Honesty, Intimacy, and the Personal Essay

Back in July, Leslie Jamison addressed writing regrets in The New York Times’ Bookends column:

“These were my two first mistakes about honesty: I thought it meant relentless self-flagellation, and I thought it could redeem everything. I believed there was nothing self-awareness couldn’t save. My readers taught me otherwise: They often read my self-awareness as meanness or self-indulgence or delusion. It didn’t endear me to them at all. It didn’t dissolve the flaws it confessed.”

When I write prose, I don’t often write about myself; when I do, it’s as context for a broader topic. I’m afraid of confessional writing that curdles into navel-gazing, and in personal essays–because they require me to contextualize my emotions with experiences–that trap is difficult to escape. For a long time, this fear has led me to hold a barrier between myself and the reader. It’s never obscured the truth or core of my writing, but it has shielded me from true vulnerability.

Maybe that vulnerability is not always necessary, but it’s something that I crave–and I think I know why. In a 2008 interview with Identity Theory, Junot Diaz addressed this very idea: “You can’t find intimacy–you can’t find home–when you’re always hiding behind masks. Intimacy requires a certain level of vulnerability. It requires a certain level of you exposing your fragmented, contradictory self to someone else.” And isn’t intimacy an integral part of our instinct to write?

Jamison’s fixation with honesty, too, reflects that craving. As she wrote in her column, her desire to present herself at her most base was really a desire to be fully connected with her audience, so connected that they would know her at her worst. We assume, often, that our most private and essential selves are also our darkest. Yet when I think of the people I have a deeper understanding of, it’s not their worst qualities that come to mind. Instead, it’s the hidden virtues. The little things to admire. The greater landscape of character that makes it easy to forgive their flaws.

Even in this post, out of habit, I’ve restrained myself from adding personal details, from sacrificing myself to exposure. I’m trying to reconfigure the way I write prose–to approach it the same way I approach poetry, which is with an almost wild proclivity for the authentic and the emotive. And as I do, I hope to incorporate Leslie Jamison’s advice: to allow myself “complexity, interior conflict, strengths and flaws caught in tense tandem.”

How do you approach honesty in your writing? And what old habits are you seeking to change?