When You Write What Scares You—And Then See It in Print
July 23, 2019 § 25 Comments
By Diane Gottlieb
An essay I wrote was just published last week. It was my third publication, the first that will appear both online and in print. You’d think I’d be thrilled.
Part of me was. I had worked this shorty (432 words) for about two years, off and on. I’m proud of it. It’s tight. Honest. And it’s … personal. Very, very personal.
That’s the part that’s got me.
I’m fifty-eight years old, and while I’ve come to writing late, I’ve brought with me many rich stories. I’ve led a full life, with lots of joy and a fair amount of pain, neither of which I’ve ever been shy about sharing. Yet, seeing this particular piece, all 432 words of it, triggered me in a way I hadn’t expected. I felt naked. Exposed. I felt shame.
Why is it so hard to tell our stories? I take that back. Why is it so hard to have our stories heard?
The piece is about a time after surgery, when I spent two days in a morphine-induced haze. I had just had a hysterectomy, that I needed because I had cervical cancer, that developed because of a run-away STD, that my first husband so generously gifted me—the same STD that the woman with whom he was having an affair had shared with him. Yes. Ouch.
I’m not the first woman to have been betrayed by a husband; not the first to have had an STD, a hysterectomy, or cancer, for that matter. Not even close.
And if there’s any shame to carry in this story, it’s certainly not mine. Yet, carry it I do. I carry it like something precious, or like so many heavy stones.
Putting this story out into the world will not hurt anyone. My husband died almost fifteen years ago, and the woman he was sleeping with left both our lives a long time before that. Hurting others is not the concern. It’s the secret. Giving voice to the secret is what’s giving me pause.
There’s yet another voice from someone long gone, a haunting, steady voice that I hear. It’s my mother, herself no stranger to affairs. “Don’t air your dirty laundry,” she whispers in my ear. “Don’t air your dirty laundry for all the neighbors to see.”
Secrets. Dirty laundry. The very stuff that desperately chokes for air.
Giving voice to those secrets takes away their power. Am I afraid to stand in that light, to take on that power and claim it as my own?
Telling stories and having them heard can indeed be terrifying. And yet, it is the scariest stories that most need to be told. The more of those stories heard around the world, the less others will feel alone. I get that … And still.
We’ve all been told to write what scares us. But long held secrets, or whatever it is that scares you most, can do damage, when exposed. Those secrets are frightened animals with sharp claws and sharper teeth. Tread carefully—and be gentle—with yourself. Write slowly. Walk. Breathe. And put down the pen before your mind or your body go into overwhelm.
The story that was published last week is an old story. I’ve had plenty of time and distance from the events, yet seeing them all in print still packed a mighty punch. It took me two years to write 432 words. We must remember that writing is not a race.
Continue to write those secrets. Write what you fear. I certainly will. But write consciously and with care. And when you’re ready, only when you’re ready, submit.
Diane Gottlieb received an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where she served as lead editor of creative nonfiction and as a member of the interview and blog teams for Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, Panoply, and Lunch Ticket. You can also find her weekly musings at https://dianegottlieb.com. @DianeGotAuthor