Thursday, May 22, 2014

Privacy

Recently I came in to work on a Monday morning and found myself alone in the office with a rather recent coworker.  As might be expected, she and I exchanged pleasantries, asking about each other’s weekend and such.  However, since we’re only acquaintances, I didn’t say much about what I’d done but kept my observations totally general.

Then the Fashionista and her mother arrived.  They knew that my weekend had featured a quick road-trip to Seattle to visit a friend, so naturally they asked how my trip was.  I replied that it was very good and enjoyable, but again said little more.  At that point, though, the new coworker suddenly burst out, ‘You didn’t tell me you were taking a trip!’  As you might imagine, the atmosphere at once became rather strained. 

A private person can be the most delightful!
You see, I visited a friend who really values privacy, so I had little intention of telling anyone about the trip.  Even the Fashionista (one of my three closest friends!) only knew was that I was visiting my friend in Seattle and no further details.  I had no intention of discussing my little weekend adventure in the office, so I had to make blundering excuses to my coworker at the risk of treading on her toes (which I probably did, to a certain extent), even though really she had no particular right or need to know what I had done. 

Afterwards, because of the awkwardness involved, I got to thinking about privacy in general.  My coworker, while quite a pleasant addition to the office, doesn’t have much of a natural filter.  She spent one lunch soon after she was hired explaining the gastro-intestinal difficulties which her daughter suffers when she eats gluten.  Everyone at the table left wondering what the poor daughter would think if she knew her ailments had become the topic of lunch conversation! 

Anyway, I realized that there may be at present a certain lack of filter in all of society. 

I remember reading a memoir a few years ago, and while the book was delightful overall, the author felt it necessary to tell us not just that she had a flirtation with a French boy while she was an exchange student, but that she invited him to stay the night at her house-mother’s home, while the woman was out of town.  The story felt tawdry, and while I still enjoy the author’s blog and writing, I have never had quite the same respect for her since reading that far too personal anecdote.

Some things are private, after all, and too much mixing of them into public things becomes awkward and embarrassing. 

I guess I have always felt that if anyone else is involved in an event in my life, I’d better be quite careful about what I say about that event, in case it reflects badly on the other person, or even on myself and how I treated the person.  I do understand the impulse to be transparent and honest, to disclose even inappropriate things about my life in order to make myself accessible to my peers.  However, even if I have the right to say whatever I like about myself, I certainly can’t take the same liberty with other people.  They in turn have their own right to disclose their secrets or keep them, without anyone’s interference.

Since I write a blog (somewhat sporadically!), of course I feel the tension between wanting to reveal my private life and wanting to protect myself and those around me from the strange and wonderful world of the internet.  Perhaps because so many intimate and personal things are available and sometimes for sale on the internet, people have become used to a world without veils.  However, as any good writer knows, what’s not said is sometimes more valuable than what is said.  The omission prompts the curious human mind to imagine further, to fill in details, to create a mental world in which to set the story. 

I think that maintaining a certain privacy has the surprising effect of awakening our thoughts. 

In Lessons from Madame Chic, Jennifer Scott talks about maintaining an ‘air of mystery’ à la Française.  If a blogger sticks to her chosen topic with occasional, discreet personal anecdotes, she seems far more intriguing, far deeper than if she generates an audience by telling all her most intimate secrets. 

Beautiful things are often discreet!
I can’t say I’m immune to the appeal of the ‘confessional’ writer, but I never respect such people, no matter how fascinated I may be by their experiences.  Likewise, I have little respect for novelists who devote too much of their writing to the environment of the story rather than to the plot itself.  If, on the other hand, a novelist sticks to her story and doesn’t throw all her efforts into world-building, I always find her story to be cleaner, crisper and more moving.  Since I’ve been editing the TMI (in a manner of speaking!) out of my novels over the past two years, I’ve become much more aware of the value of saying little rather than much. 

If we parade our private lives in public, if we include every possible detail in our stories, we actually disrespect our acquaintances and our audience.  We assume that the only thing that will interest them is sensationalism; we distrust that they will be able to imagine the world we create without having everything described for them first.  Granted, people (myself included) may be drawn in by the easy entertainment offered, but from my own experience, I’d say we seldom leave it with a good taste in our mouths. 

Privacy and mystery and balanced minimalism actually build a structure in the world and in fiction.  We can imagine what we don’t see, supposing the best of others, imagining happy stories for them, envisioning the world of the storyteller as our world too.  

4 comments:

  1. I agree with you, that our personal lives should be kept personal. We don't need to know everything about a writer - it's their work that is important, not how they live!

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    1. I couldn't agree more! I actually avoid finding out too much about writers, if I can help it, since I find it ends up giving me odd biases for or against their work, rather than letting the work speak for itself.

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  2. I value my privacy to the extent that I have a nom-de-plume for my accounts and that few know just who I am. While I can write about my situations I think it is the how I write about them that makes them commonly enjoyable to others.

    I am not yet immersed in the vast available social media sites. And even limit 'likes' on my other blogs to decrease the attention of every pair of eyes that can read. While I enjoy sharing my writing and reading other writers I do not find it necessary anymore to visit every one who breaths my way. Am I cutting my nose to spite my face? Do I really need to have those folks who are selling themselves mostly off topic of what I enjoy? Do I need to know about the latest zombie movie or how to train an elephant? Just saying while the internet is indeed a fascinating place with many doors to open - I don't have to be the one to open each and every one of them.

    Cheers!

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    1. Thank you for the comment. Your observation is very thought-provoking - the other side of privacy, I guess, where one has to limit one's own curiosity to a certain point, to avoid letting in unnecessary things that perhaps sabotage one's own inner content.

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