My daughter makes a point of being the first person to “like” my new blog posts. I freely admit that I await with eagerness the WordPress notification that she hit the button. She’s a rising senior in college in New York City, and her two summer jobs keep her busy; so these days she reads my posts later than she’d like. Honestly, I’m delighted she reads them at all. After all, as parents we expend a lot of energy trying to make our kids hear us, and most of the time we don’t fare very well—or it doesn’t feel like we do. So the idea that my 21-year-old daughter hurries to read my latest rumination each week kind of blows my mind.
She might read them, ironically, because she doesn’t have to. Most of the information we aim at our kids when they’re young is relentlessly (probably painfully) didactic in nature—Did you say thank you to Ms. Armstrong?—so they filter a lot of it out. I know I did when I was an adolescent. What’s interesting, though, is that much of my blogging involves wrestling with moral questions. So, ironically, by reading my posts, my daughter willingly joins the very moral explorations I urged her to consider when she was still at home. That could be a function of her having attained a level of maturity that finds these questions more relevant. As a sociology major, she regularly grapples with the moral issues of our day—gender inequality, racism, drug abuse—so she may be better equipped, even primed, to engage with these issues now. Or maybe because I blog for a broad audience, my posts reflect my effort to entertain and persuade rather than just to edify; and reading them is a more pleasant experience for her than being intellectually bludgeoned, as was probably the case at times.
Oversharing With a Purpose
The more I think about it, though, my satisfaction with her engagement isn’t so much about her, at long last, validating my moral perspective or embracing my values system. That would be pretty egotistical of me. The satisfaction arises, I think, from being known to my daughter as a more complex, more vulnerable being than the father whose hand she held when we crossed the street. I’ve had the same reaction when friends read my newly published memoir and make a remark like “Wow, now I know more about you than I ever intended!” Sometimes I hear that as “Well, that was a massive overshare,” but more often I interpret it as confirmation that I accomplished my mission of holding nothing back—of achieving balls-to-the-wall honesty.
Blogging, or nonfiction writing of any kind, is really about being understood as a sentient being. We write because we have something to say and, whether we have a following of five or five million, we feel a need to put our thoughts out there and hope that someone will appreciate them, maybe even hit that magical “Like” or “Share” button. Understanding one’s own motives in writing can be a complicated matter, and to a large extent, I’m still figuring mine out. When I write about my business life, for example, I present difficult decisions I encountered and then analyze how I dealt with them. As often as not, I conclude that I could have done better. In some cases I’m still not sure how to have handled them. Posts like those strike some people as standard articles on leadership; but they seldom arrive at a confident assertion of what to do in a particular situation. In that sense, they’re just me airing out my moral quandaries in the context of business, where moral quandaries are abundant, though we often don’t recognize them as such.
Subverting the Self
My motives are largely the same when I write memoir or comment on social or cultural trends. Sometimes the aim is to be humorous by poking fun at myself or others—along the lines of satire or dramatic monologue. In pretty much every instance, though, I have an observation to share or a question to raise. In writing that post, I contribute to a conversation I imagine is taking place in the larger world, though I may never receive a reply. As well, by sharing my thoughts, I expose some part of my private self (in an un-trenchcoat way). That act of exposure is intended to complicate, even subvert, my presentation of self to the world—to strangers, to my friends, and even to my daughter. Why does this matter? As denizens of our respective worlds, we specialize in totalizing each other, wrapping each other up in tidy packages labelled “successful” or “irritating” or “happy.” We don’t mean to do it, of course, but we have to, because we don’t have the capacity or the time to understand everyone and everything in all its complexity. At the same time, many of us are complicit, to some degree, in supporting that packaging. Facebook, after all, is all about looking “happy” or “successful” to our friends.
The older I get, though, the less accepting I am of those tidy packages, in my own presentation and that of others. I welcome the complications presented by my own and my friends’ imperfections, misfortunes, even suffering. We’re all more interesting creatures when the full spectrum of our complexity is visible to the world. As my daughter matures, more than anything else, I want to be interesting to her—for her to understand me not just as a father, a provider, and a source of endless moralizing, but as an abundantly imperfect being who stumbled his way to 58 with the best of intentions, learned a lot of interesting stuff through trial and error, and has some entertaining and, occasionally, humiliating stories to tell. If, in giving her—and all of social media, I suppose—a glimpse into my hopelessly flawed and vulnerable self, I help her see her own complications as quintessentially human, even universal, then my blogging will have amounted to something more than mouthing off in an empty room.