• Barbara L. Ciccarelli, PhD

How You Can Face Your Fears of Overexposure as a Writer

It is commonly thought that journaling, composing your thoughts and putting pen to paper, can be therapeutic. I don’t disagree. In fact, I’ve studied the art and theory of autobiography for years, especially related to trauma.

Furthermore, my academic and personal writing are practices that I link to my day to day rhythm. But as much as writing can soothe a troubled mind, it can also be nervewracking. You might say, however, that these moments are when you’ve touched a nerve, so the expression goes, and therefore are all a part of the aforementioned therapy.

I remember years ago that the ‘troubled mind’ I had was over the process of writing itself and that this process extended to a dilemma over my identity or so commonly referred to now as one’s personal brand. How can you solve the problem with writing when writing was at the core of the problem? But that is exactly what I have done. Let me explain.

Where it all started

I had my whole life only touched the surface of the world of creative writing except in two domains: my ex-husband’s MFA world and in my literature classrooms. Recovering from an illness and with time on my hands one day, I fancied I would write something creative with no instruction except for what you get from years of teaching students the ins and outs of the craft. I thought what better way to test my current talent than to submit to a number of contests, and that’s what I did. The results were not impressive unless you find a complete washout impressive. Soon after I started a job at a new university and let my ambitions for being a literary artist go.

A few years later I got the idea for a short story. I had never written one before, but I had read quite a few and they say writers learn a lot if not most from reading how others shape their craft.

I dove right in and it was my intention to fictionalize what was my version of the “truth.” But as you can guess that is a tall order when you are emotionally engaged with the real people behind the characters. What made me aware of the slippery slope of fictionalizing truth was giving the story to a few girlfriends to read.

After pushing “send,” I had a sudden and blazing reflection about their perspective on the story based on what they knew about me and how they viewed me. Some of the story was based on “truth” of course as they could tell from knowing me and my life so well, so it was just a hop, skip and a jump to believe the rest was also “truth.”

Writer’s panic

This sudden realization, which was also confirmed by a few follow up emails, didn’t sit well with me for many reasons. One reason was that it didn’t just involve me in the story, but others close to me. Another reason was that the assumptions seemed to take away from what was a very creative process. Finally, the realization brought to my attention how complicated the writing process really is and how little control you have over the reception of your creative works. This also opens up the discussion to the method of reading that depends on the biography of the author, a favorite among my students.

I haven’t shared the story with anyone else since nor have I attempted to write another short story. I felt exposed and boxed into a narrative that I had written myself. When tragedy strikes, you sometimes here the echo, “you did it to yourself!”.

Since then I have turned to blog writing for my own learning company website and here at medium publications, but even then, I can’t resist the return to personal narrative.

The search for truth

You have to ask if people are seeking out truth with both creative fiction and nonfiction. Isn’t anyone following the expectations of genre anymore? Does this move for regulation suggest a deeper issue of control that must be resolved, begging the question, how well can we really control our brand and does doing so go beyond the confines of the literary realm to the various modes of integrated international communication? In this day and age of social media, you can also ask who owns your personal brand? Is your personal brand just radiating from the posts you send or is it a collection of the added posts of countless others who admire or hate you?

How does one reconcile this dilemma of assumptions of truth when sharing creative writing? How do the best writers manage this dilemma? Ralph Ellison wrote in Advice to Writers,

“Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by.”

So the real seems to be a common goal for Ellison and seldom found in fiction. So what is it? Is my worry over the truth somewhat wasted then? After all, who is to say I have some grasp on my reality any more so than my friends (or others) have a grasp on it. Having said this, ownership of our narratives is so important in this day and age. Why shouldn’t I have ownership of mine?

Another writer, Jeff Goins writes regarding truth in fiction,

The fact is fiction is often closer to the truth than what surrounds us on a daily basis. Every day, we lie to ourselves to avoid facing the discomfort of our anxiety, hurt, and betrayal (just to name a few feelings). But the art of storytelling can bring those feelings front and center, forcing us to face them and deal with the truth. In other words, stories help us live again.

I agree with Goins, and it is perhaps a matter of revealing the “truth” he mentions that gave me so much cause for concern. I know now that creative writers must be at ease with sharing their vulnerability and be able to take ownership of that vulnerability. Clearly, this is a task all writers must seek to practice.

Then there is the even greater matter of, why write in the first place? Am I just trying to work through a dilemma, which is the way it seemed at the start, or am I writing for an audience that wants to make its own sense of what I’ve written, an audience whose interest I am only too lucky to have in the first place.

Attention to audience

With this in mind, another thing to consider with the reception of writing and my friends’ interpretations is that maybe it is not my secrets that are revealed but theirs. What I mean is, by telling their version of my story, they reveal something about themselves and perhaps how little or much they know about me.

It has been a while since I wrote that story and a few months ago I started writing for medium. It opened up a new opportunity to write in a multitude of ways and forms on different topics. Although none of it has been officially creative writing, I have implemented the wise process of considering my audience and imagining the reception from different angles. This is necessary to my state of mind but also acts as a great measure of what should be revised and improved.

I plan to revisit my above-mentioned fictional story one day as a reader and a writer, and when I go forth to write new stories, and I will, it will not be with fear but rather with a renewed sense of daring and adventure.

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