by Jessie Lynn McMains
Many people have told me I’m bold, in my writing. That I’m brave to put my life on the page, on the screen, click print, hit ‘publish,’ and not care who might read it or what they might think of me afterwards. Many people have told me I seem to be an open book. They think because I write about personal, at times difficult, things, it means I don’t have any secrets.
This could not be further from the truth.
I carefully curate my secrets. I only write about certain things in certain ways, and then I carefully choose when and where I publish them. (If anywhere, if ever.) I have told some of my secrets, maybe even most of them…but there is still so much I’ve left out.
(Freak out / And give in)
I cloak things in fiction or poetic license. I fudge the details. I christen people with pseudonyms. I always wanted to be as brave as Jeff Miller of Ghost Pine zine, to have the courage to state: All stories true. Instead, the disclaimers in my zines read: None of this is fiction, but it’s all a lie. Or: None of this really happened, but it’s all TRUE.
This post is two days late because I freaked out. I started out writing a different piece; a (deeply) personal essay about my teenage years. Then I remembered that these posts are public, that my parents read them. And who knows who else might stumble across them? Being that I’m back in the town where many of those stories took place, it’s possible that someone who is in one of those reminiscences might read them. Even if I change their name and some identifying details—what if they recognize themselves? How would they feel about being part of a story that anyone can read?
(‘Cause deep down / They are frightened and they’re scared)
I get so scared of what my family, my spouse, my friends and acquaintances might think of the things I write. Of what they might think of me because of something I wrote. This may sound ridiculous, in the context of the essay I was going to post this week. After all, I’m almost 40. These particular things occurred decades ago. And I am very purposeful in the way I write about them; it’s not like I’m handing people pages of my teenage diary, sharing all of my secrets.
But then, it’s not so much about secrets, per se, as it is—maybe I don’t want to have that discussion right now. Maybe I want to write something and have it stand as it is, not have to process it further with my loved ones. Or: we all have many aspects to our personalities. We speak differently to our parents than we do to our significant others, differently to our significant others than we do to our friends, and differently to our friends than we do to a stranger in a barroom. Even if they ultimately all know almost everything about us, we reveal that information in different ways, at different times, depending on who we’re with. I find the same to be true in my writing.
It is easier for me to bare all of the weirdest, saddest, ugliest parts of myself to strangers than to my loved ones. Because strangers don’t have any preconceived notions about me that could be shattered by my true confessions. Because even if a stranger is upset by what they find in my writing, it is an impersonal upset. They may be against everything I stand for, but they don’t know me, so they can’t be disappointed in me. Nor can they be hurt by what they find of themselves.
I’ve hurt people with things I’ve written. I’ve hurt people by what I’ve revealed of myself, and what I’ve kept hidden. I’ve hurt people with the ways I’ve portrayed them; by using them as the raw material for my art.
(Let me out)
Like when [redacted] said: “Why did you [redacted] in that story you wrote? It makes me feel [redacted].”
(Let, let me out)
Anne Lamott writes: You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.
I agree, but…there are times I have written warmly about someone and they were still upset by what I said. And anyway, most of the things I am afraid to reveal have more to do with me behaving badly. Or not even behaving—sometimes the things that are scariest to write are not about what I’ve done. Sometimes they’re about what I wanted to do but never actually did, about what I thought, what I felt. Sometimes, those are my darkest secrets.
(Tell me all of your secrets)
Where do you draw the line?
Anyone who writes from their own life (and all writers do, to some extent, though it’s less obvious with some of us than others) will wind up writing of their own transgressions. They will wind up writing of the people they’ve known. And sometimes, they will draw from the lives of those people, and that can hurt, too. Say you write of a shared experience, and the other person(s) involved don’t remember it the same way you do. Or: what if it wasn’t even your experience to begin with? What if someone tells you something and it gets inside you, and bounces off some vague shape you already had in there, and the two meld together into a third form—into a story or a poem, say? If someone tells you something and it resonates, is it then yours to use?
Yes, no, maybe so.
(Cannot help but believe this is true)
Does it depend on how much you’ve altered it, made it your own? Or does changing it too much make it even worse—daring to write about someone else’s feelings or experiences and not even being faithful to their truth?
And what if you don’t even remember whose life you’re borrowing? What if it was someone you met only once; something you heard a long, long time ago. What then? I am certain people have told me things I wound up putting in my writing without even remembering that those things weren’t mine to use.
(Should have listened when I was told)
I don’t think it’s always a bad thing, this impulse many of us have to protect the feelings of those we are closest to. But I do know if we don’t find a way around it, through it, we’ll never write the things we have the most burning need to write, at least never in a form that anyone else can read. I don’t have any answers as to how we get through it, only more questions. How do we remain both righteous and bold? How do we know which things we’ve received from others are okay to share, and which should be kept safe in our hearts? How do we tell our own secrets without hurting those we love?
I don’t know, but oh, I want to learn. I want to tell everything when I am ready to tell it, to not hold back for fear of who I might upset. I don’t want to stay here, locked tight inside this dusty blue chest with only these piles of old coffee-stained diaries for company.
Let me out)
All the italicized text that’s in parentheses between the main paragraphs is from the Smashing Pumpkins song “Cherub Rock.” I got it stuck in my head as I was writing this, and realized a lot of the lyrics worked as a through-line for the piece.