A friend recently made an observation about me, just an offhand comment, that stuck in my mind because it was so far from the truth. I find myself dwelling on this. At first I was a little angry. How could someone I thought knew me so well be so off base about who I am and how I function in the world? I felt as if my friend wasn’t paying attention, was so caught up in their own business that they did not see me. I felt as though we had become distanced in a way that I had previously failed to notice.
After a few days, my anger subsided. I realized that the person my friend sees is the person I present to the world. I began to consider some of the things that I have done and said over time and how those actions created a certain image of who I am. My friend efficiently bought the image of myself that I have consciously created. How can I blame a friend for that?
The next thing that I started pondering was whether or not I want to maintain that image. Long story made short, the image I have constructed is that my life is an open book; that friends as well as strangers will find me in my writing here on the blog and in my novel and in essays I have written. Emails. Letters. Memoirs. Conversations even. That all these words that bubble forth from me contain my most intimate self and the private details of my life and the lives of my family members. But nothing could be farther from the truth. I think of myself as a private person. A person who often goes a week at a time without leaving my house except to go for my morning walk. I think of myself as a semi-recluse. A person who steps carefully into conversations. A person with secrets. I find it astonishing that the image I have projected into the world is apparently so different from that.
I share many of my thoughts, but keep my emotions close to the bone. I try to be honest, but there are many topics I avoid and will not engage in discussing. I am adept at sidestepping. I frequently talk too much when in the company of others (a nervous habit), but I am always working on that, trying to shut up and listen. There are certain opinions I will not share or that I will only share with certain people and in certain contexts. I do not think of myself as abundantly forthcoming.
What muddies the waters is my weakness for a good story. I am at heart a storyteller and I can rarely pass up the opportunity to build a good story from the raw materials of everyday life. I believe in the function of stories to deeply nourish the soul and to launch positive change. Telling stories can be like walking through a minefield, however, because stories belong to people. They come from somewhere. They are revealing. They involve exposure, which results in vulnerability to judgment. People don’t want to be judged and found lacking, deficient, failed. Hence secrets. People don’t want their business in the street, interpreted, handled. We humans fear revealing our human frailty. We fear that someone will think we did something wrong and think less of us. Sometimes we fear that if others discuss features of our lives that the very discussion will somehow change the outcomes. The storyteller must tread delicately.
Do we fear the storyteller? Perhaps we fear that if the storyteller takes our story and shapes it into a certain form and puts a particular order to it and a particular ending on it then it will impact what actually happens in our lives. Stories have been known to do so. As a fiction writer, I take the real chains of events, the real people, the real material of life, and I alter it with my imagination for the sake of the story. I am very concerned about truth but not so concerned about what really happened. My imagination works on reality and creates a new reality within my words. For a purpose. I have been known to do so with “nonfiction” as well. Hence the little thought with which I end most of my emails: The lines between fiction and nonfiction blur and in the end all that matters is the story itself; how much of it is truth and how much imagined is of little consequence.
As I turn around and look at where my thoughts have taken me, where I have wound up from where I started on this page today, I feel comfortable with having a secret self and I feel comfortable with having an outward image that this is not the case, that I am not so full of secrets. To reach this level of comfort, I have to let go of my anger at people when they reveal the fact that they don’t know me as well as I thought they did. I also have to live with the fact that I have chosen to take certain secrets to my grave and to leave an image of myself behind that is not entirely my true self. Finally, I find that I wonder how well any of us really know each other.