A few years ago, after giving a reading, I invited questions. My friend Bonnie raised her hand. “You’re so private,” she said. “But you write so personally! You’re so open in your book!” She smiled, her voice affectionate, and yet in her question I heard astonishment and a twinge of hurt, as though I’d confided more in the blank page than I had in her.
And I had.
As a child, I found in writing not so much a friendly audience – which posited the Other – as a welcome reprieve from the Other. We lived in a neighborhood of kids and dogs, tricycles and backyards, and I loved to stay indoors, in my room, making up my own worlds. The integrity of those worlds – their very existence – depended on my being alone. Sure, I played make-believe with others, my best friend and I devising elaborate stories that we’d “send” to one another by leaving each installment in the roots of a tree across from her house. Sharing brought fun and often praise, but also danger and betrayal. Connection, sure, but connection fraught with risk.
Over time, friendships – such as Bonnie’s – provided safe havens more than obstacle courses, but my tendency to hold back remained, often hurting those I love. And even though my work was getting published, and thereby read by the Other, I continued to find freedom and even imperative in writing down what I couldn’t say – even to people I’d known for thirty years. So, when Bonnie read my book, she could read only a few pages at a time.
“It’s too intense,” she said. “Emotionally, it’s hard for me to read.”
Reading about my losses, I knew, reminded her of her own. But that wasn’t all. Bonnie knew, for example, of my battle with depression – she’d witnessed it – but she hadn’t known until she read my book that for days I didn’t go into my kitchen because I was afraid of the knives.
Over the years, I’ve dated men who’ve read my work. One fellow asked me, over tacos, how Dylan was doing, and I almost choked on my guacamole. How did he know my nephew’s name? He’d read my book. The rest of the date, I avoided eye contact, creeped out that he knew intimate details of my life when I couldn’t even pronounce his last name.
With others, I felt a kind of greasy, exhibitionist pleasure in knowing they’d read my words, followed the logic of my syntax, witnessed the drama of my past. I got to reveal without having to do any revealing – the book did it for me.
When I fell in love with my fiancé, I handed him a copy. He thanked me, and put it aside. “I want to read it, but I want to get to know you first, through you.”
A week or two later, a mutual friend asked him, “So, have you read her book?”
Later that night, as he reported this to me, I nodded. Then I saw from his face that he and I had interpreted the question differently. To me, it seemed natural, even innocuous. To him, it felt more loaded, suggestive – as though our mutual friend were hinting at deep, dark secrets buried in the pages. Don’t get too serious until you’ve read that book. The friend’s question, like Bonnie’s comment at the bookstore, implied the ways in which my book revealed more than I did.
“I’m nervous to read it,” he admitted. I knew why: the details of a past relationship, passionate but doomed.
“That’s only one chapter,” I said, and added, not very reassuringly, “there’s nothing in there you don’t know about.” I decided to unmask the bogeyman. I read aloud the first chapter. “It’s really good,” he said, and we turned off the light. Weeks turned to months, and the book sat untouched by the bed. One day, I realized that I’d made a surprising discovery: I no longer needed him to read my book.
The taco guy had helped me to see that someone’s having read my words doesn’t mean he knows me. And it tells me nothing about him. Sure, the book reveals a lot – but with my fiancé, I’ve done that myself, the old-fashioned way, step by step, just as he has revealed himself to me. Much more intimate, much riskier.
And now that we’re getting married, I’ve put the book back on his bedside pile.