I've always been very concerned about what people think of me. I come from a long line of anxious people. I have more memories than I can count of the terror that welled up when my dad asked me to run into the cleaners and pick up his pressed shirts or at the prospect of having to order a pizza over the phone.
Much of my social anxiety has eased as I've gotten older. Part of it is probably living in a city and constantly having those small interactions I used to fear. Part of it is that even though I feel anxious or nervous, I usually push myself to do the thing causing the anxiety anyway (a form of immersion therapy perhaps). My experience with anxiety is only a fraction of what others experience. It's an illness that many people suffer from and one that can be debilitating and exhausting.
Although anxiety still rears its ugly head in my day-to-day life, it presents a greater roadblock in my writing. When I sit down to write, I fear what people will say about it, how people will react, and that I'm sharing too much. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic, does a good job of talking about the core of my discomfort with writing in episode one of her podcast Magic Lessons: fear of speaking your truth. She gives the following advice to a writer who is afraid of the backlash from her family that may come about from revealing personal experiences.
"There is the book that you must write and then there is the book that you can publish. And those may be two different books."
The question for me is, how much do I share?
In So Sad Today, an essay collection by poet Melissa Broder, she shares it all — sex, depression and anxiety, disordered eating, addiction, an open marriage — and writes about her experiences in a stream of dark humor and bawdy honesty. I connected most with her writing about her anxiety.
"One day I was at my desk at work feeling like I was definitely dying. Again. I thought the words 'So Sad Today.' I logged into an old Twitter account I had made that summer and never used and just started tweeting what I was feeling."
Broder's Tweets feel raw but are always masked with humor — a subject she grapples with in many of her essays.
In "Under the Anxiety is Sadness but Who Would Go Under There," Broder writes about her anonymous Tweets.
"But there was something about the visceral impact of sending what I was feeling out into the universe that felt different than just writing in a journal. It gave me relief. Maybe it was just the dopamine of hitting Send..."
When I published a piece anonymously recently, I felt a rush, too, at seeing the shares and comments materialize. My essay struck up a dialogue. People were pointing out things I hadn't considered. They were discussing the broader implications and sharing their own experiences. But there was also the twinge in my heart when more flippant comments came in.
Over-thinking much? Yes, yes I am.
I feel like this isn't a thing? I don't know... I could be wrong.
To share anonymously provides a protective shield. It is easier to distance yourself from your writing. And in this age, it is easier to view online writing especially as just page views. But inherently in nonfiction, in print or online, sharing is risky.
In her essays, the deep pain that Broder feels is smoothed over with the vernacular of texting and the internet, witticisms, and shocking language. One essay is a transcript of a Google Hangout with her "higher self." Another is her responses to an internet quiz on internet addiction. She has it.
Broder says in "Keep Your Friends Close But Your Anxiety Closer,"
"Like, right now I'm scared that I'm not being funny in this essay. I'm not wearing my mask... The mask says: You don't have to worry about me. I've still got it together enough to get outside the anxiety and be funny."
Humor is her mask — her way of mitigating the risk of opening up.
There are also more narrative essays in the collection that, while still being profane, are revealing and vulnerable. In "I Told You Not to Get the Knish: Thoughts on Open Marriage and Illness," Broder tells about broaching the subject of writing about her husband with him. For Broder, her husband was tentative, but not wanting to corral his wife's art, he requested she change his name to Ron Jeremy. As she says in the essay, he hoped changing his name would provide "some autonomy — some distance — from this essay."
That makes sense to me. Changing names provides distance. And discussing her writing with her husband resulted in receiving a blessing from him to write Broder's truth — as painful as the subject matter might be.
For Broder, her motives are to connect.
"All I want from you is to be liked. Of course, that is a scared woman's way of saying what I really want, which is to connect with you on a deep and true level while I am still on this earth, and maybe even after I am off it."
For me, connection is part of it. But there are also some experiences gnawing at me, telling me, "You need to write about this because writing is the way that you make sense of things." Understanding is my motivation.
In her podcast, Elizabeth Gilbert goes on to say to the writer who is afraid:
"Write the book that you need to write. There are parts of books that I have written and then I went back later and said I don't really want to deal with the nuclear fallout of telling this story publicly, but I'm really glad I told it privately. So I'm just going to cut and take that right out of the book. But I know that I said it."
The answers to the questions of how much to share, whether to do it anonymously, and how to deal with the anxiety of baring it all on the page are personal and are things I will have to figure out for myself. But there is so much to learn from the women out there like Melissa Broder who have written and are writing their truth. As Broder says, "Anonymity is freedom." There is also freedom in just telling my story for myself because I'll know I said it.