On Reticence

I’ve been talking about writing my memoir—followed by the script for the lifetime movie, complete with musical numbers—for a few years, ever since I felt like I was generating good narrative material (that is, ever since my personal life went from unremarkable to high melodrama). Now that I’ve got this blog going, that’s meant to be a first little step towards the larger project. But right away an important quandary presents itself: who am I, in this process of confession/narration/analysis/retrospection/wishful thinking? If I have something to offer readers, it would be, frankly, me—that is, unlike Dickens, I’ve got no knack for externalizing my inner drama by creating multiple fictional characters, each of whom represents some facet of myself and my experiences without actually laying too much of myself out for interpretive inspection all at once. I’ve just got my immediate experience of my life—thoughts, opinions, emotions, colorful language. If I don’t write honestly and fully, I don’t actually have a lot of material to share.

And yet.

One day, soon after I first started in my current position, there was a fundraising carnival, where certain of my colleagues volunteered to go in the dunk tank, or have pies thrown at them. My mentor at the time, a wise, cautious woman, absolutely nixed the idea: it was no way to create gravitas, to cultivate an air of authority and respectability. My mentor is (unfairly) known for being overly-serious, but in this case I think she was right. It would be easy, and foolhardy, to underestimate the conservatism of my workplace. I won’t give in to temptation to offer critique as an aside: I work where I work and I have to respect that.

But much more importantly, I do care how the people I mentor, especially the younger women, see me—they need good role models, people who can behave ethically and with some sensibility—so they may neither want, nor need, to know about some of the less role-modelly things I’ve done, sometimes as mistakes, sometimes as deliberate experiments (I was talking about salsa class, obviously–what did you think I meant…?). Doesn’t that make it sound like I’ve been up to all kinds of mischief? Hardly—I’ve been in just enough mischief to know how tame my “exploits” have been—but still, there are some tales that, once told, could be enough to jeopardize my job, and my reputation.

As though my reputation isn’t mine to do with as I please…

Though now that I think of it, that belief might be a self-absorbed, 21st century delusion. Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte would dismiss such conceits with impatience. Of course one’s reputation is not really one’s own—it’s a product of social relationships, not something that exists outside of them. At the same time, both of those luminaries would also remind me that what is my own is my self-respect. How much of a spectacle can I make of my life–because there is an element of spectacle to memoir, to turning one’s life into other people’s entertainment–while still maintaining my dignity? And by dignity I don’t mean some kind of narrative conceit, or some kind of sanctimonious costume/disguise, or an excuse to avoid living fully; being mindful of one’s dignity doesn’t mean being above reproach, removed from the fray, boringly, unhumorously correct. Rather dignity, for me, means enacting the value I have for myself and for others, and sharing that with the intention partly of entertaining, but also substantially to let my readers know that none of us is alone—no matter how uniquely isolated we may feel in the midst of many little indignities, we’re all deserving of respect, from one another and from ourselves.

Right, that’s very noble, but still doesn’t solve the quandary—how circumspect can I be, and still be honest? how much of myself can I open up to the world and still maintain my dignity and self-respect? How much do you all need to know about me? What is the right course to set that navigates between frankness and dull, evasive reticence?

The answer today, in what’s only the second-ever post here, will be that I’m just not sure yet. Let me figure out who “you” are as an audience–who I need you to be as readers, as well as what you need from me as the writer–and we’ll see what happens. (I’ll warn you–that’s not all some attempt at elaborate teasing. My next few posts might be very earnest and high-minded–bear with me as I work some of that stuff out and settle down).

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