In our social media age, even the terms “stranger” and “friend” can be confusing. I consider some people I know on Twitter “friends” even though we have never met, and others I’ve crossed paths with in person “strangers.” For this post, however, I’m going to consider a “friend” someone I’ve repeatedly spent time with in person on a social basis during changes in our lives.
My problem? Recently, I was able to share an emotionally painful creative work with strangers, but held back with my friends.
I’ve come a long way since the time on this blog when I wrote about my journalistic resistance to Oprah-style sharing. A personal essay of mine that reveals true vulnerabilities from my past will be published by a literary journal next week, so that will be shared with the world, friends and strangers alike.
Some readers know I am writing a travel memoir, and am being aided in that process by my instructors and workshop mates in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program. A couple of months ago, I had to submit my 20-page creative-writing sample for this summer’s workshop. The essay that is being published online next week was the piece I submitted for winter workshop last November. At that time, I also shared the essay with my local writer’s group, five talented individuals who over the last year-and-a-half have truly become friends.
I chose for this summer’s residency to submit a chapter of my memoir. It is what I would call a keystone chapter. Like a Roman arch, the story builds to this scene, then rushes to a conclusion based on what this scene sets in motion. In other words, it’s essential to the narrative.It is also emotionally raw. I feel quite vulnerable even knowing it has been put from mind to page.
I submitted this piece of myself to a workshop that hadn’t even been composed yet. But I did not share it with my local writer’s group. Instead, I have been sharing chapters that follow that keystone chapter. Not surprisingly, the critiques have been of less value, because my readers are spending half their time wondering what the heck is happening. Showing a character’s response to something when you don’t tell the reader what the character is responding to is not good storytelling.
It was very awkward at our latest meet-up on Tuesday night. I confessed that the scene I withheld from them will be workshopped by 13 other students and two faculty members this summer in Montpelier. As it turns out, a handful of my VCFA workshop members are students or instructors I’ve spent time with in two previous residencies. But I can’t honestly say I know any of them as well as I’ve gotten to know my friends in this writer’s group.
Why was it easier to share a piece of myself with strangers than with friends?
Perhaps I feared judgment. Perhaps it’s part of the mystery of an MFA residency, the thought that sharing vulnerabilities in Vermont would be safe because “what happens in Montpelier, stays in Montpelier.” (Trust me, my MFA residencies are only like Vegas in that I get too little sleep.)
Whatever it was, this dual-track life wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t getting creative value from my writer’s group. But, more importantly, I wasn’t getting the benefits of friendship, that is, being able to make yourself vulnerable without fear. This essay may have less to do with my ability to share myself on the page, and more to do with my ability to understand the rules of friendship. Something to reflect upon.
For now, I addressed the issue by uploading that keystone chapter to my writer’s group. I told them they don’t have to critique it–no reason to give them extra work–and they don’t have to read it. But if they’d like to–if they feel it will help them critique chapters going forward–they may do so. It’s been three days since I uploaded it, and the world hasn’t come to an end.
Am I somehow dysfunctional in finding it easier to have someone learn my vulnerabilities when I have never met them?