WRITER’S EMBARRASSMENT

mortification

One time I saw the film director Paul Thomas Anderson give a talk to a small group of college students.  A burly male student made the mistake of asking a question that went something like, “My problem is that I feel embarrassed to show my work to people. Do you have that problem?”

Anderson, who is amiable, boyish, and easygoing in person, scoffed a bit and said that if what you produce is interesting, then it should cause you embarrassment, at least to a certain degree, because it should contain elements that are personal and feel private. I agree and think it applies to artists in all art forms, particularly ones that rely heavily on narrative, like film and novels. Some things I’ve written and published embarrass me in that sense. (Others in the sense that in retrospect I think they suck, but that’s a different kind of embarrassment.) The embarrassment is acceptable and healthy.

Thing is, in the Age of Overshare, exposure of the personal/private is a badge of honor. The more you expose of yourself, the more attention you get, and attention is currency.  Does that incentive system devalue the personal/private as a creative resource?  How can you feel embarrassed if everybody’s getting applause for cataloging their masturbation sessions while pushing a comforting and collectively reinforced fiction that having done so is in some way provocative or daring?  If the stakes are vapors, what’s the point?  And is there in fact value in having a sense that you’re taking a personal risk–even if it’s just of humiliation–by writing what you’re writing?