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?
Glad you found the courage to go to your reunion. I never did.
And as for memoir, and writing, you’re right when you point out that the past (our past) is part of everything we write, whether it’s fiction or non. To me, the key is to draw a perspective from it, something more than “this happened to me.” I say this because so many of the stories I receive at TLR are that second kind. They indicate a writer who’s not interested in stepping outside him/herself. It’s why I’ve always enjoyed reading your posts, Anna—they have so much more to them than that.
I can’t help making guesses about coy authors. The harder an author tries to hide, the better stuff I imagine.
Joe, your comment is almost as good as submitting to TLR and getting a thumbs up. No, it’s even better.
good for you! I went to the first school reunion and it reminded me why I was happy when school ended and we all left for college. Thats the nice things about reunions: The people there who will be snide to you, and it’ll wound the ego but then you remember that never have to see again (yay) and the people you don’t remember will come up to you and say “Don’t you remember me?” and that’ll should soothe the ego a little.
I agree with Russell Brand on embarrassment as fodder for anecdotes. When embarrassing things happen I always think “Well it’ll make a good story/blog post /dinner table topic”. And its true. It always does.
Just scoured YouTube, looking to see if I could find what Russell Brand said. Couldn’t, but that guy is just so fabulous. I think maybe Sedaris will always be the forefather of this, for me.
(Fuck. I’m going to forget someone’s name and they’re going to take offense. I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast. I was going to look at the yearbook to refresh my memory, but I can’t find it.)
oh sorry my bad – no citation – Russell brand refers to using his life to generate material in on and off on the radio show on stand up – i would need to really dig to find the exact reference
don’t worry about the name – just nod and say of course.
Not going back to high school. No reason to. Just study, study, study. Now college, that was an adventure. Your writing group sounds cool – nice to have people to bounce ideas off of and writers understand writers when others might not….like high school
I love my writing group. Thank god for writing groups! Instead of pretending everyone’s wearing underwear, I’m going to pretend it’s a writing group.
I’m glad you are going. I will
see you there. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog. Your experiences so mirror my own, but your writing is far more eloquent.
Susan! So glad to know a familiar face will be there. I figure if you knew someone when you were young, there are many things you don’t have to explain. Iit will be interesting to be in a room full of people who know where I came from (and v.v.). I look forward to seeing you then and thank you for reading.
i especially appreciate the “anticipatory embarrassment” insight
I think my embarrassment muscle is very strong. I’ve been working it out, you know?
that burning moment is often the edge of growth.
Yes! And you have to go through the fire to get there, you can’t go around!
“Is writing fueled by embarrassment more exciting than writing propelled by self-confidence?”
My reading preferences scream a very loud YES to this. Self-confidence seems to lead to smug and clever, but embarrassment fills any good writer’s writings with the stench of humanity, and that’s something we can all relate to. I, ummm, think… unless, oh no, maybe it’s just, you know, ummm, me…
No, not just you. Me, me! I’m breathing in a heady stench of humanity right now, my friend! xoox
I’ll take the cold plate of vomit.
Didn’t go, ain’t goin, can’t make me!
“stench of humanity”… good one Harry, think I steal that.
BTW, a literary query: Which sounds more disgusting: hot bowl of vomit; cold plate of vomit?
Cold plate, definitely. I see a fork. I see a layer of mold. You crack me up.
High School reunions are way overrated, Anna. Its a group of people that you don’t know anymore, most of whom you don’t recognize, and they’re doing their best not to act as out of place and bored as you feel. Mostly, they’re harmless though.
I hope I’m mildly surprised (emphasis on mild here). There are a couple of people I’d love to see.
OMG. You write this as I face my twentieth high school reunion and you could not better describe the mixed feelings of angst, anticipation, humiliation, embarrassment and longing…Does this haunt your dreams as it does mine? Love love love this piece.
Longing! I overlooked the longing, Alarna, which is the only sane reason anyone should go. Are you going? Did you do the 10th? What are we afraid of??!! Let’s compare notes in a debriefing. xoox
I never even heard about the 10th, if there was one! It’s next weekend, and I have a feeling I won’t know if I’m going until I get there! When is yours? Debriefing session, absolutely 🙂 xo
So, Anna, I made it out alive! And I have to tell you…it wasn’t half as bad as I imagined all these years. And I’m so glad I went. If you’re in two minds but the longing nags…just go. xo
Confidence is a surface emotion. Anything worth writing about goes deeper than that.
Your writer’s group sounds fabulous, far more sophisticated and adroit than the one I’m part of.
The reunion? It took me 40 years and FB to venture back to one of mine. I had harbored all those smarmy hurts and hatreds for so long, been so righteously indignant about being shunned. But FB opened up the world of friends I’d forgotten I’d even had. The drive to actually see those people again, lured me out of my cocoon and I’m so glad it did. I had a blast. And, it was good for me to rearrange my preconceived notions about classmates whom I thought treated me badly. We were all so self-centered at the time. So many people were going through horrible home circumstances and I hadn’t a clue about their daily battles. It’s plumb embarrassing. There was only one person who seemed just as witchy-bitchy as I had remembered.
I hope you have as much fun as I did. I suspect you will.
I’m just browsing the wordpress reader and came upon your blog. Just randomly clicking through I’m sure I will enjoy your posts. I especially like the reflection on writing groups and class reunions… I’ve been to my 35th and 40th … feeling on top of the world in a way I never did in HS but still must get going on my latent interests — those that the reunions reminded me that I had. Does that make sense?