Saturday, May 29, 2004

Transplant 2

I originally posted the following on my other blog (see left sidebar link). But I wanted to add a few extra thoughts to it in this, my new sanctuary of expression. (The Verbarium?)

A writer’s caveat...

Most of us little scribblers are intensely self-conscious, which is also why many writers are so intensely shy about their work. A writer’s confession: I was really hoping to get some feedback about my writings I posted here. I hate to sound wheedling and needy -- but, well, I’m a writer, so I'm wheedling and needy. Humor me or don’t humor; I figured I should be honest.

Speaking of being honest, as some of you know, I’ve put my foot in my (or someone else’s) mouth a few times on this blog. The delicate issue is finding and respecting the boundary between private and public communication. The fundamental problem is that I have a different --apparently very different -- view of the social world. I’ve heard about unspoken rules and common courtesy, but then my eyes start to glaze over and I lose the bead. I guess I have very little skill (or patience?) for separating politeness from inane, insincere human custom. I don’t so much like chit chat. Not only is it usually shallow, but its whole point is to be shallow. Chit chat is what we modern humans invented to keep at a safe distance form anyone else. Chit chat is hypocrisy because it is a sustained effort to feign interest in someone you’re merely checking the meter on. But of course, you can’t just completely do away with chit chat; that would be so rude. Even I have to play the game, and I do --with a grimace.

The same goes for phone etiquette. I hate the hoops we hold up on each end of the receiver to control the pace and content of a phone call. “Well, I’ll let you go." Do people seriously mean this when they say it? You only let someone go if they ask to leave. “I’ll let you go" is a coy way of saying “I want to go." I’ve been tempted more times than I can count simply to say on the phone, “Um, I don’t want to talk anymore, but I’ll talk to you later." Or, “Hey, can we stop talking for now, this conversation is going nowhere?" But you can’t just say that; that would be so rude.

What’s my point? I have little tolerance for banal etiquette. I prefer honesty more than almost any other virtue. Honesty is not simply a clear transmission of information. Honesty is one of the highest forms of intimacy. Adam and Eve lived, for a time, as naked as the bees. They touched each other and they weren’t ashamed to do so. They were honest at every level of their beings. But then they sinned; and now we have chit chat.

Honesty is intimacy, and for me, my blog is a very intimate place. But apparently I can be too honest. I can be too intimate. All I can say in my defense is that that is what writers do. Writers are traditionally such recluses because they must save themselves for the intimacy of honesty. They hide themselves to reveal themselves. They cloak themselves in ink and paper to bare themselves. They keep secrets to keep no secrets.

Secrets. Keeping secrets. That’s one of the hottest buttons in a writer’s life. Most people have a “PRIVATE" file in which they rather quickly file countless experiences and thoughts as “their own." A conversation between friends is a shared experience, so it’s PRIVATE. The general assumption in most people’s minds is that, unless someone explicitly says, “This is on the record," then something is off the record. Most people’s hands cup around life and hoard it away for safekeeping. But writers by nature -- or at least by profession -- almost perversely toss what’s in the hand into the wind. It’s puzzling for a writer to share something only with another person.

But, unfortunately, I’ve learned from painful firsthand experience how uncomfortable it is for some, perhaps most, people to see what they thought was a private or intimate matter sprayed all over a blog. I feel bad for breaking faith; but I feel just as bad for feeling stifled about matters I can only dimly see as a private affair. I guess I have a cynical suspicion that privacy is too often a codeword for insincerity or cowardice.

And when I think of cowardice I think of the suburbs. And I don’t like most suburbs. Most suburbs are whitewashed tombs. Most suburbs are covered cesspools of private sin. Suburban lives are as smoothly and as continually smoothed over as the prim streets cutting through them. The only places I like less than suburbs are gated communities, human-sized Petri dishes of affluence and indifference. You can live in the suburbs for a decade and never know your neighbor. Certainly you could do the same thing in the inner city -- but it would be a lot harder to pull off. In the inner city, you see other people’s laundry hanging out to dry. You hear other people’s lives cutting through walls and alleys. You smell other people’s dinner cooking creeping from window to window. But in the suburbs you see your neighbor only when he wants you to see him; you hear him only when he talks to you; you smell his food only when he invites you over. The suburbs are safe because they are boring. You’d have to live in them for a long time to know why you don’t want to live in them for a long time.

I don’t want my blog to be a suburb. I want my blog to be a place where I want to smell other people’s meals, hear other people’s gripes, see other people’s laundry fluttering each week. I don’t do well in the suburbs; but some people are pretty fond happy in them. I don’t do well with assumed boundaries; but some people thrive on them. I invite you all to crash here whenever you want, to smell my meals, to see my laundry, to vent here -- even if that venting is a request for less openness.

Now I can only imagine how some of you are taking what I’m saying. “Doesn’t he just get it that there’s a line?" Well, no, I don’t just get it. That’s the rub. It is a genuine Christian struggle for me to learn to respect -- by faith -- the fact that not everyone is as garrulous or as direct as I am about most things. As I’ve said before and as I say now, I never write a word on this blog, or anywhere else, with a malicious, manipulative intent. I’m just trying to be honest. It’s genuinely hard for me to see “the line." Not that I’m utterly, or still less, willfully, blind to it. Believe it or not, I’ve kept quite a lot off-blog out of respect for privacy. But, as I like to say, perfection is a thankless job. The problem isn’t the majority of life that I keep off-blog; it’s those few dastardly details that do slip onto the screen.

Maybe it’s paranoia, maybe it’s learning to understand other people’s boundaries, maybe it’s learning to read my audience -- whatever it is, I have a heightened fear these days of stepping on people’s toes (and I don’t just mean on this blog). “Can I mention this?" “Is this too personal?" “Is this private?" Of course, the trouble is that, when the suburban citizen in me is done hemming and hawing, the urban writer in me all but doesn’t care whether something is off-limits. As I said, it’s an honest struggle. For whatever reason, I only dimly care that I sometimes seem offensive. It’s more than a verbal quirk that the opposite of being offensive is being defensive.

I’m enough of a coward in most of my life; writing is the one place I feel I can really stand up. I’m also so socially awkward -- despite how it might look to some of you; writing is the one place I feel I can stretch out and flow. If I had my way, truth be told, I’d take most things onto this blog. Let there be light. Come, let us reason together.

When I write, I don’t expect you to agree with me.I don’t expect you to like what I say. Nor do I expect you to like how I say it. I don’t expect you to tell all. But I do expect you to get in may face if you want to. I love hearing from you. All I ask is for grace. I may seem cocksure and snotty; but ‘snot true. I’m a leaf on the wind. Please just give me the grace to err, to say too much or too little, and then God will give me the grace to grow.

I realize, to my chagrin, that what said might portray me as a selfish, careless confidence breaker. But no: confidentiality is one of my highest priorities. Once I understand something is meant to stay between me and someone else, there it stays. All I'm trying to explain is how insensitive I am to the assumed confidentiality of most interactions. Your secret's safe with me. ;)

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