Why We Write About Ourselves

It’s a weird thing to write about yourself.

We tend to talk about self-expression in a way that implies some sort of external creation.  Yes, it’s “expression” but does every expression have to be about us?  Isn’t it enough that it comes from us?

Especially in a Jewish world that tends to remind us much more about our mission, our goal, our G-d, it seems almost heretical.

Confessional writing also tends to evoke the sort of reveal-everything memoirists that have made a living off of exposing all the secrets, all the dirtiness in their lives.  Reading these memoirists, it can often feel somewhat exploitive: they’re exploiting our emotions by revealing every dark secret, and their exploiting the people around them for juicy stories that will inevitably make some of those people look bad.

It seems, then, that writing about oneself is a bad idea.  Selfish, and for only our own gain.  And maybe even exploitive.

Why, then, do writers like myself write about ourselves so much?

I’ve written about things I would never tell anyone in real life.  I’ve written about the fact that I’ve been in a mental institution, that I had a near death experience, about the time I considered suicide, about my bipolar diagnosis, my failings as a husband, and much more.

If writing about yourself is selfish and exploitive, I am a very bad person.  And look, even now, I can’t help but bring myself into this piece.  Gosh.

You may be surprised to know that I used to refuse to write about myself.  Back when I was a kid just starting on this whole orthodox Jew trip, I wrote for an outlet called Chabad.org.  At that time, I was writing essays about spirituality.  But every essay I wrote, I tried to fight writing about myself.  I wrote about ideas.  It just seemed so egotistical to talk about myself!  Plus, I was religious now, so that meant giving up who you are, right?

Even after I started my own blog, Pop Chassid, I couldn’t bring myself to write about me.  It was about movies and G-d.

But then, a few weird things happened.  First of all, I felt very unsatisfied.  I never felt like my writing was coming from my soul, but from what I thought my soul should be.  I was putting on airs.  Trying to be holier than I was.

And there were things I wanted to write about, to get people to think about, but that I could never do without sound preaching or mean.

“How do I tell people how to deal with bipolar?  Won’t they feel offended and hurt if I just tell them how to think?” I wondered.

It seemed like I could only talk about things that weren’t as important to me when I was writing the way I was.  There was always a layer of superficiality, a layer of safety, that I used to protect myself from the outside world.

This wore on me and wore on me.  I felt unhealthy.  I felt grumpy.  My writing was irregular and it didn’t really have the effect I was hoping it would have, both on me and my readers.

Then, a few things happened.

1. As I experienced my first wave of disillusionment with being religious because I started to see that many people I had looked up to were hiding their true selves and creating an illusion of holiness.  I realized that there was a negative side to this desire to live up to a certain code.  It can make us empty shells of spirituality.  The opposite of a penimi, the goal of a Hasidic Jew, someone whose priorities are internal.

2. I reread the book that had greatly influenced my writing.  It’s called If You Want To Write and it was written in the 20’s by a woman named Brenda Ueland, who was a writer and writing teacher and super-liberal crazy woman.  Ueland’s book reminded me that writing that, as the Jews like to say, “Words from the heart pierce the heart.”  A person who is not writing from within, from their soul, is not really writing.  They are putting words on paper or the screen.  But they aren’t writing.  They aren’t communicating.

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3. All this helped me realize that my desire not to write about myself didn’t come from a holy place.  It came from a fearful place.  It created a buffer between myself and my audience.  It let me feel comfortable, as if I was being productive.  But it wasn’t risky.  I wasn’t putting out the words I really cared about because I was worried about the attacks I would get.  “If I don’t’ toe the party line, if I get all self-focused, people will look down on me!” I worried.

And so, without really understanding all of this in so many words, I started writing about myself.  I started opening up.  I started to say what I was really thinking. I became “selfish”.

It was incredible how quickly things changed after I started doing this.  First of all, my internal feelings completely shifted.  For the first time, I felt truly fulfilled by my writing.  It amazed me to feel my soul gush out onto the page in that way. Suddenly, writing was an adventure, it was risky, it was scary.  And that was amazing. 

Even more powerful, though, was the realization that my writing actually meant something to people now.  My exposure of myself made people open their own souls to me.  When I wrote about being bipolar, people who had hidden they were bipolar their whole lives would send me emails.  In fact, it seemed like almost defect I laid bare exposed more and more people to me.  I began to realize that there were many people going through challenges similar to mine.  And my writing was giving them peace.

And so I pursued it more.  It was incredibly scaring, and incredibly painful at times.  When I wrote about how I felt about modesty (retracted), the angry reaction from others caused me to be depressed for weeks, and for a few days immediately following I was so anxious and depressed that I ended up getting so sick that I had to be bedridden.  When I wrote about antisemitism in an article in Times of Israel (also retracted), I feared for my life because of the enthusiastic response from tens of thousands of antisemites who wrote about and shared my post.

But it was worth it.  I was writing from my soul.  I was alive.

And the more I did it, the more it became more and more clear exactly what the power of personal writing is.  As I threw myself into it, and I saw how it affected both myself and my readers, I gained a deeper and deeper understanding of the exact reason writing about ourselves can be a holy activity.

It soon became very clear to me that there were two kinds of personal writing:

1. The confessional

This is the type of writing that is most often associated with the egoism of memoirs that exploit others and that exploit their audience’s emotions.  These are the type of posts and books that exist only for themselves.  They have no point.  They are simply stories about life.  In the end, they serve the author more than anyone else.  And while they are not necessarily exploitive, they often tend to go that way, since there doesn’t seem to be much reason for their existence except to satisfy an inner desire to express.

2. The sacrifice

The second kind of personal writing is the kind of writing that cuts out a piece of our soul and puts it on an altar.  The purpose is not to only purify the soul, but to contribute something to the world.

With this sort of personal writing, the exposure of our soul serves a purpose beyond simple expression.  It is an attempt to take the realest, deepest parts of ourselves and sacrifice them to something higher.  Often, this takes the form of sharing some sort of lesson we learned from our experience.  There is an ending that attempts to arrive at clarity (even if it doesn’t succeed).  Other times (like in Asher Lovy’s recent heartbreakingly beautiful post or Sarah’s post about not fasting on Yom Kippur) it’s an attempt to remind people that they are simply not alone in their pain.  That someone is out there who feels it and cares about them.

Either way, what separates a sacrifice from a confession is that the sacrifice has a purpose.  A reason for existence beyond oneself.  It just so happens that our own experience is often the best channel with which we have to bring out that purpose.

A person who is bipolar may appreciate a “how to” post about staying calm.  But writing about my experience both makes my writing less preachy while also giving them the space to understand that every person’s experience is unique.  And a person who has never been bipolar before will understand it on a much deeper level if I can give them an emotional connection to the experience.

Often, the writers of sacrifices are extremely scared to share what they’ve written.  They are making a sacrifice, after all, and sacrifice can mean pain.  It means giving away something valuable in order to connect to the divine.  It means taking a risk and sharing things that may even hurt them (employment chances, the way people think about them, dating prospects, personal safety, etc).

To sacrifice is to risk.  With the potential payout being a raising of that which has been sacrificed and a deeper connection to the divine and a raising up of the readers.  Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it doesn’t.  But the risk is what brings the fear.  And the fear is an indication that we’re on the right path.