The Line Between Public and Private

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about declaring one’s points of view in life. Everything from big things like religion, political stance, sexual orientation, etc., to small things like favorite authors, music tastes, and birthdays. Identifiers, basically, is what I’m talking about, and what we choose to call ourselves – and whether or not we choose to do so publicly.

I think there’s a fine line of choice in declaration. We can announce our labels because Facebook asks us to and that’s just what’s expected. Or we can announce our labels because we feel that it’s a way to be most honest about our authentic self. We can keep quiet because we’re ashamed or holding secrets, or we can choose not to declare because we simply don’t feel it’s anyone else’s business – don’t feel the need to justify our choices.

An example: I try really hard to stay out of politics in the digital sphere, even though I have strong opinions and a deep investment in current issues, for many different reasons. Those reasons vary from a weariness of pointless arguments that change no one’s mind to an awareness that I’m trying to build an author platform and that isolating potential readers isn’t wise.

So for these reasons and many, many more (it is always more complex than it sounds), I have kept silent. If someone asks me about my beliefs or anything like that, I answer them honestly if I feel comfortable doing so; I tell them it’s none of their business if it’s not. I don’t lie. I’ve never lied about such things, because I would find it personally injurious. On a deep, self-love level, I need to remain accepting of who I am.

Yet… I don’t declare. And so I wonder when not declaring becomes the same as keeping a secret. Especially in today’s world, where everyone is public about not just every opinion they have but every thought they have, one has to make a conscious effort not to reveal their stances. At times, to me, that effort begins to feel like secret-keeping. At times I feel the urge to tweet or blog about personal things. What if someone fills in their own blanks and gets them wrong? I hate the idea of being misinterpreted due to a need for privacy, but I also hate the idea of throwing away privacy for the sake of appearances.

Where’s the line?

I suspect the line is different for every person – and possibly different for each of us depending on our stage in life, mood, circumstances, etc. It’s not as if I haven’t blogged about personal things before. Blogging is inherently personal, to me, so it’s inevitable that I share some things. I blogged about my dad’s alcoholism and death because that was a “secret” that felt personally damaging to keep quiet about; speaking openly about shame subjects is a form of rejection – a way to refuse to buy in to what society tries to sell us. Not to mention that my only nonfiction writing (my poetry memoir Hope and Other Myths) is about this, so I’ve always been aware that this part of my life can’t remain private.

Other issues, like my battles with depression, my sweet husband, my hard-earned ‘life lessons,’ etc. have all come up organically, when I feel driven to talk about them – whether to share my experiences, hear advice or support, or whatever. Yet, somehow, there are large pieces of myself not represented online. And you know what? For now, I like it that way.

In a time when the very details of our meals, outfits, and moods are snapped and shared for friends, family, and strangers alike, I still value my right not to share. Not because I’m ashamed of my beliefs, stances, or decisions (I’m not), but because I believe there’s inherent value in allowing ourselves privacy. Just as sharing something can make it feel more real, keeping something personal can make it feel more authentic.

I love my blog, I love the internet, and I truly do love our modern culture of public life, but I don’t want to become the sum of my represented parts. So the line, for me, is constantly shifting near and far, but I appreciate the fact that there is a line, and I hope to keep it around.

Where’s the line for you?

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  • Regina Richards

    I have one or two strong opinions on which there is no wiggle room, but lots and lots of opinions that are subject to change as I learn and grow in my life journey. I do my best to live my truth without assuming my truth should be everyone else’s truth as well. Even my nearest and dearest are entitled to opinions that are radically different from mine. I’m very happy to not be other people’s judge. I am even happier to not be judged. So there are opinions I keep to myself at times because there is no benefit to me or others in sharing them. I don’t think that’s secretive. I think it’s just common sense to keep my life as simple and conflict-free as possible. It also allows me to interact with a wider variety of people since they don’t turn away because we don’t agree on one thing or another and thus deny us both the life enhancing experience of each other. Even people who disagree on some big issues can share harmony on many other issues.
    All that said, like you, I won’t deny who I really am if asked. I will either tell the truth or decline to engage.

    • So well said, Regina. I agree with every single part of this. Thank you for phrasing something I couldn’t quite get out!

  • Traci Kenworth

    I feel the same. I don’t like to put a lot of info out there unless I feel by doing so, I can help others. Most people don’t even know I’m a writer. It’s a private thing right now for me, until it becomes otherwise.

    • That’s totally reasonable to me. There’s a lot of pressure these days to “share yourself” publicly in order to make personal connections, but I don’t think *over*sharing is necessary for genuine connections. Everyone’s line is different, and I’m glad you know and seem comfortable with yours!

  • A. B. Davis

    Annie, this is truly food for though. My brain is chewing on it as we speak. I had this same internal struggle when I wrote about how the querying process went for me, and I hadn’t really thought about all the repercussions of putting the things out there that I had originally intended. I wanted to say more in an effort to fully explain the situation in a way that would help others–and I thought more specific details would do that, I suppose–and also control readers’ perspectives of me. But you’re right: to maintain some semblance of privacy, you cannot always control what others think about you, and you cannot always put it all out there no matter how good your intentions are. Very sage advice, here, Annie. And as always, I appreciate your insights.

    • Oh, thank you Ashley! I’d hate for you to hold back something you feel needs to be said, though — especially just because of my own struggles. I do think some privacy is wise, but I also think stepping outside that takes bravery, and is sometimes worth doing. Of course this is all on a case-by-case basis, and varies for each person. Why is it never simple?

  • Cynthia Robertson

    Ooh, this post hits so close to home for me, Annie. I too,
    have strong reservations about sharing ‘all of me’ in such public forums. And
    like you I sometimes wonder if I am being too secretive. I have always been a
    very private person, valuing my time alone, and my own company and thoughts
    easily as much as the time I spend with others. Also, it’s a bit embarrassing
    and narcissistic feeling, to post some personal stuff to my blog, or fb; it
    makes me cringe, just a little, at times. Some people seem to have an easy time
    of it. They are open and not bothered, apparently, and I think that’s very
    charming in its way, and like it.

    On-line identity is a strange modern concept, and I am still
    figuring out where the line is, as well.

    • I wonder how much of this has to do with personality types? I am decidedly introverted, also valuing my alone time and privacy. It could be that you and I place more emphasis on that than someone who’s very extroverted and perhaps places more value on social energy, etc.

      I know what you mean. For me the narcissism feels most acute when I’m posting mundane personal things. I guess there’s a fear of presumption there on my part — like who cares what I did this weekend, etc. At the same time, though, I also admire many people who are open with their lives in public forums, so I guess it comes back to personal choice again.

      You have a great point that this problem is a rather modern one. I find that both exciting and scary. Exciting because we’re part of the wave that’s paving the way for this type of life, but scary because we have few role models and even fewer past examples who can tell us how things have turned out.

  • For me the line tends to be pretty conservative, at least for now, but I don’t think it’s set in stone. I think it’ll move around depending on where I am in my life.

    I like all of your points, but there’s another consideration for me. A lot of the best stuff I’ve read in and around the internet has been intensely personal to the author. I can’t help but to admire writers who lay bare so much of themselves, especially since it’s often such a moving result.

    • Man, you’re so spot on, Lura. I can’t believe I skipped over that, especially considering that most of my ‘successful’ online writing has been of that nature — intensely personal and revelatory. I’m not sure if my stance on that has shifted or if I’m just going through a phase or cycle of some kind, but I definitely feel further away from that now. It might just be the difference between feeling called to tell a personal story vs. feeling obligated to. I too admire writers that do this, though, so you’ve really given me something to think about here. Thank you!

  • jclementwall

    I interviewed Cheryl Strayed hours before she came out as Sugar, and I asked her about this because she’d revealed so much in her column… but under Sugar’s name, not her own. She said that even though it may seem that she’d revealed everything, in fact, she’d never revealed anything she didn’t want people to know. There were many things, she said, she’d never written about, and that was on purpose.

    I was struck by her answer because, if you’ve read Sugar, you know how self-revelatory her advice always was, beautifully, touchingly, bravely so. I realized then that not only does everyone draw the line in a different place, but that everyone has a line, even the people who seem to lay themselves bare all the time, even they have parts of themselves that are not on public display. (Which is somehow reassuring to me.)

    As for me, the line isn’t fixed. It depends on the subject and the strength of my feelings, and, as you point out, those are pretty fluid things.

    • That is reassuring, somehow. I remember when that happened, and how cool it was that you were involved. I had never known about Sugar until you started talking about her and I went back and read some of her stuff. She is indeed courageous and honest. It’s nice to hear that even people like her are aware of this ‘line,’ and that they create theirs with purpose and respect. That gives me quite a bit of hope.

  • I’ve always found it surprising that people are so open about their opinions when it comes to religion and politics as if there are no boundaries between real, personal friends, and the acquaintances on the net. If someone were invited to their spouse’s office party or a neighborhood barbecue, where they don’t really know most of the people there, would it be acceptable to pull up a soap box, stand on it, and announce, “I support __, which is the right way to think and here’s why…” Seems to me that’s a quick way to make enemies and very rude to basically say, “Unless you agree with me, you’re wrong and your opinions aren’t valid.”

    This is especially true of writers. Orson Scott Card wasn’t enough of a lesson? I’ve stopped following blogs where the owner broadcast opinions I really disliked. I have many strong opinions, but I don’t force others to read about them, and it’s no one’s business what they are.

    • I am too, Lexa, but it’s become so common I’ve started to question my own desire for privacy. I’ve made some very genuine friendships through my online connections, and I can see how some people would get wrapped up in that and forget that there are also near- and complete strangers watching, too. I put up with a few people who constantly talk politics and/or are righteous about their opinions, but only if 1) they offer valuable content that I can’t get elsewhere and 2) their beliefs and statements aren’t offensive to me.

  • Really thought provoking. My line is always moving. Though I do write about religion, I actually do not say HALF of what I want to say for fear of offending friends and family (which my generally innocuous religion posts already have). I will never touch politics. There are family issues with extended family I wouldn’t touch either or even allude to. So does that make me less authentic? I don’t think so. I think it makes me realistic and smart about the necessary for peace in the family, which is more important than my blog.

    • Yes, everything you’ve said feels right to me. I guess you touched on a big part of what’s bothering me: the unspoken accusation that keeping things back is the same as being ‘inauthentic.’ Authenticity is a high priority for me, and sometimes I feel it conflicting with my (equally high) need for privacy. I’m glad to hear you draw a distinction. Thanks for the comment, Nina!

  • Julia Munroe Martin

    Boy can I relate to this, Annie…this has always been a question in my mind since I first started blogging when I was certain I’d never mention any personal beliefs about anything…nor anything about my personal life. That lasted about a week, btw, but I still have a line and still think about it a lot. For me, like you, the line constantly shifts as well, but I also hope and plan to keep some line between my public face and my private life. I sometimes wonder and worry, however, if the ability to do that becomes harder the longer one is on line as the lines between public and private begin to blur.

    • I definitely feel like the ability to separate becomes weaker over time. As you said, the line begins to blur, guards get let down, etc. Strangely, perhaps because I’ve become so aware of this, it also becomes harder for me to share when I *do* want to. It feels weightier and more intentional than it used to — or perhaps just more “public” because my readers have grown in number.

  • Kristen Ploetz

    I think about this all the time, and increasingly more so as I come to a decision about whether to start writing about something that has affected me personally, but by no means solely. To blog about it seems too open and unfair to the other players, and there are drawbacks to the book format too. So what then? Fictionalize it? Perhaps. But the drive to write about this topic, in some format, is getting stronger, partly because it does not seem widely covered. I want to feel not so alone about it, and connect (even if indirectly) with others who’ve gone through the same experiences. But that’s the problem with not knowing where the line is, at least not until it’s too late. I feel like I know definitively where the line is on many issues/topics, but not all. So what you speak of here, is all at the forefront of my mind. So happy I stumbled upon your site by seeing the title of your post in a comment you left on Nina’s blog–and I will certainly return again!

    • Thank you so much, Kristen! Your situation sounds tricky, especially if the ‘other players’ are still around/involved. That’s always a rough aspect of nonfiction. I think Patrick Ross has talked about that before on The Artist’s Road; do you follow him? He might have some more insight for you. Of course you’ll have to find your own line, and I certainly understand your struggle. I’ve fictionalized a lot of my experiences, beliefs, etc. partially for this reason, as I think most fiction writers do. That might be a good way to ‘test the waters’ on the subject, so to speak. I wish you the best of luck finding your line, and thank you for stopping by!

      • Kristen Ploetz

        Thank you–I am not aware of Patrick Ross and will check him out! I’m also reading Beth Kephart’s book, Handing the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, and it is really wonderful at helping me sort out this process of which direction to go. Thanks again–great blog (I poked around after commenting).

  • Carie Juettner

    “Just as sharing something can make it feel more real, keeping something personal can make it feel more authentic.” I love this sentence. There’s a lot of truth there.

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    I know I’m a week late to this conversation, but I just came up for air and wanted to say: WOW. Great topic. As someone who’s a bit older than you (ah hem… email did not exist when I went to college), I find the whole “our-lives-on-display” and “for-consumption” a bit unnerving. And I’ve never been a private person, mind you. Like you, I just think that some things need to be private to be savored — to be “your own” and only for YOUR consumption. I also think we spend too much time wondering how we’ll “portray” ourselves day to day — consciously and unconsciously — (on Facebook, blogs, Twitter), rather than LIVING and truly experiencing the minute-by-minute moments of life.

    And, as you’ve noticed, I’ve pulled back considerably from social media — mostly for those reasons. So perhaps I am becoming more private by today’s standards, whereas in the past, I’d have been considered a social, gregarious, storyteller who let too many details escape from her private life. The change has been the medium in which I share those stories: face-to-face in groups of trusted friends, vs. in groups of friends and distant acquaintances (or strangers), virtually. Such an interesting social dynamic that is playing out before our eyes. Thanks for taking such an in-depth look at it.

    • It’s so nice to hear from you! I have noticed that you’ve stepped back a bit, as have I. It’s interesting to hear you point out the distinction between “privateness” online vs. in real life. There’s definitely a big difference there — mainly the proponent of trust, I think. We can trust people we know; it would be foolish to trust people we don’t know, and we can’t know everyone who comes across things we post online. That’s maybe a sad factor, in some ways, especially in the relationships we build online. Many of those relationships are limited by what can be said in public view. Of course they aren’t *actually* limited, because we can always take things private via email, etc., but how many people never think of that? Interesting to flip the problem. I hadn’t thought of it until you commented. Thanks Melissa!

  • Natalia Sylvester

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this, too. There’s a line between keeping parts of ourselves private because we choose to, and keeping parts of ourselves private out of fear that others won’t like what we have to say. Sometimes I feel like I want to stand up and shout, very publicly, about the things that matter, and other times I wonder if social media’s the right outlet. I fear isolating people I’ve connected with based on things like writing, reading, books etc…all for the sake of things like politics. But then again, if I were to take a stand, wouldn’t the connection with like-minded people grow stronger? It’s such a complex topic…

    • Yeah, you’ve pretty much summed up exactly how I feel. Seriously, I could’ve written that exact paragraph. For me, I’ve tended to err on the side of keeping quiet, because I do think strong opinions on politics, etc., isolate (potential) followers. Sometime I think, “Well if they don’t agree with this they won’t like me/my work anyway…” but then I remind myself that not ALL of my work reflects ALL of my views. My picture books are a great example. They don’t reflect any political beliefs at all. Do I really want to put off future readers because I feel strongly about ___”? So far, my answer is usually no. =/