Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
When I was in high school, someone congratulated me on being named a National Merit semifinalist. I said thank you and laughed out of embarrassment, but later that evening, I went to my parents with questions: How did that person know? Who told? My mom and dad didn't understand what my issue was. Maybe my grandparents said something, they told me, but what was the big deal? Everyone was just proud of me.
The big deal, I explained, was that my accolades were my business. I felt uncomfortable when people knew things about me that I hadn't revealed myself.
I still feel this way. Although I've become less guarded as I've gotten older, I remain a generally private person. I allow only friends and family to view my Instagram photos. I constantly ask people not to repeat things, which I usually follow up with "I know you won't -- I just have to say it." It's not that I'm shy, exactly, but I am very much an introvert. When the rabbi who's officiating my wedding asked me why I'm excited about marrying my fiancé, I said something brief about Ben's thoughtfulness before apologizing and saying I know how annoying it is to interview people who give one-sentence answers. I promised to be more forthcoming as the conversation went on, even though it felt a bit strange to talk at length about my relationship.
And yet I write about my life on the Internet.
"I didn't [write] it to help anybody. I did it for the money. I did it because I'm greedy and I like living in New York." I used to have this quote from memoirist Mary Karr on my Facebook profile. I liked the honesty of it. I appreciated the acknowledgment it's really expensive to live in New York, and there's nothing wrong with wanting to be paid for your words so you can afford your rent. Although I have written for free at times, most of my articles come about because of my job, for which I earn a salary.
But my reasons for divulging information about myself in such a public forum go beyond money, notoriety or even, yes, ego. Since Lena Dunham's HBO show, Girls, premiered in April 2012, I've been quoting her quite a bit, but allow me to do it yet again here because two things she said recently have really stuck. I went with my colleagues to hear her speak at the New Yorker Festival in the fall, and she explained her approach to writing like this: "It's really just hard to be alive so let's all gather round the fucking fire." And like this: "I do write hoping that my experience will resonate with other peoples' experiences. Then we can all feel less alone." That's at least in part why I do it too.
We can be so hard on ourselves, wondering why we can't just get it together, believing we would be so much better off if we could just be more like that stylish, put-together woman at the office or that friend who also manages to make it to the gym. Or we believe that the source of our discontent is trivial or impossible for anyone else to understand. So it's reassuring to read about someone's experience and having that "Oh, that person gets it" feeling. It's why, as I wrote in my list of "30 Things I Hope To Do After 30," I was so relieved to read that a respected writer like Wendy Wasserstein had felt stuck between childhood and adulthood, too. It wasn't just me.
Putting it on the Internet meant revealing something about myself that many people, even those I've known my entire life, didn't know. I was admittedly nervous. -- Lori Fradkin
I have to believe that the issues I'm wrestling with, no matter how big or small, whether they are a source of fear or pride or humor, will resonate with someone else out there.
The most confessional piece I've written so far was about my blackouts and my decision to cut way back on drinking. Putting it on the Internet meant revealing something about myself that many people, even those I've known my entire life, didn't know. I was admittedly nervous. But by the time I published the piece, I had accepted what happens to me when I consume alcohol, I had changed my behavior to avoid putting myself risk and I was proud that I'd dealt with it. I was more or less at peace with my experience. So, with some trepidation and very deliberate language, I told the world about what I'd gone through for years.
There were readers who told me I was in denial or that my way of managing the issue was doomed to fail, but I also got notes and comments from friends, acquaintances and strangers thanking me for opening up, telling me about their own terrifying nights and saying that it was comforting to know that they weren't the only ones.
"It's like I could have written this. The strangest thing that I encountered after making an effort to curb my drinking was the friends and family members who ENCOURAGED me to drink. They didn't think I had a problem."
"Lori, thanks so much for a great article that truly resonates with me. I have quit drinking too. Last time was 11/3/2011. I feel so much more clearer, energetic, skin looks better too. Plus I sleep better! I have blacked out many times too....almost set my apt on fire while burning some incense. Keep up the good work! Blessings, Donna L."
What an eye opener! I see myself in this article. Thanks for bringing things to light!
The comments section can be a nasty place, one some writers won't even visit anymore. And as many times as I've been told I shouldn't care what the anonymous reader leaving personal attacks on a weekday morning thinks of me or of my writing, I am not entirely immune to it. The more I've published online, the more I've learned to shrug off the meanness, but I can still be sensitive and self-doubting. So why do I even look? There's the curiosity factor, yes, but also the hope that what I say will resonate with people, that they'll feel that -- even if their lives are not what they want them to be at that moment -- they'll be okay. Someone else was once in their position and got through it.
Just like when I was in high school, I want to be in control of my narrative. I am selective about what I write about, both in terms of topic and the details I provide. But I've realized that not everything needs to be such a secret. The only way we can connect with one another is to find some common ground, and we can't do that if we keep quiet about our feelings and our experiences.
Nora Ephron's mother famously told her that "everything is copy" -- the words form the title of the upcoming documentary about her life. And while I'm not sure about everything with respect to my own life, I now find it's not only acceptable, but also important to me that some things are. Some things are definitely copy.
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Follow Lori Fradkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lorifradkin