How many of us have had that horrid moment, when we’re saying something we might not mean, exactly, but we’re venting our frustration? Suddenly, we have the feeling the person our annoyance is directed at is standing right behind us.
I have. And the shoe has been on the other foot from time to time. I’ve overheard people talking about me. One of the best was when someone sent out an email trashing me, and included me on the cc list. Best thing was, I could see the email had been sent to a bunch of people I didn’t know, and this was a long time ago, before the blog, the book deal or the time when Spinetingler really took off.
Sometimes when things like that happen I want to go cry, and other times I want to kick someone’s ass.
Since I’m airing dirty laundry, I may as well come clean about the fact that I used to work at a residential Bible school, a lifetime ago. And, as anyone who visits my blog knows, a lot of four-letter words ago. ☺ A hell of a fucking lot of four-letter words ago. Back then, I lived where I worked and I had a conduct clause in my contract, to uphold specific values and live a certain kind of life.
One of the things I learned there – one of the reasons I don’t have anything to do with formal religion in any manner now – was that the worst things about a person can’t be changed by a conduct clause. Someone can externally follow a list of ‘rules’ and still be spiteful, manipulative and hurtful. They can actually be evil. Façades don’t make you good or bad – it’s what’s in your heart that counts.
I always have difficulty when personal and professional lines blur. In the writing business, this has probably been most evident for me when it comes to blurbs. God, I hate asking people for blurbs. I have some people I know so incredibly well, they could laugh in my face at such a request and I wouldn’t take it personally. Those are the people I ask. They know I’ll still be their friend, even if they say no, because I’m not just being nice to so that I can get something – I actually like them. And there are those I really like, but just don’t have that comfort level with. The ones I’m still afraid have the ‘deer in the headlights’ reaction. They aren’t quite sure if I’m just talking to them because they can do me a favour. I would never ask those people, no matter how famous.
I know some people have said to me, “You know X and you know Y, you interviewed Z last year… Why don’t you ask them for blurbs?” They can’t understand how I feel, which partly goes back to the three years I spent working at that Bible school, when there were no boundaries between my personal and professional lives.
People used to attend conferences or the school program, and come to me (or others on staff) with all their problems. After all, we were supposed to have it together – we worked there – but I didn’t have it all together. And some of the things I knew and lived with made me sick, things that if I put here even now I could be slapped with a lawsuit for saying.
Until this year, I still had friends working there, people I do love. I would go back to visit them, my 66-year-old ‘adopted’ mother, who’s been a constant in my life for 14 years. She told me once that one of the staff said that it was nice to see I didn’t hate the place anymore.
I never did tell her that they were mistaken. It wasn’t the place, it was what it represented. Really, it was the people I hated. Oh, not everyone. I save that kind of energy for those who really deserve it.
As a result of that experience I loathe hypocrisy… but I’m a hypocrite. I got a message the other day from someone, mentioning they’d read about me in a publication, and then they carried on with the email. I’d never heard of the publication. I didn’t know what it said. I thought, How unfair. People are talking about me – in print – and I don’t know what they’re saying. Know how it feels to walk into a room and have everyone stop talking? I felt vulnerable.
Can I get upset about it? Not really, for a few reasons. I blog about people all the time. I gently teased Mark Billingham in my first post on this blog. I didn’t feel guilty, because I was referencing a news article he’d been interviewed for. It wasn’t as though I divulged personal information about him. And Mark knows I adore him (surely he knows everything I said was with sincere affection because he’s a friend?) and he can read it here if he wants to, so it isn’t like I’m whispering behind his back.
Yet I always feel a bit odd when people are mentioning my name on blogs. Sometimes, it’s nice. Sometimes it’s just strange. And when the shoe was on the other foot, when it was my name in print somewhere, I was startled and wanted to know what was said. When I couldn’t find out, I told myself not to be upset…
That it wasn’t like what I went through, all those years ago, on that island. Or all the things I’ve heard said about me by people there, in the years since I left.
The other day I screwed up. It wasn’t the first time, it won’t be the last. No, I’m not going to tell you what I said but it got me thinking about the different aspects of my new ‘public’ life and how it could affect me personally.
I understand people are going to talk about me. And that isn’t even necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s a great thing. When you have a career that relies – in large part – on word of mouth and referrals, it’s imperative that people talk about you.
I just really realized that my personal life will never be 100% my own, ever again. Not as long as I’m in this business. My words, my behaviour… It’s all subject to scrutiny and people may even report on it.
I maintain that I’m a fairly open person. Just visit my blog. Uncensored thought – and language – on whatever I feel like discussing. I’ve shared about being estranged from my parents, about my mother’s sudden reappearance in my life this year, about abuse and some of my deepest fears and insecurities.
Yet I have to admit, it’s a bit of a façade. I talk about what I’m comfortable talking about. I choose when I’ll put the information out, and how. If I don’t want to answer a question, I don’t have to. The reality is, I tell people about the darkest parts of my life because it lessens the value of that knowledge. Nobody can pull it out and rub my nose in it – if someone showed up on my blog who thought they could spill secrets I’d be able to point to a post where I already told the world about whatever that fact was. It isn’t really because I’m open – it’s because I’m protecting myself by defusing the bombs people could potentially throw. Sounds paranoid, right? Yet I remember the day my former ex got engaged to someone else, when I was still working at that Bible school. Yes, we’d been planning to get married. Obviously, things didn’t work out. But the day he got engaged to someone else, people who never had the time of day for me or spoke to me suddenly felt the need to beat a path to the office where I worked. They just all felt the need to talk to me that day, and were almost giddy with the anticipation of the moment when someone would break the news so they could see how I’d take it.
In the first few chapters of Suspicious Circumstances one of the critical elements of the story is that neither protagonist is certain of how much the other knows about them. Farraday overhears a conversation Lara has with a colleague. She suspects he heard, but can’t be sure. It’s all about doubt and trust and how hard it is to know if what you’re seeing is the real person or just a front.
I’ve had fronts of my own I’ve been hiding behind, for better or worse. I don’t like talking about the years I spent working at that Bible school, but I don’t know of any better way to explain why I struggle so much with feeling hypocritical for having public and personal lives.
Thinking all this through, I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t important if people talk about you or not. It’s only their motives that matter. Is it to stab you in the back or to report on something newsworthy about your career? Is the person drawing attention to you and your work or trying to make you look like a jackass?
This is part of the reason I find electronic communication easier than face to face when I’m getting to know someone. If a person emails you, they took the time to respond to you and chose to communicate. If you approach them at an event, what if they get that ‘deer in the headlights’ look that tells you they’d rather be anywhere but right there, stuck talking to you? For me, I live on the assumption that anyone who doesn’t want to talk to me via email wouldn’t want to talk to me in person. It’s another defense mechanism, I suppose.
And I suppose part of the reason that I focused on trust and distrust in Suspicious Circumstances was because I was still struggling with that.
Now I find myself wondering at what point it’s dishonest to stay silent. We can all pull out the big examples – those who didn’t oppose the Nazi’s, for example – and praise those who did stand up for their convictions. But how does that translate over when you’re trying to make sense of what part of your life has to become public, and what part it’s okay – or even wise – to hold back?
The reality is, in any given month I get dozens of requests for things from Spinetingler. Reviews, interviews profiles… I’ve had my share of people who’ve approached me only to see what they can get from me, and then move on to the next publication. And I see that it’s made me guarded and a bit suspicious, already, when I’m just a baby in this business.
It’s frustrating that I have to worry that my honesty about an issue might be misinterpreted or held against me. It’s discouraging that so many appear to be looking over their shoulder, checking for an escape route, in case you’re one of those people who just want to use them.
I can’t blame anyone. This isn’t about anyone’s life but my own. I’ve been maintaining all along that I’m a person first and that I shouldn’t lose myself along the way, but I’m starting to see how that can happen.
I just find it sad. Perhaps it’s inevitable. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the ‘how being published will change your life’* memo that came with my contract.
*Am I the only one who thinks there should be one of these?
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