Vulnerability and over-sharing.
During my Leaving Cert years, I always looked forward to English classes. Studying was generally interesting and it prompted me to look deeper into literature, a passion I have to this day. Within the subject though, I had a love/hate relationship with poetry. One poet in particular drew my attention to it, and since then my awareness of this irk has never disappeared.
This poet’s writing was far too personal. She detailed life experiences and personal relationships extensively. Of course, all artists draw from personal experiences and interactions with the world in one way or another, it’s how art is created. But when crafting a largely exclusive worldview of yours, while still under the pretense of being relatable to all readers, it becomes frustrating to read. Constant references to people we don’t know, at varying levels of intimacy, deeply personal expression on subject matters — when I was asked what my impression was of her poems, I wondered out loud why she didn’t just keep a diary. I too have written poems for friends and family on special occasions, but I do not publish them, no matter how much I believe a reader could share in my love for the person. While her work was lauded as emotionally raw and vulnerable, I saw it as imposing over-sharing. She is a great poet, and I admire her work greatly, but it does not sit well with me. As writers, when we invite people into our world, it is to paint a picture of the world around them, including them in it and sharing with them. Not to throw up names and stories and memories in passing, elaborate on them with extreme specificity with great patches of background knowledge missing, as if telling a memory to a complete stranger and remarking, ‘you had to be there’.
On another level, I found her vulnerability intriguing, because I doubt I could ever truly match the openness with which many artists, not just herself, express themselves.
In-person, I am a bottler, but through writing, I express many of my emotions on a level I find hard to comfortably explore in real life. In journaling, I write personally, processing my emotions and day-to-day happenings. With fiction, I can spin my daydreams into scenarios and small parts of myself into whole characters. Creative non-fiction feels like a script for a TED talk, and my essays are open letters to the world, expressing my two pence on matters far greater than me. Whether it is personal or not, writing is cathartic and therapeutic for me, and spells without writing feel like heavy shoulders and a burdened mind, until I am itching to pick up the figurative pen once again.
The set-up might seem quite simple: expressing less in real life, and writing instead. I wish it were. I am still limited by my fear of vulnerability and my self-imposed boundaries of sharing.
What I’m trying to avoid is that feeling we get when we see a tweet or Facebook status that’s far too personal; we think ‘I shouldn’t be reading this’, ‘this is embarrassing’, or ‘why did they put this up in public?’
Different emotions and experiences get different responses. Sharing moments of joy and contentment are usually met with warmth, and maybe some jealousy. Sharing gross or graphic information is usually met with a combination of intrigue and disgust, sometimes sympathy, depending greatly on the nature of what is shared. For example, a post-surgery recovery post is far more tolerable than descriptions of bowel movements and bodily fluids. Sharing ‘negative’ emotions is generally a losing game. If related to deeper mental health issues, they are very stigmatised — anxiety, depression, trauma and the likes are not for the dining table. If to do with passing sadness, disappointments, break-ups, failed exams and bad days, there is the risk of sounding whiny and ungrateful, and the deadly possibility of over-sharing. If it’s a shared grievance, anger, a loss or a social justice issue, it will likely be met with more sympathy and agreement. This is a simplified demonstration of the unspoken balance that is considered by the self-conscious when posting with emotional vulnerability.
Then there is also the issue of audience. Speaking your mind and clearing your chest in public is a landmine too. Writing about wanting to move out, only for your family to read it and feel deeply hurt. Writing about loneliness at the risk of seeming ungrateful for your friends. Writing honestly about academia or your workplace, with the possibility that an employer or co-worker could discover your real thoughts about your situation. Then there are misunderstandings; the many ‘are you okay?’s and the misreading of tones that affect people’s previously held notions of who you are. Basically, forgetting who your friend is on Facebook could have a lot of social fallout, so reaction prediction is quite a necessary science.
Again, what I’m trying to avoid is that feeling we get when we see a tweet or status that’s far too personal; we think ‘I shouldn’t be reading this’, ‘this is embarrassing’ or ‘why did they put this up in public?’
After a brief hiatus writing and posting on Medium, I emerged from the throes of burnout brimming with pieces to write. As the words flowed, I was slightly surprised to notice the tones and themes being far more personal than I was used to. That was saying something given that my writing has always been an intensely emotional affair. As a result of this, I started reflecting on why the thought of publishing personal writing was the small fear it was in my head. So of course, I debated with myself and concluded on the following musings.
As a young writer, with not too many notches in my belt, I take every good word I can get. I find it hard to relegate my best wordcraft to the realm of unpublished goods simply because of my dislike for vulnerability. Indeed, some of, if not most, of the best literature is inspired by or describing emotions in their purest sense. Love is an example. Leaving the sufferer helpless and with sensibilities slightly off-kilter, it is a very unshielded state to be in. But is exactly this carefree smitten state of adoration that produces profound poetic genius, the confines of creativity are loosened greatly by infatuation. Another example can be taken following on from this — heartbreak and loss. The afflicted person is so broken, it seems almost disrespectful to see them in that state, peering into their open wounds. What we might approach with abashment, could be used as fuel for incredibly dramatic, dark, and expressive paintings of the world. Good writing flows from the unregulated streams of personal experience and emotions, and fear of expressing this holds the world back from what could be amazing literature.
There are certain things that I see on the internet that make me want to speak to the person who posted and tell them gently: ‘sometimes we think things, but we don’t always have to say these things out loud, and that’s okay’. I think that online spaces have made many people feel entitled to always say their piece, exacerbated by a culture with a strong emphasis on ‘using your voice’ and ‘expressing yourself’. These are great values, of course, but the effects are questionable. The endless concern to express oneself can lead very quickly to a self-centred attitude. There’s less reflection on what is being said and what it contributes, and more focus on having the right to talk and share. This doesn’t only apply to snappy social media posts, but also affects art. The time needed to craft and perfect a piece to display is being compromised for the desire to produce and leave a mark and be the first and loudest voice. Increasingly unaware of realities that aren’t your own, narcissism kicks in, with doses of ingratitude and insensitivity for good measure. I found myself musing on online learning for university, steeping in my echo chamber so deeply that my inner voice said at one point, ‘I might be having the worst university experience ever’. Reading an interview with survivors of a gun attack at Kabul University made me question myself, to say the least. I reiterate that the realities and intensities of living and feeling are fabulous and authentic foundations for any art, and people ought to celebrate small victories and mourn small tragedies and express themselves vulnerably as much as they want. But a lack of self-awareness or perspective makes for tasteless and unrefined productions.
Writing, and particularly the skill of articulation are very powerful modes of expression. Most written things have some degree of permanence, you can read and re-read a line or paragraph many times, unlike a word spoken in passing. I find that written pieces resonate with me deeply, and I have the time and liberty to read and identify myself with a described situation. The anonymity of reading a help forum and seeing others narrate their experiences and give advice on how they overcame and adapted to situations is empowering and comforting. I also find that reading fiction and personal essays greatly increases my empathy. I’d like to believe that by expressing deeper and more emotional experiences and scenarios creatively, it could be someone’s comfort, knowing that they’re not alone, or sensitivity training, or even simply the chance to know more about what a stranger on the internet decides is important enough to pen.
There is dignity in privacy and self-sufficiency. Practicing Muslims are incredibly wary of assuming a victim mentality or complaining excessively, and I like to consider myself among this category. In the context of modern guidance of mental health, the idea of keeping your problems to yourself and hesitance to share your emotions is met with alarm. Islamically, suffering in silence and distancing oneself from help and positive encouragement isn’t encouraged either, but there is a marked principle of trusting in God and discouragement of complaining and lamenting in public.
Consider the following narrations from within the Islamic tradition:
‘He replied, “I complain of my anguish and sorrow only to Allah’… (12:86)
‘The eyes send their tears and the heart is saddened, but we do not say anything except that which pleases our Lord’… (hadith)
Imam Dhahabi’s praise for ‘one who cries at night [to Allah] and smiles during the day [to the people]’ in Siyar A’lam al-Nubala, a work based on the lives of noble Muslim figures.
We see this when Prophet Moses counsels his people to thank God while they are still in desperate need. Or when Prophet Jonah realises how his own faults led him to his trials. Or when Prophet Job, suffering from great physical distress and illness, says that he has only been ‘touched’ by hardship. Or when Prophet Abraham endures the many abuses of his people when coming with the message of monotheism, as do other prophets.
They approached their many hardships without the need to publish their suffering. That being said, they celebrated their triumphs over adversity with gratitude and praise, mentioning the favours of God on their situations. And this is also not to say that righteous people simply prayed, gritted their teeth and faced their hardships alone, there are various instances of support systems mentioned in the stories of prophets. Adam, of course, had Eve. Moses was supported by Aaron. Joseph turned to his father, Jacob, and to fellow prisoners. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), had his wives Khadija and A’isha. These were close relations that provided comfort and love as a respite from the harsh world and were the coolness of the prophets’ eyes.
Confidants and close companions are a recurring theme in the Qur’an. But as much as they are credited with the potential to share warmth and mercy, there are also warnings that not everyone wants the best for others.
This is where I draw the most of my guidance on what I publicise, the principles of dignified resilience, celebrating God’s blessings, and a mindful cautiousness about the type of information I share and who it might reach. And general non-whininess.
The following lines from a traditional song sung in Spanish stood out to me when I first heard them:
has visto morir el sol por los rayos de la tarde
así me he de morir yo, sin dar mis quejas a nadie
This translates roughly to: ‘you have seen the sun die by the evening rays, as such/similarly I have to die (too), without giving my complaints to anybody’. Personal writing and vulnerability mean that over time, readers could know you on a most intimate level, piecing together your insecurities, what keeps you up at night and what sets your soul on fire. The idea of keeping myself to myself and living and passing on quietly is quite appealing in this sense, poeticised like the setting of the sun. But then again, that lyric that I love so much is taken from a fiery lament on love and separation, itself written, sung, and by all definitions, public.