What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.Ludwig Wittgenstein
The blog has been quiet over the past five days. I cannot honestly say that I had nothing to express, it’s just that sometimes that Wittgenstein quote carries weight and it is difficult to shrug off.
I do not consider myself an overly expressive person. I do not spill all the details of my private life in public. I don’t Instagram every restaurant I visit or share every moment of my trips with friends or Facebook sorta-friends. I tend to be private and highly respect others who act that way.
And yet, I seem to be a magnet for criticism and judgment for whatever little morsels of my life that I do choose to share. Several years ago, one of my first employers, the writer Richard Ben Cramer, passed away. I wrote a piece in honor of him and shared some personal details about what a fuckup I was when I was a researcher for him (at 21, mind you, not exactly an age of widespread professional maturity.) An aunt of mine freaked out when she read it, taking what seemed to be personal offense from my self disclosure and vulnerability.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece on my blog about my father and my memories of him that included some, in my opinion, highly deserved criticism of him. I could have gone way farther in my critiques, but I kept the incidents centered on things that affected me directly. A cousin of mine on Facebook responded that perhaps I should wait until my mother and her mother passed away before sharing details of my life like that.
Also throughout this year, my wife has been an avid hate-reader of my blog. It’s true that she occasionally, vaguely tells me things are well written. But whenever I get one of those “can I ask you about something you wrote?” questions, I know it’s not going to be a curious inquiry about whether Jung might have read and been influenced by Montaigne.
This past weekend, I had one of those “takes the cake” moments for people begging for my silence. I told my sister about some very personal things going on in my life. Without asking, she then told my mother what I had said. According to my sister, my mother’s response to hearing this very personal, somewhat painful news about me was to say “tell him not to post anything about it, everyone in New Jersey will be talking about me.”
This is the confined space that I inhabit in the world, a tiny 3 by 3 box that I’m expected to squat within and keep quiet about the discomfort. It mirrors the literal, intolerable, situation I have in my actual home. In every one of these instances, the person involved cared more about their personal discomfort than any pain I might have been experiencing. But what really galls me is that each of these people felt that they deserved some level of ownership over my words and my free expression.
Writing about myself has not come easy. When I first started the Montaigne Project nine years ago, I used his essays as training wheels to approach a discussion of my life through the context of his and the issues he raised. I made some progress, but mostly on a highly cerebral level. And as I’ve pointed out in some essays this year, there was a great deal of inauthenticity to the stories I told. I was being manipulative on some level, and hiding behind some sentimentality that I loathe.
I’m not a huge fan of Ernest Hemingway, but I do love his advice that writers should aim for “one true sentence.” If I write something that’s evasive, too self admiring, if it drops into the box of safe, packaged sentimentality or romanticism, if it pretends that everything is great when I actually feel like shit, it’s not writing. It’s an exercise in building a levy against all the experiences in life that have the potential to affect me meaningfully, good and bad.
So, sometimes I will drop into silence, by choice. And I will emerge from it when I feel like it. But for anyone who wishes to take my stories and my words and to claim some kind of ownership over them, I have one simple, true sentence fragment for you: shut the fuck up.