Writing Naked: The Benefits of Exposing Yourself Through Memoir

Written by Bella Malaya Carter

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I used to believe that if I wrote what I wanted to write, I’d be arrested, my parents would disinherit me, my husband would leave me, and I’d end up living on the streets. Thoughts about self-exposure can be irrational—and scary. It’s hard enough to do the work of mining memories and turning the chaos of life into literature. If I ruminated over possible responses to my work before it was written, I’d never get anything done. The Muse shrivels under a microscope.

An award-winning author once said that the best way to get through writing a memoir is to be in denial that anyone will ever read what you’re writing. I get this. In the writing classes I teach, lesson one is about getting out of your own way so that what wants to come through you is free to do so. I tell my students no one will read their work (for now). I encourage them to give themselves permission to say anything—without judgment—and to release their shame.

Limiting, hurtful thoughts are expressions of fear. And not just any fear but destructive fear.

Veteran writers know that what they write is larger than they are. People aren’t interested in the writer, per se. They long to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books they read. They are looking for clues to help them navigate their own lives.

By the time my students are well into book projects, denying that anyone will read what they’ve written stands at cross-purposes with their goals. If they’re doing things right, they’re already cultivating a readership across multiple platforms, through blog posts, social media, readings, conferences, and more. They want people to read their book.

This is an auspicious moment in which, if you’re open to it, a shift occurs.

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You realize that denial, as a coping mechanism, may compromise your creativity and self-expression and rob you of opportunities for healing and growth. Beneath this directive to be in denial that anyone will read your writing lurks the disempowering notion that it’s not OK to speak your truth.

I slip into the numb illusion of safety that denial offers when I think—consciously or not—that by writing I’m doing something wrong or when I worry that others might disapprove of me or what I’m saying. In the past, I’ve taken these thoughts very seriously.

It was a relief when I learned that just because I have a thought doesn’t mean it’s true. I am not my thoughts; I have thoughts, but I am no longer constantly fused with them. Resisting the natural inclination to identify with my thoughts means that when I become aware of them—I suck as a writer; I’m not good enough; no one will ever give a shit what I have to say—I recognize that they are just thoughts.

I can choose to believe them and invest time and energy into them, which will enlarge them—or not. Limiting, hurtful thoughts are expressions of fear. And not just any fear but destructive fear.

There’s productive fear, and then there’s destructive fear. Productive fear is a response to a real threat in our environment. It is present-moment-focused and keeps us safe. Destructive fear happens in our heads. It stems from our imagination, from scary or unpleasant stories we tell ourselves about something that happened in the past or that might (but probably won’t) happen in the future.

Understanding this can lead us to ask ourselves, What choice will I make? Am I going to listen to destructive fear, which has a reputation for being the world’s biggest liar? Or am I going to honor my desire to write and express myself, which is a generative, creative, and soul-affirming process? Which do you trust—destructive fear or your eternal soul—to guide you through your writing and your life?

What makes memoir writing, and the exposure that comes along with it, so rich are the opportunities it presents for personal transformation and growth. The process asks us to cope with the feelings our writing draws out. It challenges us to practice acceptance and forgiveness, toward others and ourselves, which enhances the quality of our lives. We learn to say yes to our dreams and to ourselves. We grant ourselves permission to be who we are and to share ourselves through our writing. This is an act of generosity of spirit.

Writers in general, and memoirists in particular, are called to show up in their writing and in their lives wholly and unapologetically. Exposure is daunting only when a lack of self-acceptance lurks in the shadows, when egos swell, and when validation is sought from the outside, instead of within.

So I keep trying to illuminate my foibles, scars, aches, and pains, keep trying to remain connected to my soul, in order to know myself better and to live my life as fully as possible.

Few things in life are more unsettling than the thought of standing naked in front of a crowd. Even standing before a crowd fully clothed scares the daylights out of many people. I’ve heard this fear hearkens back to cave-man times, when, if you weren’t part of the crowd, if you were left alone, you might end up as a wild animal’s dinner.

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I've struggled to bare my soul in front of those I love and trust first, starting with myself.

I try to make peace with my imperfections; forgive my bad choices, my tempers, my cruelties, my insensitivities; and learn from my mistakes. It’s a practice. So is self-acceptance, which is perhaps the most important thing I teach in my writing classes. I teach art and craft, and I teach my students about platform, publishing, and reading their work in public, but I also teach them how to stand in their truth, how to dust themselves off and shine—as the exquisite naked writers they are!

The notion that you need to deny that anyone will read what you’ve written to get through your memoir has its place but will take you only so far. Why swim in murky waters teeming with eels ready to bite you with shame and fear when you could rise, like a phoenix, out of ashes and flame, resurrected and transformed?

Publishing memoirs will be fraught as long as we continue to protect our shame, as long as we believe, on any level, that there’s something wrong with what we’re saying or doing—or that there’s something wrong with us.

I am not my thoughts; I have thoughts, but I am no longer constantly fused with them.

Nakedness—in the sense of seeing and accepting myself as I am and allowing others to see my authentic self—has been a recurring theme in my life. When I write, I strip naked. Not because I’m an exhibitionist but because I’m a healer.

And I cannot heal what I cannot see. I cannot clear what I’m unaware of. My negative habits and behavior patterns have their way with me—until I become conscious of them. Once I realize what’s going on, they dissolve. It’s like shining a light onto a shadow—the light of awareness makes the shadow disappear.

So I keep trying to illuminate my foibles, scars, aches, and pains, keep trying to remain connected to my soul, in order to know myself better and to live my life as fully as possible. As a writer, I do this in public—I speak out loud—hoping that people will see not me but themselves in my story.

This post was adapted from an essay in The Magic of Memoir.

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