writing in public

by Peter Sacks (love you Mina!)

I get asked more about sharing my life than anything else. As in: how do I share more of myself online? How do I feel comfortable showing people my writing when I don’t think it’s perfect? Do you ever feel weird being so exposed?

A lot of people are interested in sharing more, but they’re also horrified by the potential repercussions. I can relate: viewed through a certain lens, telling the world about your life has endless downsides and very few upsides. You could come across as pathetic, or too privileged, or out of touch; your writing or lifestyle choices might be mocked. At any time you could get cancelled for saying something controversial (fingers crossed for me, guys). Anyone who’s had a tweet or an essay go wildly viral knows how scary it feels: like inviting five friends to a party only to have 500 people lined up outside the door.

For a long time I didn’t write because I was scared by the idea of “judgment.” In real life, I’m not a very confessional person. I like to think through things myself, and I make decisions with input from only one or two people. I also grew up in the era of xoJane and Marie Calloway, reading first-person confessional essays that felt more exploitative than empowering. I never wanted to tell anyone everything.

And yet: sharing is sometimes the only way to illustrate your point. I’m interested in writing about psychology and non-attachment from a first-person perspective. That means I choose to write about my life, about past embarrassments and ex-boyfriends and depressive episodes, how I got from where I’ve been to where I am now. Personal anecdotes make writing stronger. The deepest knowledge always comes from what we’ve lived through.

Here’s how I think about writing in public: you have to weigh the importance of feeling safe with the importance of being known. My therapist once described writing as a way for me to gain control over how I am seen (insert joke about the “being perceived” meme). I agree with that: instead of relying on someone else to narrativize my life or offer an observation about me, I use writing as a way to assert my own narrative. It’s how I remain more subject than object, how I maintain conviction in my own agency. Writing in public is a way to get constant feedback—to prove to myself that what I’m writing is worth something to someone. The other day a friend told me at a party that he could see from my Substack that I was trying very hard to get better. I can’t explain what a privilege it is that someone in the world pays attention to how hard I’m trying. From a practical perspective, there’s also the question of how can anyone love your writing if no one gets to see your writing? It’s perfectly fine to wait for years, to be alone with your words, but will you resent yourself if you wait forever? How can you expect anyone to care if no one even knows?

I could live without telling anyone anything, but on some level that feels like a sad way to live. Because no one would know about a single beautiful thing that happened to me. And no one would be able to understand all the bad things. I want to be able to tell one person or ten thousand about how you told me I was the person you loved most in the world. About crying into my stupid pâté at the restaurant, rolling my face up to the crimson ceiling and the next morning examining the little crescents that marked my palms for days. I might not use your name but at least I can write it down, put on paper something that’s taking up space in my soul.

I still feel too exposed all the time. It’s still scary. But it’s like running, or lifting, or anything else that requires time and consistency. You keep going because practice is all that you get, you keep going because you believe you’re getting better even though it feels like you aren’t, you keep going as a way to demonstrate your devotion. We live in a time where attention is scarce and everything is commoditized. Sometimes I think my belief in the power of personal experience is naive, that there’s no value to memory when everything around us keeps accelerating, but still: I keep writing because I have something to say.