Gutting Ourselves On the Regular
We value memoirists and nonfiction essayists who can penetrate the grief, horror, heartache of life and show us something raw, something essential in humanity. We value them so much, in fact, that it’s become something of an industry on the internet.
In a sense, writing has always been an exercise in pain excavation. We know that. Writers are often at the heights of their creative powers when they’re probing the depths of their most painful moments.
Today, however, readers are conditioned to crave more because the internet allows access to it. We want more because we have more. And so a writer who bares her soul once is compelled to bare her soul again. If she shared a painful truth last week, she must share again this week, and next week, and next. And that takes guts.
The problem is we only have so many guts.
At their best, personal essays can sensitize and nourish and reassure readers. Readers come away with a feeling that they aren’t alone in their struggles. They may not have considered an angle the writer draws out. They may overcome stigmas and feelings of shame.
The writer’s job is illumination and entertainment and moving people to tears. It takes guts to be vulnerable. That’s power.
But what happens when a writer turns themselves inside out for readers and they have nothing more to give? Or they risk giving away too much? Reach into their families and start giving away those traumas and tragedies, too? Get down and dirty and start writing about their sex lives? Develop new grievances and tear other people apart?
It can become a cycle of disembowelment. I’ve seen it all out there, and pressed my belly against the blade.
Aren’t writers just giving readers what they want?
Like the coils of intestines inside our bellies, I realize maybe it’s not so easy to disentangle the writer’s (over)sharing from the reader’s consumption of it. I’m not convinced it’s a supply-and-demand problem as much as a cultural expression of our bigger social problems.
We live in a decadent age: sensationalized, riven by inequality, violent. It’s no surprise we’re saturated by outrage, maudlin, or prurient stories. We’ve been numbed by extremes. It takes a lot to move us.
“Thirsty” is a deprecating and humorous term applied to celebrities or social media influencers who continually share bikini pics, document illnesses, or put their relationship drama on display for all to see. It’s not just sharing. It’s oversharing — but is there an alternative?
Sure there is. The alternative is dropping off the radar, in a period that the social media and gossip echo chamber is a primary mode of publicity.
Will the public forget about a famous actor if they don’t see them for a few months? No, probably not.
But for up-and-comers, who are not household names, the thirst is very real. Every (name)drop counts. Making it into the news cycle for a romantic coupling or “clap-back” raises their profile and that translates into career opportunities and money down the line. Every thirst trap on social media, whatever short-term attention-fix animated it, is aimed at a longer-term goal for the actor or influencer.
Writers are expert thirst-trappers, too. But the benefit is not always as clear for a writer who has made herself the topic of study as it is for a celebrity and their bikini snap.
Some writers, to be sure, are mercenary in their thirst-trapping. But I think most writers are simply engaged in an honest exploration. They don’t necessarily know what they’ll find when they start. And for memoirists, that might be a safe journey to take — because it happens in the sacred privacy of the writing process.
A manuscript is a safe space. It is a sanctuary. It allows for vulnerability, self-reflection, self-criticism, proportion.
It also provides ground for what I think is one of the most important, contradictory elements of a memoir or piece of nonfiction: intimacy and distance. Subjectivity and objectivity work together in successful personal essays almost like a handcar on a track, propelling a narrative toward profounder and profounder revelations.
This journey is complicated, however, on the internet. A blog or a social media account is not a manuscript. It progresses in full view of the reading public. The handcar, even if it works properly, is operating on an unfinished track.
Monetary reward is a powerful impulse for writers on the internet. We write a personal essay that resonates, we get clicks. For each click, the pennies clink. A pile accumulates, and if we’re lucky, that pile turns into a viral mountain of coins. We look for that viral mountain, especially the one that has evergreen appeal. Anything to create that steady trickle of passive income. A piece of writing that pulls in clicks week after week is the goal.
But it doesn’t stop there. A writer can’t retire on one essay — or a hundred essays. Even great essays fade; they saturate the field and readers want something else. The writer reaches a little deeper. The pennies clink.
We locate our pain, our outrage, our hunger, buried like a seam of coal under the surface. We pull out our shovels and pierce the ground. And we dig. We mine it.
Successful essayists seem to deliver week after week for years mining those seams. How do they do it? Every week, some of our favorite writers are out there writing about single parenthood, being caregivers to their dying parents, exploring grief or injustice or sexual taboo or children with terminal illnesses. They dig, and dig, and dig.
Sometimes I click away in tears from a personal essay I’ve just read. I wonder how they do it, how they have the clarity to compose their words, whether they are earning a living from their efforts.
Deep down, I also wonder what the end-game of it all is. Where does it end? Are the pennies that clink into their accounts worth it? Who else is making money from their disembowelments?
And I also wonder: is there a way back for these writers, and for the readers like me who are acclimatized to all this feeling?
Are we all addicted to the thirst-trapping and soul-baring? Am I addicted to other people’s guts?