I remember the moment back in January 2015 during my first Memoir class when I revealed to my classmates that I was a recovering alcoholic. I must have felt an explanation was needed based on something I had written. Oh, I was so uncomfortable, staring at the table and mumbling about how I was four years sober, a slight shake in my hands, my armpits dampening.
Now when I think about that moment, I’m baffled by my nervousness because I will literally tell anyone and everyone that I’m sober. (Twelve years now!) I’ve since developed a creative mission to share my story in order to lift the stigma of alcoholism. In fact, I try to adhere to Ann Hood’s advice in her “How To Write A Kick-Ass Essay” lecture, “always say the hardest thing, the thing you think you cannot say.”
But it’s not easy saying the hardest thing and then sharing that with the world. Not only is it difficult to expose yourself by writing creative nonfiction, but it is also nerve-wracking to share your writing in general. I imagine fiction writers have the same squirmy feelings when they put their work out into the world. Is my writing good enough? Will readers judge me?
My sponsor often tells me “It’s none of your business what other people think of you.” That’s one of those concepts that’s easy to understand intellectually but more difficult to put into practice. By nature, we humans care what others think of us. And as writers, we care what others think of our writing.
So what changed from that moment in 2015 when I was so nervous about exposing myself to my fellow writers to now where I’m revising a memoir about my alcoholism and marriage difficulties in the Book Revision Lab?
I became comfortable with being uncomfortable. How? By being vulnerable in my writing and then sharing my writing. Over and over again. First, I share my writing with readers who give me feedback. Then, I share my writing with lit mag editors by submitting essays for publication. When every once in a while a piece gets selected for publication, my writing is shared with the readers of those lit mags. And finally, and this is the hardest step, I share those published pieces with my friends and family on social media.
I’m not saying it’s easy. Even now when I share a bit of writing on social media, I get a flutter in my chest. What will people think of me? What will people think of my writing? Maybe some people out there think less of me because I’m open about my alcoholism or about my family’s struggle with mental health, loss, and grief. Maybe some people think my writing is subpar.
But if I didn’t expose myself, if I didn’t share my truth, I wouldn’t get responses like the ones I did from Facebook friends on my last published piece:
wow. this touched me on so many levels.
What a beautiful and poignant essay Liz! I was deeply touched by your words. You are a pillar of strength.
I really look forward to your book. Your authenticity is beautiful and poignant. Well done 💕
All of this reminds me of the time Melissa Febos came to speak as part of Project Write Now’s Visiting Author Series. During the Q&A portion, I asked her a question about this topic, being that she had written a memoir about being a dominatrix wasn’t she uncomfortable sharing these deep dark secrets? I forget my exact words but it was something about me being nervous about the PTA moms reading my story. “Fuck the PTA moms,” she replied.
Yes, why should I care what the PTA moms think? But there is another level. Perhaps one of those PTA moms is a mom struggling with alcoholism like I was. Maybe she will read my piece, connect with my experience, and come to learn that there is a solution. That can only happen if I write about my experience and then share my writing.
So I will keep on exposing myself by writing my stories. The more I do, the more I will get comfortable with being uncomfortable.