I write all of you at once, a convenience of modern technology, and in a sense it is like sitting and taking coffee by your side. What I want to share is very personal, but you know how I am — I’ve never lacked candor. Ready? I have decided that a man’s libido must have an invisible umbilical cord that connects it to the New York Stock Exchange; I have no other way to account for the fact that I don’t recall the last time I was intimate with my husband …
The e-mail went on from there, running with the stocks theme and culminating in a full-frontal exposé of my impending sexual Great Depression.
Being a veteran of the internet world of oversharing, I haven’t felt morning-after-post shame in years. But the night after sending that missive to my mother and aunts, I have to admit that I had a moment of doubt. We are close, but they are, after all, a different generation and culture, one to which such disclosures are not only uncommon, but censured. Had I gone too far?
NARRATIVE AS ART
Why is there such a divide between students of literature and students of journalism? Don’t we share the same curiosity? Don’t we share the same attention to detail? Don’t we share the same medium? Book burning is a higher offense than flag burning. But we have no trouble tearing up newspapers to wrap things when we move, or to line the box of a new pet so it won’t piss on the floor. Books are the highest art and newsprint is a lesser art — if considered art at all.
I consider news writing art. It, like literature, has form, rhyme and reason. It, like literature, tells the human story. It, like literature, can unite us and divide us.
Where do blogs fit in all this?
My writer friends laugh at the idea of a blog as literature. I don’t. In the beginning, we carved hieroglyphs on the great walls of the Web. Now, we have more structure, we have codes, we see how those before us did it and build on what we learn from them. The blog has stopped being a repository of adolescent, underdeveloped feelings and has become a narrative, an exploration, and a journey.
This is a return to the great tradition of story-telling. Instead of sitting around the glowing fire and listening to the great stories of those who came before, we now sit in front of glowing boxes and share our own narratives.
“Art is important for it commemorates the seasons of the soul, or a special or tragic event in the soul’s journey. Art is not just for oneself, not just a marker of one’s own understanding. It is also a map for those who follow after us,” Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes in her classic work Women Who Run With The Wolves. “Stories are medicine […] They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act anything — we need only listen. The remedies for repair or reclamation of any lost psychic drive are contained in stories.”
FROM FEELING TO FORM
When Emily Gould coined the phrase “overshare” at Gawker, she gave a name to something we were all doing but as of yet had no real name for. According to Technorati’s State of the Blogophere 2008 report, 79 percent of bloggers are personal bloggers, meaning that they blog about topics of personal interest not associated with a blogger’s work. This is fertile ground for overshares.
While Technorati says that “confessional” blogging is not a priority among the top blogs they surveyed, their sample is limited to a thousand bloggers. The tag “life” beat “business” by 2,392 occurrences, and “technology” by 17,349 occurrences in the month of June alone.
There’s a difference, you say, picking out any one of the 133 million blog records indexed by Technorati. Not all of it is art. It can’t be.
“The best work speaks intimately to you even though it has been consciously made to speak intimately to thousands of others,” writes Jeanette Winterson in her essay Sexual Semiotics. “The bad writer believes that sincerity of feeling will be enough, and pins her faith on the power of experience. The true writer knows that feeling must give way to form. It is through the form, not in spite of, or accidental to it, that the most powerful emotions are let loose over the greatest number of people.”
As personal narrative began to take shape, the blog stopped being a repository of endless rants and started to become a place where we shared self and experience. Bloggers began to connect. In many personal blogs today, we are riding the current of experience, but we see the power of form and embrace it.
I can’t define art, but I know that art stimulates consciousness. Stories do.
Blogs are life stories.
There is a part in Curtis Sittenfeld’s book American Wife that haunts me. Alice has escaped from her alcoholic husband with her daughter and sought refuge at her mother’s house. One night, when they’re alone, Alice asks her mother if she and her father ever quarreled while he was alive.
“But you and Dad never had serious fights, did you? Where you considered ending the marriage?”
“That was much more unusual then.” My mother was threading the needle, not looking at me, and her tone remained even. Still, I’m sure she understood exactly what we were talking about.
“It’s not so uncommon to get a divorce now, but years ago, I didn’t know anyone who’d done it. I suppose the Conners were the first couple I knew — do you remember Hazel and William? People said he had a gambling problem. She was a nice lady though.”
My mother turned the canvas over, peering at a particular stitch.
“There were times when your father made me mad, but I can’t say the thought of leaving him ever crossed my mind. I suppose I made a decision –” She paused. “There was a good deal of conflict in my family growing up, and it wasn’t very pleasant to be around. It only causes more of the same — once people work themselves up, it hardly matters what the disagreement was about, does it? After I married, I decided if ever your father and I had a cross word, I’d meet him with kindness. I decided, if I think he’s wrong or if I think he’s right, I won’t try to prove it. I’ll remind him that I care for him in the hope it reminds him that he cares for me, too. I was fortunate because your father had a gentle nature.”
She looked up, offering a willfully bland smile. “Not every man does.”
I’m not encouraging to divorce Charlie, but if you do, I’ll understand — wasn’t that what she was saying more or less?
She had turned the canvas over again, she was stitching steadily, and I leaned in to look at it more closely. I said, “That’s going to be a beautiful pillow.”
My family is like this — not my parents, thankfully, but everybody else. It doesn’t matter if it’s the end of the world, if you ask any of them how they’re doing, the answer is invariably, “fabulous, darling!” Topics like grief, failure and dissatisfaction are not welcome — they’re to be quickly derailed and navigated into more pleasant subjects.
I wonder sometimes whether my parents were ever like this, too, whether they changed only because we moved. There are no secrets on the islands. If something goes wrong with anyone, you’ll know all about it — and pitch in however you can. Micronesia is a world that welcomes all comers regardless of heritage. The overhare is a social currency.
My grandparents undoubtedly think my sister and I were uncivilized by the natives.
They should see me shimmy up a coconut tree.
As with everything, detractors have risen across the blogosphere mocking those who dare to share in the same way that polite society once shunned those who dared to speak their truths, simple and complex.
But we have our voices and we’ve found courage in those who told their deeply personal stories before us. We’ve found kindred spirits who share our trials and we have opened our eyes to the realities that others are living.
THE GREAT SILENCE
In a post-Sex and the City world, we don’t seem to have a lot of trouble talking about our significant others. I know my friends and I never did. But I’ve noticed something funny in suburbia.
The rare spouse who mentions a quarrel or the slightest shred of displeasure at parenthood more often than not finds his words swept away as others wax poetic about how much they just adore their spouses and offspring.
I think it’s reckless to perpetuate this notion of a happily ever after. I hold silence responsible for much of the marriage malaise.
So when people ask me how marriage is, I say it’s a pain in the neck. It’s like taking care of a giant, ancient machine that can help you accomplish a lot of tasks in the emotional fulfillment department, but which constantly needs maintenance and calibration.
The question that preempted my overshare to my aunts was: “how’s the perfect marriage?”
My response was that it was anything but.
I thought perhaps I had crossed a line.
Then, in a few days’ time, the responses began to arrive. The things I found were startling. Truths and secrets began to come out. My willingness to expose my not-so-perfect marriage enabled some of the women I loved and respected the most to share in their own stories.
All of a sudden, we weren’t so alone.
SPLITTING THE WORLD
Every time we blog, we take a risk like the one I took in calling a congress of people together and laying yourself bare for them. It’s risky and largely indecorous by societal standards, not to mention that it leaves you vulnerable to anyone who cares to cast a stone as they walk by, but what is art if not an expression of self, and what is an expression of self, if not risk?
If for every twenty stones cast, someone silenced can feel they’ve been given a voice or know that at least they’re not alone, then throw those stones. It’s why I once decided to embrace the thankless career of the writer and why I blog today.
“In an age of awareness, perhaps the person you see most clearly is yourself,” says Clive Thompson in closing to his New York Times magazine piece about ambient awareness. But it’s much more than a personal journey because it’s not kept hidden under your mattress. It’s a generational journey, all of us making it together as more and more of us link to one another online.
I think Muriel Rukeyser was right when she wrote the following lines of Käthe Kollwitz: What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.
Women and men are splitting the world with their truths, one word at a time.