This past weekend, two different people said to me the exact same sentence: “Just don’t write about this.” Both made this statement immediately after sharing deeply personal information about themselves.
Of course, I pledged my confidentiality without hesitation. But I was intrigued that both individuals – whom I’ve known for different lengths of time and in completely separate contexts – felt the need to “state for the record” that I did not have permission to memorialize their personal lives. Does this mean I have achieved some kind of writing milestone, when friends and family start to recognize the potential dangers of confiding in a storyteller? Have I arrived as a writer?
I admit I am flattered.
David Sedaris wrote a great story called “Repeat After Me”, in which he swears total secrecy to his sister even as he reaches for his notepad. I too often reach for my mental notepad when friends divulge their most difficult personal struggles. They talk about their troubled marriages, sick children, chronic health problems, heartbreak, depression, and mental illness. Their stories are deep and often dark, at times humorous, always compelling. They are the stuff that shows like This American Life and The Moth storytelling series are made of. They are Real Life.
But they are not my stories to tell.
For me, it is liberating to transform an embarrassing or painful memory into an experience I can share with others. By making myself vulnerable, I can make myself stronger. I can mine humor from humiliation, relief from anxiety. Because we are all struggling with Something.
I recently wrote an essay about the stigma of crying in public, revealing my own mortifying experience of breaking down into tears in the middle of a busy train station. Last week, my local public radio station KQED aired an excerpt of the longer piece as part of their Perspectives segment. My topic hit a nerve, as evidenced by the feedback I’ve received from friends, colleagues, and strangers chronicling similar incidents in their own lives. I will refrain from repeating their stories here, but suffice it to say, I was not alone in my suffering. And now, neither are they.
When we share our experiences, we share ourselves. We create community. We feel a little less alone. I encourage every one of you to speak up. Or at least write it down.
But rest assured, I promise to keep your secrets, well…secret.