“Would We Lie to You?”: No Longer Private

[Another entry in the ongoing blog "Would We Lie To You?: News from the Non-Fiction Career Lab"]

by Molly Howes

My practice as a clinical psychologist has, across many years, provided a peculiar version of privacy: I am often intensely focused on another person in an intimate connection. I am strongly present in that real human relationship. But I am also separate, because my own life is largely extraneous to the work we are doing. The time-honored “blank slate” of the therapist requires me to keep information about myself out of the patient’s way.

When I started writing, I composed quiet stories, musings about my personal history, my inner world, and my private reactions to the hurdles and heartbreaks I encountered. In contrast to my outside life full of people, writing won me solitude and silence.

Alone or with someone else, I seek to understand my experience by trying to capture it in words. Although often uncomfortable, especially when I’m finding my way through confusing material or facing hard truths, writing is akin to what I’ve tried to do in my own therapy; what I’ve done in journals my whole life; what I’ve what I’ve done with a close friend on a long, rambling walk or leaning over coffee – or gin. Writing in particular preserves the choice of whether or to whom I will tell my most shameful stories. Even workshopping my secrets around a conference room table, others pawing through them, keeps them corralled in the writerly world, safe from the public.

But publishing – especially personal writing, essays, memoir pieces – is suddenly, blazingly public. Someone once told me that showing her writing to the world felt like walking around naked on a stage with a tampon string hanging out.

Submitting a “Modern Love” column to the New York Times, I thought about people I knew who would probably read it, should it be published. I figured they would mostly be a friendly crowd to whom I would forward it myself. I didn’t consider the huge number of other people, people whose names and intentions I know nothing about. As soon as it was accepted, though, I felt like I had been tootling gently along in my canoe, and then suddenly had hit the rapids. My sense of relationship to “the public” changed. I also began to look to others like a real writer.

At Grub Street, I’m learning more about the world of publishing. As I do, it gets harder to remember that getting published isn’t why I started writing. It still isn’t mostly why I write. Don’t get me wrong: I want to be published. (In a previous “Would We Lie to You” blog post, I detailed my frustration with the low rate of success I was achieving and the self-doubt that said rate induces.) But I am surprised to find myself here, on the shores of emerging-writer land, getting somewhat accustomed to telling lots of people lots of stuff about my life.

Behind the opaque shield my profession provides, I have not had to deal much with the consequences of public self-revelation. I haven’t even had a Facebook account. Now I am shifting from that quiet place into a public arena where I tell stories seeded by my private experiences. I declare my identity in a more public way than I ever thought I would and it bothers me less than I ever thought it would.

Unexpected consequences do arise: When I made a significant revelation about my childhood in another “Would We Lie to You?” post, I was surprised by the people who had seen it. More than one, including a current patient, described feeling like they had seen something personal I had not meant them to see. Although I hadn’t meant for them in particular to learn about me in this way, I was the one who wrote it and put it out there, by choice. They were the ones who read it, by choice. As a result, we now have more complicated things to talk about, and the revealing/discovery turns out to be way more good than bad.

As writers, we are taught to follow the deepest, most important, most compelling truths we can find. That’s a private process. Are those the things I want the world to know? Why do I tell the world about myself at all? The closest I have come to an answer is that it isn’t the information itself I want to display; rather, I want to share the product of examining and exploring and re-assessing and stewing about that information. I want to put to use the facts that happen to constitute my life, more than I want to hide them.

I want people to read what I write and then think something they didn’t think a few minutes earlier. Or feel something different. Or write something back.

Molly Howes’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in New York Times “Modern Love,” the Boston Globe Magazine, Bellingham Review, Tampa Review, and Marco Polo Arts Magazine. She is a 2013 MacDowell Fellow. Having loved the intense workload and camaraderie of the Nonfiction Career Lab at Grub Street, she has just begun the yearlong Memoir Incubator program. 


About the Author

GrubWrites is a space for the writing and reading community to share ideas and seek advice, a place where writers at the very beginning of their careers publish alongside established authors. Book lovers, we bring you reviews, recommendations, and conversations with exciting new authors to keep you up to speed on all things lit. Writers, this is your one stop shop for expert craft talk, opinions on how we learn and teach writing, and essential advice about the publishing industry.

Plus, we want to hear from you! Our ongoing call for submissions is open to literary community members of all types and persuasions. We want to hear from students, teachers, authors, readers, editors, agents, publicists, and any devotee of the written word. If you have something to say about writing, reading, the publishing industry, or anything related to the literary world, this is the place to voice it. We’re particularly committed to advocating for a diverse range of voices in the literary marketplace and raising the visibility of writers from under-represented communities.

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