Killer Year–The Class of 2007

Confessions Of A Hypocrite On How An Author’s Life Is Never Their Own, Exactly
September 6, 2006, 8:00 am
Filed under: Killer Year Founders, Sandra Ruttan

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?

Sandra Ruttan
Author of Suspicious Circumstances
January 2007
On Life and Other Inconveniences


16 Comments so far
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I haven’t got a clue what I messed up with the format. This is what happens when you post at 1 am…

Comment by killeryear

You know, you make an excellent point about our lives no longer being our own. When you put a book, or a short out there for the world to see, it’s scary. What if they hate it?
I’m not to that point yet, I don’t have that feeling that I’m being talked about. I’m sure it will come with more exposure. I just hope they say nice things.
Good essay, Sandra, as always!

Comment by JT Ellison

Jonathan Franzen was on Fresh Air yesterday, and he spoke about this exact issue — the sense of losing possession of yourself. How do you react to people who feel like they own a piece of you because they’ve read your work, or read about you in a magazine or blog?

It makes me think about Steve Irwin. I’ve never met Steve Irwin. Don’t know anything about him except for watching him on television for years. He’s dead now and I feel sad, but why exactly? Because I think I know him, because I feel some connection to him because I watched him on TV? When Freddie Mercury died, I cried, and I still get choked up thinking about his death. I never know it. I only listened to his music. But he was important to me, like many others whose public work I’ve enjoyed or admired or cherished.

When we choose to become public people, we open up parts of ourselves, but we’re mostly doing it one-way. It’s different from our private lives, where when we make friends with someone, the connection goes both ways. I get to know you, you get to know me. Public lives travel in one direction. Strangers get to “know” public people, but public people rarely get to know their audience back. At least not with the intensity their audience knows them.

So a stranger thinks they know something about us. And in a way, they do. We’ve given tacit permission by allowing ourselves to become public. Knowledge about us, especially as we gain a following, begins to travel virally, and it morphs and mutates as it goes.

Good lord, imagine being Jennifer Aniston. Arguably most of the shit that flies around about her is orchestrated and self-created, but still. I’m willing to become a public person to a degree, but I could never handle the lives led by the people on the grocery store checkout magazines.

I think your choice to release personal information into the wild to defuse their power has merit. I can be a good way to manage your public life, even if you don’t have complete control over what happens once it’s out there. But it’s risky. Ultimately, some people are going to think they know you better than they possibly can, and some people will think they can use that knowledge for their own ends. It may be fairly benign, a name drop for instance, but there are a lot of ugly people out there. We’re risking a lot by making ourselves public, but I think we can also gain a lot. And not just career-wise. Look at the friends and the genuine personal connections we’re already making.

Risky, aye, but also with amazing possibilities.

Comment by killeryear

JT, I talk about you all the time. 🙂 Of course, you can read it for yourself on my blog…

I’m guessing I know which KY member is behind that post there, and I think you’ve put it down precisely. Merit with risk, but also amazing possibilities.

One of the things I saw on an author forum once was troll attacks from people saying the author had weird sexual preferences and bizarre disfigurements. In reading author forums, I’ve seen some really weird stuff, but it always provokes the same reaction from me: sadness and anger. If I’m interested in an author’s work to the point I check out their forum, I’m going to feel very protective of them – it’s my natural instinct. But it’s sad that people do things like that. Do people really have nothing better to do with their time? Like get a life of their own?

That’s why I’m not keen on having a forum, unless it’s moderated. Thankfully, nothing I have to worry about for years, if ever.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

Doh! That was me. I was logged in so I could work on the script that will pull an excerpt from the blog onto the home page of the KY website. (Coming soon!)

Comment by Bill Cameron

I totally understand what you’re talking about with, um, pretty much the whole post! (Really good post, BTW.) First, everyone dreams of being rich and famous because they feel that perhaps it’ll finally Validate them and everyone will Love them, but that’s not true. Just as many people will Hate you as Love you and for various reasons – they don’t like your work, your religion, your hair, who you date, etc. It’s really a mixed bag, and overall you definitely lose your privacy and perhaps in the process a sense of yourself if you’re not careful.

This is definitely a concern I have for my future as a writer and something I’ve thought about before. I’m very contradicting in the sense that I appear to be Very open about myself, but in truth I’m very controlled over what I expose about myself and am almost obssessive over this control. I definitely panic when I feel information’s being passed around about myself that I didn’t want to, which is why I freaked when I was exposed as the Christmas culprit at my work.

Sharing your darkest secrets definitely diffuses a lot of that tension. I know I definitely struggle with that, growing up in a very abusive situation and father, there’s that dark secret hanging over your head when you meet somebody new. It’s at the point in my life where I can be unashamed of my childhood which was not my fault, and Not sharing my childhood makes me Feel as if I’m keeping a secret even though I don’t want any more secrets in my life! I grew up with too many. But then how does that come up? Oh, by the way, I was molested by my father, and how was your childhood? And then you get that wide-eyed “Holy Shit” look from people when you share, as if you’ve suddenly transformed into an alien and you just went way over their heads. God, I hate that look.

It is a very complicated subject and one that I struggle with because I’m very much a control freak with my privacy, though, like I said, people wouldn’t know from meeting me because I seem to be so open about myself. I can’t even tell you how much I get told “Too much information, Mai.” But that is my facade, if they think you tell all then they won’t suspect the dark secrets that you’re keeping to yourself… I can’t even tell you the shock people seemingly experience when I do share my past with them, usually I get a response like, “I never would have guessed, you’re so cheerful and bubbly!” as if once you’ve been abused you’re marred for life and are a crazy or depressed psycho-path who can’t associate with others!

Comment by mai wen

Mai Wen, I answered you in part on my blog on this. You and I really understand each other, and you’re right: just as many people will hate you as love you. One of the first things that happened to me when I got my deal was that I was booted off the board for a local mystery writer’s group – and believe me, I have the documentation to prove it wasn’t because I defaulted in my duties or did anything wrong. The people I’d spent the most time with were the people who never congratulated me. It was an eye-opener. Not everyone will love you, and there are those who’ll only profess to love you for as long as you might be in a position to do something for you. It’s no different than anything else in life in that regard, other than the fact that more people might pay attention to how you react to it all.

The one thing about allowing your own darkness to be out there is that you know for yourself who really likes and accepts you for you. It’s the acid test. One of the staff people who left that school before I did told me a story once, of another staff person asking them how they were. They answered, “Not good, actually.” And the person’s jaw dropped and they walked away. You call that compassion? No. That’s, “Be the way I expect you to be or I won’t deal with you.”

I hate that.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

I read things like this and sometimes I have to wonder what I may be getting myself into. But you know, it’s not so much me that I’m worried about. You don’t live to 43 without having experienced some of the darker side in both yourself and others. It’s my family I worry about what I might be getting them into because after all they never asked to have a writer in the family. My husband and kids are so cool about it and so far have taken things in stride. But I do wonder how it might affect my parents. I have been away from home for so many years (except for brief periods), that they don’t really know the person I have become. To have some stranger writing or talking about their daughter… well I’m just not sure how it might affect their world, if that makes sense.

Comment by Susan Flemming

You: Sometimes when things like that happen I want to go cry, and other times I want to kick someone’s ass.

Me: I’ve had my own experiences like that. I just prefer ignoring the source and moving on. At least they’re talking about me.

I suspect you’re a pretty good ass-kicker, though!

Comment by Gregg Olsen

Susan (nice to see you, btw) I know what you mean. In my case, I have a third cousin who is a country music artist. He records his own stuff and is known primarily in Canada, he also writes a lot of stuff that is recorded by known artists in the US – his stuff has been recorded by Dierks Bentley and Gary Allan, to name a few. Deric and I went to high school together, and even back then you knew he had talent that could take him places. One of the things I found on the web once was a fan fiction sex fantasy someone had written about him. It was really hard to take, and I never told him about it. Once you step into the public domain in any sense, it’s like you’re a fair target. In his world there are aspiring singers trying to stick tapes/cds in your hands or mailing you lyrics, and they won’t even touch the stuff for fear of being accused of theft. It’s a very tough business.

Even within your own family, there can be a love/loathe reaction to your success. Of course the initial reaction is to be thrilled. The secondary reaction is the negative one (if that comes). I have a very supportive husband – if I didn’t, it would make all of this a lot harder. The worst thing is that I always want to believe the best and my husband tends to see the realities, so when a problem comes up, it’s usually followed by that “I told you so” look. I should actually listen to him more often. 😦

Gregg, if I’m angry enough to do it, yeah, I can really kick ass! But I’m a bit of a wimp, so I have to be really angry.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

Sandra I wouldn’t mind being rich but famous I don’t know about. I don’t know how the really big celebrities deal with it. Nope, not everyone will love you because there are those people out there who just have too much time on their hands, are crazy or just plain mean and/or grumpy. I think you just need to surround yourself with your friends & family, try to ignore as much of the crap as you can and deal with things that come up as best as you know how.

Comment by Andrea Maloney

Andrea, I’m thankful I’m not famous, or in one of the industries where you plastered all over the news all the time. There is a public aspect to this world, and you do have to learn how to handle yourself, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it is for some others.

And even if you’re rich… imagine winning the lottery. First thing that happens is the letters asking you for donations to this, that and the other thing. There’s such a thing as local celebrity too – and if you achieve wealth you can face that. There was a case a few months back in Vancouver where a guy was kidnapped for ransom. His family was wealthy. I used to live there and didn’t have a clue who they were, but he’d become a target. If I were rich that would be another worry to carry. Can you imagine being Dan Brown? Forget the books and all that, just the money, which we all think would be nice. But then, you really think about it and how it would change your life…

Would you ever trust anyone liked you for you or would you think they were always after you for something? I imagine it must be very hard.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

Great post, and particularly applicable to the shy world of writers. When I was in high school, I was part of the “popular” group. Heaven knows why since I was so shy I barely spoke to anyone. And boys? If a boy so much as glanced at me, I went diving for the nearest rock to hide under. So when the rumor that I was having…er…adult relations with a young man named Bill – who incidentally was even shyer than me – I was stunned.

Good luck to you dear!

Comment by Elizabeth

Ooops! Must have hit the send button before I finished my comment! Sandra, all we can do is make sure we’re doing the very best that we can so we can hold up our own heads no matter what anyone says!!

Wishing you the best!

Comment by Elizabeth

Sandra, I’m so sorry that you had such a terrible experience working at that Bible school. I’ve long been a proponent of the phrase that “Christians eat their own”, and such institutions as Bible schools are cultures unto themselves. False worlds just like the false world of the public persona of being a famous writer that you’re also talking about here. I think the best thing a writer just starting out can do is to look at examples of other writers he/she admires and how they’ve handled public success. No need to reinvent the wheel. We all worry about promoting our books but don’t stop to think that we’re also putting ourselves out there, to be scrutinized, talked about (as you said), and we are only as good as our last book. Thanks for the thought-provoking essay.

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