Pyrotechnics: Blowing Up Your Life on the Page

After 20 years of getting naked on the page, you learn a few things.

I’d practiced my story in the car, making key details anonymous. I called my city “a Michigan college town.” I changed everyone’s name. And I figured that even if the audience despised me, it wasn’t like I lived in Chicago; I’d never have to see them again. But standing at the mic, ready to tell my story for The Moth, I suddenly remembered Tyler, the stage manager, sitting onstage next to the emcee, waiting to signal the five-minute mark.

Tyler, my former student.

Who knew me at the same time my story took place. Who might think I was a bad person if I told this story.

But I was here, in front of almost a thousand people, with a story I needed to tell. I took a deep breath.

“You’re going to have to trust me that prostitution really seemed like the best option at the time.”

I glanced at Tyler. His mouth opened gently.

Illustration by Anna Hall

I tell writers in workshops: Be willing to be the villain of your own story. Set your own actions out there for the reader to judge, without excusing or justifying your behavior. That thing you’re ashamed and afraid of? Send it up like fireworks. Let the reader decide whether or not to like you.

Guarded memoirs are damp squibs on the page. Readers can tell when something’s missing, when an author is holding back, but blowing up our own privacy by sharing the thing we swore we’d never share reaches an audience more viscerally than carefully dispensing the truth. Some of the most powerful, best-selling memoirs lay open the narrator’s addiction, grief, compulsions, or terrible childhood. Mary Karr’s memoirs about her volatile family and her drinking could be seen as incredibly embarrassing, but I watched readers line up at the 2016 HippoCamp nonfiction conference to tell Karr how her books had given them the bravery to tell their own dark stories.

If you’re venturing into blogging and personal essays, or doing social media for your writing life, it’s hard to know how much to share. Where’s the line of privacy? How do you get past the shame of sharing dark secrets? How can we write fearless, personal, potentially mortifying pieces that create beautiful explosions and enlighten everyone watching?

Here’s what I know after twenty years of getting naked on the page:

Focus on why telling your story is important.

Jenny Lawson, The Bloggess and author of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, opened her blog in 2007 with the post:

Cursing makes everything funnier.
My dog just died.
My fucking dog just died.

Almost five years later and much less glibly, she posted about her debilitating depression. A long postscript included why she’d chosen to write about such a shame-laden subject:

Judge me or not, I am the same person I was before. And so are you. And chances are that many of your friends, family, and coworkers are dealing with things like this. Things that are killing them a little inside. Things that kill people who don’t get help. Silent, bloody battles that end with secret victors who can’t celebrate without shame. I hope that this post changes this somehow. I hope that you feel safe enough to be honest about the things you are the most ashamed of.

More than 2,600 readers commented, many sharing their own battles with mental illness. They’d spent years getting to know Jenny through her blog—every time she dug deeper, it unearthed some of their own truths. Part of memoir’s power is reaching people who thought they were alone.

Step slowly into the heat.

Exploding your private self on the internet is scary and permanent. Start with tiny sparks.

My first deeply personal nonfiction was an anonymous blog in the early 2000s. For eighteen months, I wrote daily in graphic detail about relationships, sex work, and my own mental health. Readers watched me slowly destroy my marriage, pursue a destructive long-term affair, and become suicidal. Even though no one knew the “real” me, the first few comments of “slut” or “selfish bitch” stung. But after the fifth, or the tenth, or the fiftieth, I focused on the readers who wanted to hear me, who were fascinated with my disintegration, whose responses and commiseration kept me showing up to the page and deciding to stay alive. Eventually, nasty comments lost their power. “You deserve to be alone the rest of your life!!!!!!!!!!!” Really? That’s the best you got?

Part of memoir’s power is reaching people who thought they were alone.

Later, I wrote a mix of fiction and nonfiction for a LiveJournal community, where some people knew my real name and regular social media. Supportive feedback let me go deeper with personal experience. Over eleven months, I moved beyond writing primarily to shock readers and learned to focus on judicious self-revelation in the service of a well-structured story. Meanwhile, in “real life,” I was learning more craft. I was nervous when Brevity accepted my essay about working as a stripper while in high school, but the literary-journal context felt important and worth the cost of igniting some personal fires. Now, blogging regularly for Brevity, I’ve built an audience that expects and welcomes deep personal revelation.

Detonation gets easier every time. Molestation? Been there. Rape? Check. Resentment, envy, grudges? Yep. Depression? One of my favorite posts. Every secret I tell makes telling the next one easier. Every time a stranger emails, “I thought I was the only one. I feel that way, too. Thanks for talking about it,” I know my craft worked; my honesty touched someone.

Focus on the moment of change.

Writing trauma, tragedy, and intense emotion risks straying into “therapy”—writing that works out the writer’s feelings instead of giving the reader a revelation. Andre Dubus III told me, “If nothing changes, it’s a journal entry. There’s gotta be some change in who you are.” Cancer and climbing Mount Everest are both dramatic situations. What action did you take, and how is your life different? We already know you survived; your name’s on the book. How is post-adventure you a new person?

Tell your own story.

Riding high on the success of a few published pieces, I made a bad choice: I sold a radio story that wasn’t primarily mine. Yes, I was a major player—but I revealed personal, identifiable details about a dear friend. Details they weren’t ready to share, that embarrassed them and exploited a situation they were still in. I made myself the hero of the story—big mistake!—and didn’t get clear permission to tell. I’m lucky we’re still friends, after some awkward months and a lot of apologizing.

True pyrotechnics come from the narrator’s revelations and realizations rather than holding someone else’s behavior up for condemnation. If you’re writing a “family secrets” memoir, how did finding the truth change you? Red-light warning: if you seem heroic on the page, take a good hard look at whether you’re telling the truth about what you did.

Decide what’s sacred.

My now-husband supports my writing, but he’s about as non-literary as it gets. When I warned him I was writing a memoir with “a lot of sex in it,” he said, “There’s a lot of books in the world I haven’t read, and that’ll be one of them.” I choose to protect his privacy, and knowing that’s the boundary helps me explore other flammable subjects. Figure out what you need to protect—your kids? a friendship?—and make clear choices about your subject matter. Decide in advance how you’ll deal with the mechanics: Jeff Sharlet recently Tweeted about watching a Latinx woman’s dehumanizing border-crossing experience and his young daughter’s passionate reaction to it. He gave his daughter a pseudonym, and a key picture showed the action she took in response but not her face.

Write without shame.

Approach your darkness with the best craft you’re capable of. When your mother/neighbor/classmate dubiously asks, “Are you really going to publish that?” tell them, “It’s a story I think is important to tell.” Refuse to be embarrassed. If they don’t like your version, they’re free to write their own.

“If nothing changes, it’s a journal entry. There’s gotta be some change in who you are.”

In 2009, when cancer researcher Brooke Magnanti was revealed to be prostitute and blogger Belle de Jour, she refused to be lectured or scolded by the public or the press. Instead, she used her new platform to draw attention to issues she cared about, including the decriminalization of sex work. By pointing at larger issues and standing by her decisions both to do and write about sex work, Magnanti successfully controlled her image as a doctor and established herself as an author now writing crime novels. In a 2016 Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), Magnanti wrote:

There’s still a bit of backlash, but a lot of it is in media or on the internet. In my day-to-day life, it doesn’t affect much. I live in a small village and everyone knows, and they deal with it like small communities deal with anything else. The nice thing about living in a small place where everyone knows everyone’s business is finding out how many people have skeletons, and life goes on.

Time helps. No matter how big the explosion, the echoes will die away.

Build your own community.

Often, what we’re most afraid of revealing isn’t received negatively at all. Jenny Lawson told NPR that when she blogged about her mental illness:

I was shocked at how many people came out and said, “Oh, my God, me too!” Or, “I thought I was the only one.”

She’d expected honesty would turn off her readers, but maintaining the façade of quirky, fun blogger felt wrong.

I had all this stuff in my drafts folder—funny posts that I could save up and post on days or weeks when I was having a rough time. It felt like I was creating such a false history because I was lying on the couch, just forcing myself to breathe, and I would have these comments saying, “Oh, you’re so funny! What a great life you have!” I felt like such a liar. So I decided to go ahead and write about it.

Lawson’s willingness to explode her lighthearted image led to a readership supportive of her and each other:

When it comes to mental illness, on a very selfish level, it is so reassuring to me to have other people say, “You’re not alone.” I’m sometimes stuck at home and cannot force myself to leave the house, or I’m at a hotel room and I cannot leave the hotel room even to eat, and I know I can always go out on Twitter and say, “I’m stuck. I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like a failure.” And a thousand people are going to say, “I’m right there with you. I’m hiding in the bathroom myself.”

“You’re going to have to trust me that prostitution really seemed like the best option at the time,” I told the Moth audience. Tyler’s presence had made me realize something important: I’d rather he respect me for telling a powerful story than admire me for being a good person.

The audience laughed so hard I had to pause. Tyler laughed with them. I told how I’d realized a client needed more love than I could give, that my biggest problem with sex work was that it’s boring. After the show, audience members told me, “I can’t believe you were brave enough to tell that story,” and “Wow, I always wondered what sex work was like, and I’m glad you told us,” and, yes, “That’s totally what happened to me, too! I thought I was the only one.” Backstage, Tyler gave me a big hug. “Great story!”

It’s scary to light that fuse and wait for the boom. But reaching readers with the truth is powerful, and revelation creates community. Letting people know they’re not the only one struggling is worth the tension and worry of being the one who told. Blow up your secrets. Light the sky with your guilt and shame and complicity. Everyone’s going to know this thing about you—and that’s the point.

About the Author

Allison K Williams

Allison K Williams has edited and coached writers to publishing deals with Penguin Random House, Knopf, Mantle, Spencer Hill, and St. Martin’s, as well as independent and literary presses. She’s guided essayists and memoirists to publications at the New Yorker, Time, the Guardian, the New York Times, McSweeney’s, Refinery29, Hippocampus, Belladonna, and TED Talks.

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