The other day in my writing group we had an interesting discussion about embarrassment, one I’m surprised we hadn’t had before considering the fact that if you have a group, those are the people who will see your writing at its most awkward (ugly-gangly-pimply-tonguetied-adolescent) stages. But the newest member of our group suggested embarrassment was powerful.
“Where there is heat—embarrassment, anger, desire— there is fire. That’s where the energy is,” she said, looking from face to face. “You should try it.”
It was so nice to hear a fellow writer say this since every time I submit a piece of writing to the group, the act of pressing “send” is accompanied by a hot liquid quivering in my gut and the desire to drop and roll under a table and hug myself until the shaking subsides.
The timing of this discussion was perfect: I’d just caved in to better judgment and bought a ticket to my 30th high school reunion even though I have no idea what changed since I blithely ignored the 10th and 20th. Nevertheless, for some reason I’m going, a fact that I will find a way to shove into every conversation I have between now and then in an attempt to bolster my nerve.
“I’d rather eat vomit, but good for you,” said one friend. Another mused, “Maybe you’ll find something to write about.” “You sound so excited!” exclaimed another, which made me reconsider the similarities between excitement and shame because what I’m experiencing now feels hot and queasy. It’s not excitement, it’s anticipatory embarrassment.
In every moment leading up to my high school reunion, I’m reliving the most awkward, stupid, dreadful moments of my life in slow motion: public displays of private hell gyrating across my mental stage to croon into a megaphone. Fashion disasters exacerbated by excruciating moments of accidental or (gasp!) intentional nudity. Every betrayal, every sin is resuscitated and propped at the door like hungry zombies and even good intentions twist and warp into sociopathic, pornographic shapes. Even the things I’ve managed to forget now writhe and throb silently at the edges of my consciousness.
“You should try it,” she said. My writing group was split in its reactions to her suggestion. While I nodded my head vigorously, hopefully, remembering all the excruciatingly blush-worthy things I’ve written and feeling the dormant punch of the stories I haven’t yet told, some just smiled and blinked. The biographer in our group said that the only way he’d write about his own embarrassing moments is if they were buried deep in fiction. “Or biography,” he chuckled.
My writing group is full of professionals and academics, all published but me, and although confessional writing is nothing new, in the hierarchy of genres it is often relegated to the nether regions. The group itself has mixed feelings on the topic: the advertisement for new members invited all nonfiction writers, excluding memoirists. I applied anyway and was glad they bent the rule for me although now, half of us write memoir. Sometimes I worry the nonfiction writers are rolling their eyes just a bit, wondering who let all these memoirists crawl in.
Some people view memoir as egotistic, facile, and gossipy, the kind of thing ladies do when they get together for spa day. Others would rather eat vomit than wallow in the past. It’s easy to overlook the skill required to not only face the past but make it speak, sit down, roll over, and dance. Even I sometimes catch myself falling into an old assumption that memoir is somehow easier to write than other genres and I have to give myself a little pinch to snap myself out of it.
Because we should know that all writing exposes the soft underbelly of the writer in one way or another, whether the writing is “personal” or not, and facing the past is not easy. Certain memories are as explosive as bombs, so why not harness that energy? Better to use it than be used by it, I say. That jolt of emotion might be transferred to the page and you don’t even have to write memoir to make this happen. The past can be cloaked in fiction or biography or any other genre of writing and still pack a punch. My best fiction is sparked by the energy of old wounds and mistakes. It’s a delicate touch on the razor sharp line between excitement and shame, control and chaos, personal and universal.
So I’m going to my reunion. Until now, I had no desire to physically revisit the past but maybe I’ve changed. Maybe every time I write, I expose myself and after all these years I’ve grown a thicker skin. Maybe I can bend and twist the past into something useful. Maybe embarrassment grows on you. So I will ride that hot wave of quivering bile in the door to my high school reunion and resist the urge to hide under a table.
Maybe we should all try it.
Is writing fueled by embarrassment more exciting than writing propelled by self-confidence?
Is embarrassment addictive?
Did or would you go to your high school reunion?