Gutting Ourselves On the Regular
Personal essays tear us up for a few pennies at a time. Is it worth it?
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.