Writing for Strangers

by Maryka Gillis

Throughout my years of writing, both personally and academically, I have found it much harder to share my writing with friends and family than with strangers and acquaintances. To mitigate my struggle, manifest in caution and writer’s block, professors have told me to write as if I’m writing for no one. Translation: I shouldn’t censor intimate or difficult material because I’m concerned about readers’ reactions. 

It works for me if there is no specific audience but, when writing for a class, I often edit content according to what I want to reveal or conceal from my peers. After the initial shock of exposing my writing has subsided, it is surprisingly easy to share personal information to a class, in part out of necessity; most of what I write is immensely personal. Difficult and developmentally significant events are the richest writing material because I have the most to say about them, and writing is a means of processing them. Normally I keep my history quiet, I find it easier to share intimate details in a classroom environment. I have written numerous poems and personal essays that I would struggle to share with people close to me. On the flipside, I know things about classmates that I don’t know about some of my closest friends: people tend to write about difficult childhood experiences, parents, siblings, sex, love, heartbreak, death, travel and any other subject that has a particular blend of tenderness and trauma.

Recently, I started wondering why it is easier for me to share my writing with acquaintances and strangers than with family and friends. In some contexts, it makes sense; sharing a piece written about someone close risks offending my subject or revealing more about how I feel about the person than I’m comfortable with revealing. But why is it so difficult to share work unrelated to people I love and know well? It is counterintuitive: my writing should be easier to share with someone close to me because there is less risk of judgment or evaluation. A stranger may choose not to associate with me if something I write is distasteful to him or her and, though my close friends may not take something well, they have a sense of my character beyond what I say and write. But more often than not, sharing with family members and friends who have known me for a long time proves more difficult than sharing with people I don’t know at all. Sure, it is not particularly easy to share with my grandparents how many drinks I have each week or what my sex life consists of, but why is it more difficult for me to show them my writing?

I expect much of this discomfort stems from our culture, particularly our generation’s focus on good presentation. Maintaining control has been drilled into me since childhood, particularly controlling my decision-making process, my life path and my emotions. If I can’t control something, I “fake it ’til I make it,” as the saying goes. Despite a growing focus on mental health, a controlled external facade is so important in our society that open vulnerability can be difficult. 

Part of it, I believe, is because I value what my loved ones think of me much more than the opinions of strangers or acquaintances. Intimate writing lends itself to strong reactions and interpretations, be they positive or negative opinions. Sharing such writing with close friends and family presents the risk that they could react negatively. Also, I have found that loved ones use more discretion when divulging what they think of my art and work. They are less likely to be honest if they aren’t enthusiastic about my creative process. Part of my hesitation lies in the fear of being treated too kindly. 

There is less concrete risk when I am vulnerable to my friends, but the information sticks. For those I don’t know well, my memories or explorations I write will figure in to their perception of me. Luckily that perception does not hold as much weight. There is no expectation of a future relationship, so what they learn about me will probably not be revisited months or years into the future. With people who are a significant part of my life, the information I share will be a part of our relationship for a long time. 

In large part, writing is a way of saying what I can’t express verbally. I’ve experienced situations in which it is easier to write someone a letter or poem describing how I feel than to tell them directly. Writing allows time for reflection and revision and I can say what I mean more precisely. This can be scary because, once written, my words are no longer in my control. They are there for interpretation, and I can’t be there to defend them when their meaning gets jumbled. Though I can represent what I mean more accurately in writing, if my sentiments change, my words don’t. 

Writing has an authority that speech lacks. There is something about writing down thoughts and feelings that gives them more of a presence than just saying them aloud. It cements them. Written language is irrevocable, particularly with the accessibility the Internet creates--once an idea is put out, it is impossible to confirm that it hasn’t been copied. Written information can be reproduced limitlessly. They no longer exist only in the author’s mind. If I only wrote on paper and shared my writing with no one, the papers could be found by another person (probably snooping) and they would no longer exist in isolation. 

I recognize the concrete nature of writing not only as a writer but as a reader, too. I recently received a letter from a close friend discussing the sacred nature of the written word. Our letter correspondence requires moreintention than a phone conversation without the reward of an immediate response. Similarly, personal writing takes forethought. As a phone or Skype conversation just requires coordination and the time it takes to have a conversation, talking is more often fluid and requires less discretion than writing. It does not elicit the same intentional word choice and reflection.

Written words carry weight. Though it can be more challenging, writing can be powerful in a way that verbal language can’t. It demands to be taken seriously for its irrevocability and the thought it requires. Sharing with close friends is difficult for me, but it has the potential to bridge distance that speech cannot. It empowers both my reader and me. Whenever I do share a piece of writing about a loved one with him or her, they can empathize with me more clearly. I divulge something that allows them to understand my perspective more concretely. A roommate once told me I could share an essay I wrote about family as a SparkNotes of my childhood. 

When I share writing, the relationship is enhanced on both ends. My reader can better understand where I’m coming from, and I can engage with my reader’s reactions and opinions of my writing and its content. Pushing myself to be vulnerable is the most invaluable aspect of having others read my work. It moves me to be more open and it initiates the process of building trust. The more I share my writing, the easier it becomes. Sharing allows the possibility of using my written language to reach deeper into relationships with readers in an intimate, reciprocal process.