respects. That I had learned this lesson with my friends long before I understood it should be applied to some degree in my romantic relationships as well says a lot about my own emotional immaturity and how long it took me to get where I am now. I still get mad or frustrated, I still share things I might later regret, but it’s way less frequent and at least now I feel bad when it happens. I’ll take incremental progress and small victories any day.

*I read that somewhere a couple years ago and I loved it so much as a description that I’ve stolen it, but I can’t now remember where it comes from! Aah

One Response to “Real Talk – but not TOO real”

  1. Anthony May 20, 2018 at 4:59 am #

    This was very interesting.

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