The first story I ever had accepted was a rapey little thing called Needing is Wanting. It was about a woman who became obsessed with a doll that comes to life, eats her cat, then fucks her to death. I remember reading it out loud at a critique group and thinking, shit, is everyone looking at me weird? I remember wanting to stop and ask everyone to just forget the last few minutes. To pretend I hadn’t written it. To burn the story and never look back at it.
Truth be told, I haven’t read it since that last edit. Every time I try, I feel acute embarrassment. Even though it got published. Even though everyone said they liked it. Even though it was the first of my work to appear in print. I just can’t.
When my novel came out and family asked about it, I panicked internally and immediately told them they didn’t have to read it. Because how was I ever going to face them after they knew all the dark things in my head? Would they want to talk about it? What would I say? The reasons I wanted to write the book became the reasons I wanted to take it back.
Telling hard stories is revealing. It’s taking off your shirt and showing your scars. It’s retracing them with a blade, whispering the story of how they came to be. Sometimes, the really hard stories mean cutting into them and reliving the trauma. Editing can be worse. How deep are you willing to cut? Can you do it without causing more damage?
Because once you’ve translated these wounds into a story, they don’t belong to you anymore. They belong to the reader and you can’t protect them. The reader could be a comfort. They might see the story the way you wanted them too and help you bandage it back up. Or they might see it and compare it to their scar. Or they might only see the knife and bury it in deeper. Or they might only see the blood and wonder what all the fuss is about.
I don’t mind the bleeding, but the sharing always freaks me out.
Stephen King has said that writing is telepathy. I think this is absolutely true. There’s no more intimate look you can give of yourself than the stories you tell. The details you focus on, the metaphors you choose, the allusions you use all give the reader a closer look at you. It can feel like any critique or bad review is a statement about you as person, not a writer. And you need to find a way to not feel like that.
It’s not really about you. It’s about the things the reader brought with them. You may have been cut by a bowie knife. And you know you wrote what that felt like. But the reader, they’ve only got a razorblade. And you have to let them use it.