Got secrets?

As a culture, I see us presently deprived of subtleties. The music is loud, the anger is elevated, and sex seems lacking in sweetness and privacy.” — Shelley Berman

Last week I told 325 friends on Facebook that our bedroom in this old house is torn apart for remodeling and looks like a mess. Later that same day, I announced that I was making pea soup for dinner. (Earlier in the month, as part of a dubious “campaign” for breast cancer awareness, I also posted the color of my bra in my status update.)

I haven’t even met some of these Facebook buddies — so I’m asking myself why I’m compelled to do this.

Touching on a Facebook issue in Newsweek earlier this month, a journalist confessed that she tries to avoid “over-sharing” on social networks. Likewise, a friend of mine recently asked: “Is there such a thing as ‘personal’ anymore? Is any topic sacred?”

My friend was referring to her co-worker’s latest blog post — a post in which the co-worker over-shared intimate details of her love life.  As my friend put it, “Blogs and social media are sucking the mystery, romance, and privacy out of everything. Everyone’s a publicity whore.” I had to smile at her use of the words mystery, romance, and privacy — words that seem to have gone the way of the manual typewriter. But she has a point.

As a writing coach who specializes in memoir and personal essays, I’ll be the first to defend the importance of sharing our stories. Sharing stories is how we connect with our fellow humans — and crafting those stories beautifully makes us artists. We glean invaluable lessons when we read memoirs, autobiographies, blogs, and essays by gifted writers. When handled with care, the personal can be universal.

But I wonder if we (as a culture) need to rethink what’s fair game for public consumption? How far “out there” do we need to be? How much do other people need to know about us — and why?  If we wouldn’t dare include a personal detail or episode in an essay or a memoir, is it really appropriate for a blog? For Twitter or Facebook? Exactly what are the dangers of over-sharing?

Writing a weekly newspaper column early on, I learned the hard way when I’d crossed the line and violated the tender privacy of loved ones. My son, who was often mentioned in my columns when he was much younger, taught me to think carefully before exploiting a person — or a topic — for the sake of entertaining or amusing my readers.

I’m quick to add here that I seriously enjoy connecting (and reconnecting) with friends on Facebook. And keeping a blog is almost as much fun as writing a weekly newspaper column. Still, I’m intrigued that so many of us today are driven to share our deepest yearnings and secrets with virtual strangers.  At the same time, we complain that it’s hard to forge true emotional intimacy with others — in person. As a writer who covers lifestyle issues for magazines and newspapers, I can’t overlook the paradox. Women’s magazines thrive on this very topic.

So what is it that compels so many to unload information that was — in the past — considered rude (or just plain foolish) to parade in public? I open this topic for discussion here. Please share your thoughts in the “Comments” section below. — Cindy La Ferle

— Photo above: Detail of “Box of Secrets,” altered art piece by Cindy La Ferle —

27 thoughts on “Got secrets?

  1. I have said for a while that one doesn’t need to stalk anyone if they follow them on facebook or their blog or twitter. I don’t put to much “personal” stuff on either one. Some stuff is not for public consumption. What I eat, what football game I’m watching, etc, is not “personal” to me – just staying connected with friends. My motto, if you don’t want it known, don’t share it with the public as it might come back to haunt you! LOL. As we know, it is easier to face a computer (or mobile phone) and confess than to face the individual and do the same…. That’s life in this day and age. How many have read their “dear john” or “dear jane” letter on Twitter….. do tell. Why? It’s safer than facing the wrath …. or the tears …. or the frying pan! LOL.

  2. Good points, Marlynn!

    It also occurs to me that I forgot to add something that I often mention in my writing classes: You can always use a good old-fashioned pseudonym if you want to share things that are impossibly difficult or damaging. (I also give my class a handout explaining libel and lawsuits.)

  3. I have been a silent observer of the explosion of personal information freely shared in the anonymous world of the web. As a child, I was told to lock my lips and throw away the key. As an aging “baby boomer”, I’m truly fascinated by the need of some to expose themselves with little regard, I think, for the consequences. I think there is space between too little and too much. It’s a matter of determining what that space means to each of us.

  4. Ooh, Cindy! Love this post and I love your writing style. You pose some great questions. As a writer myself, I’ve joined the bandwagon of writer masses who’ve joined the twitter, facebook, blogging loop–all for the sake of connecting with readers and platform building. If you read my posts, you’ll realize that of course it’s become so much more than that now. But I guess I have jumped blindly into the “sharing” personally without stopping to think whether it’s too much information. Thanks for getting me thinking about this issue today!

    And thanks for adding your insightful thoughts to a couple of my blog post comments. I appreciate your wisdom.

  5. Jody and Harriet, thanks for visiting — glad to hear from you!
    I’m also pleased to know that other writers are thinking about these issues. It’s been quite the topic of conversation lately among my professional writer-support groups.

    Jody, somehow the link you posted didn’t go to your blog, so I am reposting the correct link here so readers can visit:

  6. both my husband and i are on fb, and i have to say, it’s raised some issues. i’ve heard it’s wrecked some marriages, too. i’m lucky b/c we have a pretty straight-forward relationship and we talk to each other and respond to requests easily, so we are navigating limits & boundries.

    here’s another question: what do you do when OTHERS on those social networks don’t respect YOUR boundries?

    ‘unfriend’ them, i guess… 😉

    great post.

  7. I think a lot of it feeds off the “reality tv” phenomenon, but I don’t even get that appeal. A quick ticket to fame? Attention? There’s such a difference between in-your-face reality, and the subtle nuances of a well-written memoir. One is just crass, the other, an artform. I don’t know what the answer is to this, but for myself, I prefer the “art” of communication rather than the “tabloid” versions.

  8. Very good points raised in these comments. Patty, I am not sure what you could do, aside from “unfriend” someone who doesn’t respect your boundaries. Good question.

    Joanne — you’re spot on about the celebrity issue. I do think there’s a feeling among many people these days that they don’t “count” unless they are being seen or witnessed in a big way. With so many people getting famous for such stupid and dubious accomplishments (OctoMom comes to mind, for starters), it’s no wonder that so many attention-hungry people will say anything to get noticed or to attract a following of some kind.

    I want to remind everyone, too, that this post by Bob Sullivan, re Facebook and loss of privacy, is a must read. I linked to it in this post, but in case you overlooked it, here’s the link again:—privacy-experts-continue-to-watch-in-won.html#posts

  9. Great quote. And timely subject. I’ve wondered the same thing, about public telling of intimacy.

    1)Is it a reflection on modern disassociation? We spend less time across the back fence and more time online. We make friends with people we’ve never met in person. The things we used to say to our girlfriends now go out over the web.

    2)Is it a need for validation?

    Probably the answer depends on the person.

  10. Excellent topic.
    I think the explosion of chat on Facebook has something to do with giving people who aren’t writers a way to speak in short sentences that don’t take much time. A lot of those I see posting copiously on FB would never write a regular letter, but they’re active on FB and I don’t know about Twitter.
    I keep one very candid journal that is pseudonymous and unedited and feels like a satisfying purge; and one that is for my friends, family and neighbours to read, which I censor and edit with great care. They each have their place.

  11. Great points Cindy– and well said.

    I started Facebook to keep up with my ten teenage nieces and nephews but spent so much time cringing at the stuff they posted that I deactivated my account! All I was doing was telling them to STOP and that wasn’t going over well.

    I also make a point never to write about my husband’s family. Despite the wealth of stories, I’d rather stay married 🙂

    Hope your week is going well.

  12. Timely post, Cindy.
    I’m actually quite private for the most part, and neither my husband or I have facebook, or twitter.
    We are very close with many of our neighbours, and have a various levels of “intimacy” with the huge circles of people we’ve come to know through the years through the kids sports , work, etc.

    I am uncomfortable with oversharing. There are blogs I don’t read after awhile that have TMI . And I don’t watch reality shows . I am uncomfortable peeping in , invited or not , in the private lives of others.

    I don’t discuss my kids or husband, or his career, or extended family, unless it’s in a round about way. Even then, I have worried about it afterwards. And the writing about my past, isn’t really just my story, so while I’ve dabble there as you know, I am still wary. Still unsure. Because it isn’t just my story. And once it’s out there, it becomes a part of how I am known. How my family is known.

    yikes… novel of a comment.

  13. Good thoughts. A couple of you mentioned reality TV. Good points — I agree that this has had an impact on the issues we’re talking about here. (From the start, I thought the whole “reality” concept for the “Jon and Kate” show was a staged nightmare — for the whole family.)

    Kathleen, I loved this comment of yours and I think you nailed it: “We spend less time across the back fence and more time online. We make friends with people we’ve never met in person. The things we used to say to our girlfriends now go out over the web.”

    A while back, I reviewed a wonderful book titled “Bowling Alone,” in which the author (a sociology professor, as I recall) discussed the fact that our country is losing its sense of community and neighborhood. He attributed this to our isolation — spending more time at work or at home hugging our computers. He noted that it’s to the point where we don’t know all of our immediate neighbors by name, but we have online “friends” all over the country, and the world.

  14. “Sharing stories is how we connect with our fellow humans — and crafting those stories beautifully makes us artists.”

    I like that, Cindy.

    What may compel us to share perhaps is simply wanting to take advantage of these new tech channels of communication. Yet, as they mature we may also wisen up to what we choose to write publicly online. For now it’s still new, something to ck out!

    Lemme just share this, belatedly: hope you had a Happy Pie Day last Saturday!

  15. Great topic. I see the fine line as a writer between delving into your inner soul to reveal insights which then really connect with people, as opposed to being a staunch lecturer, just telling people what to do. There’s something about vulnerability that draws us in. But the kind of blogging you speak of simply sounds crass – no end point, no learning, no purpose to the sharing. Just spewing forth junk. Big difference.

  16. Cindy, like you, I spent a good 20 years writing personal columns – and had a child who occasionally cringed when I included stories about her. My columns weren’t really focused on motherhood, so it didn’t happen often, but she told me just a few years ago (she’s 29 this year) that one column in particular made her want to hide under her bed for the next 10 years. I thanked her for being a VERY tolerant child.

    I have been known to “over-share,” I suppose, but when it’s a column or something more formal, I have a reason. A point. Facebook and Twitter seem to have stripped us of our need to have those. We post because we can, not necessarily because we have something to say.

    It used to be that “getting published” was the way to reach the masses, and because of the process involved, a writer had to be pretty darn good and have something to say.

    As my DH would say, “Not any more, man.”

    I’ve started looking at Facebook as a way to entertain and inform, and to move away from personal stuff. Being Facebook friends with my husband makes a difference too. I look at everything the way he might see it. Makes me more careful.

    Great column, lots of food for thought!

  17. Joni, I don’t think you’ve over-shared, at least not to my memory. In fact, everyone who has commented here blogs responsibly and writes good stuff that’s always worth a read. And Joni, I smiled while I read the comment about your daughter’s response to one of your newspaper columns. Been there, too.

    In middle school, my son Nate made me promise that I’d NEVER, ever write about him in the newspaper again (!) after one particularly “damaging” column. Poor kid, everyone in school — teachers and fellow students — would make remarks to him whenever he was mentioned in one of my columns, even in a very good way. As every mother knows, to young boys, there’s nothing you can say that’s not embarrassing. Just as you’ve thanked your daughter for being a tolerant kid, I’ve had to thank (and apologize to) my son more than once for my columns… There’s a special place in heaven (and maybe in therapy) for children of newspaper columnists.

    And Cafe Pasadena, like I said, your Pie Day post cheered me up

  18. cindy,
    i’d say i am definitely on the conservative side of this. though i have a “public life” with the work I do, I remain quite a private person. i don’t write about my family or kids usually. i do want to respect their privacy. early on i made a similar mistake to yours–i wrote an article that featured a friend, though I changed her name. i think she figured it out because the relationship seriously cooled after that, though nothing was said. and as you know i don’t do facebook anymore. same reason, plus too time consuming.

    i really dont’ want to blather my personals all over the web, nor do i really care to read others. i’d rather converse about what we’re learning along this road of life. or what makes our hearts soar than the kind of underwear we buy our husbands. tmi for me.

    p.s. on the other hand, my 81 year old mother loves when i write about her. (wink)

  19. Thought-provoking post, Cindy. My motto is “less is more” and I often delete more from a blog post than I keep before I click publish. Once it’s “out there,” it is really out there for the world to see indefinitely. I am keenly aware of what others’ reactions might be, but I’d rather have that than too much shared or hurt feelings.

  20. Do I “overshare?”
    And I agree with Kathleen on both counts. But seriously, nothing can take the place of a good old face to face.
    And facebook, no way. Too impersonal.

  21. This post got me thinking about confessional poetry, which was all the rage in the 60s and 70s. Poetry was a good way to distill and disguise some of the more private stuff. Sharon Olds, who wrote poems about abuse, sexual and physical, got into some trouble for what some viewed as “overshare” and others saw as “lies” — people got confused, who is the person and who is the persona?

    It used to be a commonly known fact that first novels were thinly veiled autobiography. Now we have memoir.

    I think it’s a matter of personal taste and style. I’m not adverse to others “oversharing” but don’t do it myself. Blogging made me realize how different my writer’s diary is from the old fashioned journals I used to keep, for my eyes alone. There’s a lot of stuff I just won’t say. And a lot more my husband wishes I wouldn’t, lol. I do think of him before I post to FB these days.

  22. Cindy H, I hadn’t thought about confessional poetry for years! You’re right … and I’m going to go read some Sharon Olds again.

    And I agree about how different online writing is from our private writing. Even my most “personal” columns and blogs never reveal all the things that are closest to my heart. There are many things I don’t say, and favored topics I don’t ever write about — things I would only share in person with the most trusted longtime friends in my posse. Which is as it should be.

  23. I’m one who is pretty open with my ‘shares’ on my blog. It ties in with my intention to be authentic. It’s been cathartic for me, on one level, and the blogging platform has been a very effective way for me to explore & discover “my voice”.

    That said, I have made it a point to keep the identity of others private (hence “The Pirate”).

    I’m on Facebook and enjoy the immediacy of keeping in touch with others, however, I’m pretty vague when it comes to posting my status comments there, myself.

    I refuse to Twitter. For me, that’s more than I’m prepared to share and is anyone really that interested in what I’m making for dinner? Really?

    Excellent post!

    Thank you,

  24. I love good writing, no matter the source and have found the blogworld sort of like a modern version of the old literary or art/cultural salon. As the parent of a child with severe disabilities and a fairly serious writer, having a blog and reading others’ work has increased my community more than tenfold. I don’t believe that this communication takes away from “real” communication unless you’re obsessed with reading schlock — I confess that I’m frankly sort of bored with the whole “conflict” — we’ve long had tabloids and exposes and gossip that I try to avoid. As for privacy, I do get a little anxious when I write about my children, but so far I don’t think I’ve exploited them. Anyway, thanks for bringing it up.

  25. Elizabeth, you make good points, and I agree with your reference to blogging (at best) being akin to a literary salon. As I noted in the post, there’s a difference between blogs that shock/exploit (to gain a wider readership) and those that are intended to enrich everyone who reads them.

    Your blog — and others like it — is what I had in mind when I wrote this: “We glean invaluable lessons when we read memoirs, autobiographies, blogs, and essays by gifted writers. When handled with care, the personal can be universal.”

  26. Interesting points raised by that “Bowling Alone” book (sounds like one to seek out). There are people online you “talk” to nearly every day, where you might just talk to your next door neighbor once every month or so (especially during the winter when many tend to stay inside). That might give some folks a sort of faux feeling of intimacy and safety for some foe the over sharing online.
    There are things I just won’t discuss online, and it seems the younger online users don’t always have that same reticence.
    It’s nice when you know someone in real life and have the opportunity to connect with them online-or vice versa.
    We’re off today to shoot photos with a group we largely met and got to “know” online. But as well as we “know” them from our online interactions, our offline experience is a richer one in so many ways.

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