“Do you know what a poem is, Esther?”
“No, what?” I would say.
“A piece of dust.” (Sylvia Plath)
We exist in an odd shell. Fragility is a rich, red blood and society is a shark – but you’re protected by a shark net. You’re just bleeding out in the ocean, dying slowly, whilst the predators circle you menacingly without knowing how to attack. Emotion spills out of us like those electric red laser beams robbers have to duck and leap through to get the jewel in the centre – except the jewel in the centre is smooth efficiency and the robbers are our workplaces and broader society. It’s masculine, it’s capitalist, and, when you stop to consider its implications, this ideology we obey like soldiers is downright heartless. Kris Christou has shaped this complex ideology into one sentence:
The stigma attached to vulnerability in society is extremely insensitive and inherently wrong (The Clear Pane of Soundproof Glass).
People don’t know how to react to what Michael Adams calls heart stuff. He won the 2017 Calibre Prize for his essay Salt Blood about freediving, suicide and family. If anybody has a firm grasp on navigating the terrain of stark vulnerability, it’s Michael. He reflected on a personal story he once narrated to an audience:
You kind of spill your innards and they politely clap at the end . . .they don’t know how to respond.
I think this is why we are so scared of vulnerability; we don’t seem to see it much and therefore we do not understand what is ‘expected’ of us in response. The sheer irony is that we all have these vulnerabilities and, if they were expressed more, perhaps we would all be more confident in dealing with others’. This notion of sonder: that every person has an intricate, flame-filled life as deep as our own, was discussed by Maddy Cook in her post The Value in Life:
Perhaps if a few more people had this realisation, and could acknowledge that others around them are going through issues and break ups and family problems and cancer and mental illnesses… maybe the world would be a bit more compassionate?
Writing in Public: A Brief Recap
I wrote The Antagonist was a Good Man, a recap of the influence of family violence on my life. I then published a literature review which discussed the ways in which we conduct autoethnographic analysis on ‘tabooed’ narrative topics, including domestic violence and suicide. It is a Fragile Promise sprung from a class discussion on the workplace implications of what we write online. In this piece I ended with the tentative conclusion that if a potential employer wants to use my personal stories in a decision to hire me, he or she is most welcome. I just don’t think that threat is a good enough reason to stay silent.
Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you – George R. R. Martin
I’ve found it difficult to move on from this; not possessing an answer to the questions of public writing feels kind of like I’ve been gagged. I’m beginning to accept that there probably won’t be a straightforward answer whilst the internet maintains its current constitution, as much as my inner mathematician (my alter ego who is allergic to grey) struggles with this.
I attempted to break down the questions I am asking to figure out where my thoughts should travel next.
I started with a heading and followed my thoughts via words and arrows. I tried to answer each question with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. However I was left with three unanswered questions, which I’ve highlighted.
- Given that I cannot completely control who reads my work on the internet, is this a good enough reason to not publish?
- What happens if ‘the antagonist’ comes across these posts?
- If not the internet, where?
I believe silence is a dangerous sound. Do you remember those huge, rainbow parachutes we used to run under in primary school? The teacher would yell “one, two, three!” and we’d wave it in the air. Twenty-something six-year-olds would then run frantically underneath, trying to secure a handle on the opposite side.
That moment of chaos, when each person is running at each other, ducking and weaving to reach the other side. That moment reminds me of silence. I don’t mean the peaceful, sleepy kind, I am thinking about the silence that lazily sits back to watch chaos ensue. Is it fear? Avoidance of conflict? Why are we so resistant to tell bad stories? Why are we so resistant to hearing them?
Forming a decision to not publish my stories on the basis of ‘not knowing who might read them’ feels like silence to me. It feels like I’m the kid holding up the parachute, letting potentially dangerous events unfold. When I’m lifting up the handles, I can see parents screaming at each other, small children screaming. A teenage boy seizes a bottle of Jim Beam and sprints outside in fury. He empties the entire bottle onto the garden. His father is livid. We need to drop the parachute, break the harsh silence and burn the stigma. Advocacy in public writing is a new concept for me and I will touch upon it in a later paragraph.
I can’t control who reads my writing once it’s posted online – but there are steps I can take. I would never post certain pieces on Facebook; it’s too populated. My family, friends, colleagues and more exist there. Everybody knows who I am. On Twitter, I am far more comfortable sharing my thoughts. It’s less persona-based and more of a conversation-driving platform. This means that outside my following, most people who come across my work are searching for something of that nature specifically. On Reddit, this is even more true. Reddit is driven by a culture of anonymity and it values information above persona. This means that those who read my work are reading it, and will inherently judge it, based upon the value of its content, rather than because I wrote it.
Choosing to share my work on Reddit and Twitter is hardly a foolproof mechanism, but it’s something. I drew the above graph to articulate my current thoughts: as the level of persona on a social media platform decreases, the ‘safety’ of posting public writing increases.
What would happen if my own antagonist came across some of my recent posts? I think it would hurt him. He would recognise it as truth, he would recognise it as a pain that he caused. Maybe it would strike up a conversation that’s never been had. Honestly, I’m not sure it would be a good thing. A lot of silence exists in my family – but I think it should stay this way.
My writing stays in my drawer. It’s dusty in there, but it’s where my stories live. This made me remember a theme that interestingly appears across several of Sylvia Plath’s poems; the bureau drawer:
From The Bell Jar:
There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth
From A Secret:
An illegitimate baby-
That big blue head-
How it breathes in the bureau drawer!
‘Is that lingerie, pet?
I adore this concept. It’s secretive and mystical, it’s feminine and it’s planted firmly in my mind as I plan the rebranding of this blog. We put things in a drawer because it is convenient, neat or they need a home. Sometimes we put things in drawers to hide them.
Despite admiring the concept of hidden words in a bureau drawer, I want my words to be more than that.
And . . . Four
Kate Bowles has nudged me to consider a fourth question; who is it for? There’s a process by which experience shifts from therapeutic writing to advocacy. But this is tough when your story includes someone else’s story. Advocacy isn’t something I’d come to consider until now. Has my writing unintentionally shifted from the therapeutic to the advocator? What am I advocating for?
In Finding a Voice: Without Apology, Tanya Dorey-Elias reflects on her experience of public writing with anonymity, and on her experience with the internet as a safe space:
It’s been positive but not without some bumps and at times terror – once something is exposed it is not easily hidden again . . . If there is one thing that this experiment has taught me is the need, at least for me is that open only matters if it challenges and empowers.
Right now I don’t have an answer for this question – nor the other three, for that matter. I’m content to sit with this and think for a while longer.
At this point in my early public writing career, and after having read several intriguing and thoughtful BCM311 blog posts this week, I’d like to think I’m becoming an advocate for empathy. If that’s not a legitimate entity, perhaps it should be. Every person has stories which are impacting them in various different ways as they carry forward with their lives.