On Secrecy, Shaming, and the Bravery It Takes to be Genuine
A few weeks ago I was dithering around on FB, a place I mostly haunt without posting, as I am curious (nosy) about people’s lives, but a somewhat private (secretive) person. One of my friends posted this by a former MFA program instructor. I read it and thought, yeah, that’s probably pretty much what it’s like; I bet one must read a ton of poorly written stuff: how awful must that be?
As the ‘gateway’ person for my writers’ workshop, I am the first person anyone applying for entry must impress. Many apply; few enter. We’re not a group for beginners, or dabblers. Having gotten worn out critiquing poorly written space operas, fan fic zombie blood-fests, vampire sex/horror, and therapy-memoir in the local writers’ groups, as well as having to endure a handful of bullies and boors, two friends and I decided to start a group that vetted for experience and genre (and um…personality: There, I’ve said it). The resultant group of writers has taught me more than I learned in twenty college and university writing classes.
But, that is not what this post is about. I only bring it up to get to this: as the gatekeep, I read a lot of poorly written stuff. Even though our website states we are not a group for beginning writers, many still apply who are ignorant of the basics of writing. (Yes, I said ignorant – it’s not a bad word. Look it up. I am ignorant of many things. I can’t even say what I’m ignorant of, because I’m ignorant of that, too!)
But again, that is not what this post is about.
This post is about something I see in our society that disturbs me. It bothers me enough to write this post about it.
What bothers me is a tendency to shame people for expressing their truth. The truth of their experience as they experienced it.
Now, if you don’t know me very well, if you don’t read my blog, or don’t know me via Twitter, or in person, then you don’t know that, like Kerouac (and a lot of other folks), I happen to believe we live in heaven, right now—and simply don’t know it. This might even surprise some of my closest acquaintances. Like I said, I’m secretive. (I’ll say more about THAT in a bit.)
I believe we are all manifestations of the One. We are the One, in human form, having human lives. (Or cat lives, trees lives, dolphin lives – the One loves wondrous variety, as Morgan Freeman tells that little girl in that old Robin Hood movie, when she asks him why he is ‘painted’.) As human beings, we have human thoughts and emotions. It comes with the territory. One of the things I value most in individuals of my acquaintance, when I find it, is an ability to be honest and genuine. It’s a rare and precious quality: one I equate with bravery, and one I am consciously at work cultivating in myself.
If we are honest with ourselves we must admit we all have a dark side; a side that is not always so nice. We might never go so far as to share our unkind thoughts with the recipient or object. But it’s important to at least acknowledge to ourselves that we have them. Otherwise we are in for a big dollop of neurosis and self hate, which may manifest in some future unpleasantness for ourselves and others.
The unfortunate result of not recognizing and owning our own humanness is—we become tyrants about others’ behavior. We start to police their speech and thoughts. And it leads to shaming.
Shaming is one of the most insidious and toxic forms of bullying. In our current society it often manifests as holding ourselves up as superior in thought and deed. I saw this in action a few weeks back when the above mentioned post about the truth of what an instructor experienced while teaching an MFA program elicited a virtual tsunami of shaming directed at him (even Chuck Wendig jumped in to flog the guy’s back)—because he was honest about his experience. He quipped about how bad reading people’s memoirs of childhood abuse could be. Here is the offending paragraph in its entirety:
No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.
I worked with a number of students writing memoirs. One of my Real Deal students wrote a memoir that actually made me cry. He was a rare exception. For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.
This is something any comedian could say, and the audience would throw their heads back and chortle with squirmy empathy, recognizing their own inner darkness. Yet because it came from a former instructor, it garnered a lot of negative flack. But, here’s the thing; he was sharing a feeling he had, an exasperated feeling that came from reading so much bad writing along the same lines. I could go into how writing instructors should not have to be therapists, and shouldn’t be expected to enjoy reading the poorly written memoirs of so many abused ex-children, but I’m not going to do that here.
I will simply make note that if I am ever called upon to teach a writing course, stories of personal abuse are off the table. Go get the therapy somewhere else, and come back when you are healed and ready to write fiction.—See, that’s kind of snarky, isn’t it? I would never say such a thing to a classroom full of hopeful writers, and I bet he didn’t either. But, I thought it. And I shared it with you because I am human, and, unless you are some hamster that can read, you are human too. And THAT is what we have in common. That is what connects us: This human experience, where we have human thoughts, not always charitable, sometimes crazy or scary, if we can be honest – at least with ourselves.
We don’t act on them. If we are healthy we recognize them as frustration, or whatever, and let them go. We ALL have these thoughts, and perhaps we should stop shaming those who are brave enough to bare their souls and share them. Virginia Woolf said:
“you must illumine your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities”.
Words are powerful.
But humor is too. Maintaining a capacity to laugh at ourselves rather than beating ourselves (and others) up for every knee-jerk uncharitable thought is essential to staying mentally healthy, and fit as a nation of forward thinkers.
We need to stop shaming people who show us their humanness. If those who shame them direct their gaze inward what they may recognize is that what they are really feeling when they want to shut someone else up is fear. Fear of their own dark side. Anyone who claims to never have a dark thought is not being honest. The vehemence with which one defends against having a dark side is in direct proportion to our lack of self awareness, and neurosis. Neurosis is the result of a lie existing between who we really are, and who we feel we should be. Shaming leads to a neurotic populace—and guys with high-powered weapons shooting people from clock towers.
So, the next time you have an urge to shut someone up who isn’t directly hurting someone or urging someone to hurt themselves or someone else, ask yourself: what about this scares me?
And then deal with that.
Oh, and about my secretiveness? I was shamed a lot as a child. But I won’t ever make anyone read about it in a memoir.