I stopped writing about myself because of something she said. The exact words have left now, but the gist was that writing about myself had become my thing. The notion of having a thing makes me, even now, want to curl up into a hedgehog-shaped ball and roll back and forth catatonically with the occasional pithy phrase like “wieowwwowwwwowww” or “gnuhrnunrguhhh”. I trained myself when writing to elide the self, or subordinate it to some greater and more meaningful point about life, the universe, or cheese. So when I was told that all I was doing was writing about me, I felt hurt, and angry, and most of all ashamed.
There is part of us in everything we write. Fear – of being ridiculed, ignored like in primary school where my best friends were sandflies in the dust-bowl of our playground, or, worst of all, sympathised with – is what causes me to distance myself from my characters and plots and words. When asked if I was John Socrates, I laughed and said no, and only later realised the lie of my glib deflection. The paradox, for me at least, is that:
- I write to share of myself with the world; but
- I am mortally terrified of opening up to other people.
So for me, the words are a magic show, obfuscating with the very thing I’m seeking to hide. Why do I hide? I am ashamed because the friends who look up to me are already overtaking me in wealth and prestige; because I can’t hold a conversation without worrying about how smart, desirable and in-charge I sound; because I still love someone more than she will ever love me. I’m ashamed of my physical frailties but even more of how I exploit them, to artificially deepen first-date exchanges and justify my fearful choices and, most of all, grasp at the promise that I’m unique, I’m flawed but that makes me special. All the sleight-of-hand is just one big attempt to mitigate the feeling of cloying inadequacy that has no real place of origin.
I’m not John Socrates, Henri D’Avoir, the boy in black, or any other of the fatally flawed young men whom I delight in romanticising. I am all of them, and more. Pretending I’m not is to curl up and hedgehog against a truth that everyone else already instinctively grasps. Writing about myself will not bring me literary stardom or career progression or even Facebook likes; more likely it’ll bring criticism and sympathy and all those other feelings that are so terrifying. That’s okay, or at least it needs to be. For best effect, the words must be open, unflinching, and true. Because, as I’m starting to realise, what you write about is not as important as who you write for – and that apart from friends and family, kingmakers and strangers, and my dear beloved reader, I need to write for me.