I have been online, in one way or another, since the early 1990s. In the early days, I was on a desktop computer, a Macintosh LC II, with a very slow modem. I would tie up the phone line for hours, surfing what there was of the Internet but mostly participating in newsgroups and online chat rooms with people who were older and worldlier than I.
For me, one of the biggest draws of the Internet has always been how I can be alone and yet find connection with other people. I am an introvert. I can fake extroversion, but it is exhausting. I prefer quiet, even when I am happily around other people. I spend an inordinate amount of time in my head. Online, I can be in my head and with interesting people. I can be alone but feel less lonely.
Writing has been part of my life far longer than the Internet. Even before I understood what I was doing, I was writing. When I realized I could share my writing online, it was an interesting convergence. Back in the day, I had a LiveJournal where I blogged about my truly mundane life—college, dating, depression, drama. Before and after that, I had a hardcoded HTML site where I blogged about my truly mundane life. I had a very small audience, but what mattered was connecting with other people who seemed to understand me and be interested in what I had to say. That sort of attention is powerful for a shy, lonely introvert. It affirms that you have left some kind of mark, however fleeting.
I think of myself as a fiction writer, though these days I write fiction and nonfiction in equal measure. Most of my nonfiction comes in the form of opinion-based essays. I hadn’t realized I was so opinionated until I started writing essays, and then I realized that I have rather strong opinions about nearly everything. My opinions have opinions. The older I get, the more comfortable I am sharing those opinions or finding my way to them through an essay. I sometimes also write from my life, but I generally prefer not to without a compelling reason for doing so.
In 2010, an eleven-year-old girl was gang raped in Cleveland, Texas, a story I first heard about when acquaintances discussed the case on social media. Then the New York Times published an article about the assault—specifically, about how it had affected the town. Oh, how the article lamented for that poor, poor town and the young men whose lives had been irrevocably changed.
The language used in the article, the language used to refer to a vicious rape—the actual crime in question—was so careless. It was the first time I had ever felt so moved by a story and a complex set of social circumstances that I needed to write my way through it. I felt obligated to respond as a woman, as a writer, as a human being. I sat at my computer and within two hours wrote a furious essay, which I then sent to an editor at The Rumpus, who published it soon thereafter. Thousands of people read the post, and before long there were more than a hundred comments—people engaging with what I had said and telling their own stories.
That’s how I started writing cultural criticism; now, I find myself in a position where a surprising number of people seem to want to know what I think and feel about any number of subjects. Or perhaps it is that I want to share what I think and feel about any number of subjects. Or perhaps it’s both. Regardless, that people respect or anticipate what I have to say is both humbling and overwhelming. It is also mildly terrifying because it seems as if there is little room for error online. When you’re wrong, any number of people are waiting to correct and chastise you. This is not a bad thing. It keeps me honest. It keeps me always striving to be better about how I write the world; but it is intimidating.
I am intrigued by the myth of Medusa. The dilemma with Medusa is that you know you shouldn’t look, but you are nonetheless compelled to see if her countenance is as unfortunate as mythic lore tells us, to see if you will truly turn to stone if you look upon her face. We know Medusa is dangerous, but we still want to know.
There is a similar dilemma, I think, when it comes to writing online. I have things I want to say. I know disclosure can be dangerous, but still I want to speak. I want to share my opinions. I want to provoke conversations. I want to leave my mark. But publishing online, like looking at Medusa, is fraught. You will inevitably get more than you bargained for.
After I wrote the essay about language and sexual violence, I received a great deal of correspondence. The main question people asked—via email, at readings, and even at a writing conference, in a bar—was, “Were you raped?” It surprised me that they felt comfortable asking, as if they had a right to know. I could only stammer, “Excuse me?” I had no idea what to say; the question cut me all the way open. I hated the feeling. I hated the curiosity about the details of my past, the deeply private details that are mine and no one else’s.
At the same time, certain kinds of nonfiction invite such questions. My essays are often a combination of argument and memoir. I have firm boundaries about what I will or won’t write about, but I put myself out there, and there are, inevitably, consequences. As a reader, I love most of all the essays that make me feel as if I know the writer’s truest self, the ones that make me wish the writer would show me more, show me everything. And so it shouldn’t surprise me that readers want to know more about my life and the experiences I allude to in essays. It shouldn’t surprise me that readers feel entitled to know more.
And yet, the exposure makes me anxious. Online, almost anyone has access to disclosed intimacies. Contrary to what my writing might suggest, I am a private person, and knowing that certain information about me is freely available to anyone who might stumble across it makes me uncomfortable. The vulnerability of online exposure is infinite. The Internet is as permanent as it is ephemeral. Everything is archived somewhere, lurking. My disclosures won’t go out of print. They will never be truly erased. Sometimes, a stranger wants to know whether I was raped. Other times, a student in the hallway makes a casual reference to an old blog post I wrote about a gentleman friend making me breakfast after spending the night.
But however vulnerable it makes me feel, this permanency is not a bad thing. It certainly makes me think more carefully about what I say, and when and how I say it, because I don’t want to mindlessly contribute to the void. There is this assumption that Internet access qualifies anyone who has a way with words to expound on every topic. Some writers try. It’s not hard to make it seem like you’re an expert on the news of the day.
It would be easy for me, I sometimes think, to become one of those writers. These days, when culturally significant events happen—a tragedy, a scandal, a grave injustice—I often receive e-mails or Tweets or other messages asking whether I’m going to speak on what happened. It remains flattering and a bit of a thrill to be asked, to know that people want to hear what I have to say. Increasingly, though, I pause. I wait.
I don’t want to be one of those writers who responds to everything. If I write about something, I want to feel confident that I have something to say that makes sense. I want to be confident that I have a good reason for raising my voice. I want, in some small way, to make things better. I want to be better. I want to believe writing can be a catalyst for action, for demanding change with respect to racial, sexual, and gender equality or reproductive freedom or sexual violence or the diversity of literary or popular culture.
Sometimes we should write because we feel comfortable having something to say that might inform. Sometimes we should read so we might be better informed. I hope I always know which to choose.