Baring a Private Self on a Public Page

For 26 years, I have written my most intensely personal thoughts and reflections in journals. Starting with a gold-padlocked teddy bear diary in 1985 and continuing through my current three-hole Staples notebook, the collection contains entries I wouldn’t consider showing to anyone.

glass steps

“Glass Steps” © Jeff Shelden

Yet, three years ago, within weeks of launching my own blog for a journalism class, I was using my posts to expose my soul to an audience of virtual strangers. Details of my first bikini wax and the dynamics of my dysfunctional family—topics generally reserved for brunch with my best friend or costly sessions with my therapist—appeared for all to read.

Blogging unlocked my inhibitions and sent into the world a raw, private version of myself that coexisted dangerously with the more polished self I normally displayed in public. With no editors or red ink, the blogosphere granted my inner life carte blanche on a public platform.

Exhilarating at first, this situation eventually grew unsustainable. I found I had to reconcile my two selves, especially when navigating my eventual relationship with the man who fell in love with me by reading my blog.

How It All Started

I created my blog, The Pithy Pupil, in 2009, when I moved to Boston and enrolled in a blogging course, a component of my master’s program in journalism. The previously unknown world of tags, widgets, and RSS feeds excited me, low-tech neophyte that I was.

Strewn with hyperlinks and naïvely pirated stock photos, my posts included pop culture references, literary analyses, intellectual debates, and personal anecdotes. Embellished in this way, my private life and unique opinions suddenly seemed more interesting—more official, somehow. Knowing that my words were accessible to millions of online viewers validated my voice.

My family and my then-boyfriend never read The Pithy Pupil. My father, a Neo-Luddite, has neither a mobile phone nor an email account. My mother, a columnist for her local Vermont newspaper, asked why she couldn’t find my blog online. I reminded her that not only had I emailed her the link at least five times but that she could access it directly through Facebook. To this day, she insists I prevented her from reading my posts.

My boyfriend, a musician and carpenter, sought creative outlets in drumsticks and a hammer. Words on paper or screen held little value for him. My use of vocabulary and the way in which I labored over a paragraph confounded him.

“You’re such a perfectionist,” he said with contempt. “You spend hours working on one assignment!” (It didn’t feel like the right time to point out that he spent days fine-tuning a nightstand.)

So, I integrated the people closest to me into my blog without fear of retribution—as in this passage about my boyfriend’s devotion to his pet rabbit:

I expected a more masculine pet from a rugged rock-and-roll drummer who swings a hammer every day. He refuses to chop his long hair or shave the mountain man beard because they enhance the authenticity of his hardcore look. Yet, after bloodying his knuckles on a snare drum during every show, he goes home to kiss his bunny wabbit goodnight.

The incongruity escapes him. (And, fortunately, he doesn’t read my blog. I told him that I’m writing about rock-and-roll bands in this week’s post, which isn’t completely untrue.)”

The catharsis of writing passages like these proved more helpful and affordable than psychotherapy sessions. I let down my guard, reveling in my ability to reveal my uncensored self—and to entertain my invisible audience at the same time:

Surround me in greasy onion rings or cheesy Doritos and I’m likely to die of starvation. But dangle a caramel-covered carrot, a box of Godiva chocolates, or, sadly, even a frosted sticky bun and I’ll offer my pinky toe in exchange (since I need my fingers for typing and dipping in cake batter) and promise my firstborn for the prospect of another fix.”

Sharing these personal tidbits online granted me access both to an audience and to parts of myself. I felt a great sense of relief at revealing these parts of me in my blog—the raw frustrations, the irrational cravings, the macabre realizations of my own human predicaments—and I hoped readers would share that sense of liberation, refreshed by my honesty.

Still, while the release of my private self into the world was liberating, it was also embarrassing at times. And it had consequences I never could have anticipated.


“Pavers” © Jeff Shelden

An Inside-Out Love Affair

After two months, my colorfully formatted, photo-enhanced public confessions found an unexpected audience: a man I met at a party. After we’d exchanged a few emails, he knew that I had my own blog. Based on my experience with my family and friends, I assumed he wouldn’t read it.

But he did. While awaiting a flight at Logan Airport, he read nearly every post in one sitting. Afterward, he sent me an email that read, “Pithy, yes, although some were a bit long, at least for me, reading from an iPhone.”

Our correspondence turned into a relationship: first virtual, then physical. Later, he told me that my posts taught him more about me in one day than dating for weeks could have accomplished.

In person, we developed a friendship the old-fashioned way: setting forth heavily edited, well-mannered versions of ourselves. However, thanks to my blog, he already had a direct line to my inner self—to a version of me that was brutally honest.

“I felt like I was reading things I shouldn’t have been privy to,” he eventually admitted. “My relationship with your blog was light-years ahead of my relationship with you in real time.”

He felt that our relationship was out of balance from the start. While I knew little about his personal life, he had used my blog to (virtually) meet my family, get acquainted with his competition, unearth my quirky sense of humor, and discover my vices.

“It was like I was spying on you,” he recalls. “From your blog, I knew that you didn’t want kids, and I discovered the names of your sex toys. I wanted to learn these things from you in person, if at all.”

The Blog Hangover

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I never expected Newton’s third law of motion to apply so aptly to my blogging experiment. But I found that my discovery of writing freedom did produce consequences of comparable proportion. People were reading my posts. And they had feedback.

the tourists

“the tourists” © Lois Shelden

My former mechanic in Vermont found my blog in a Google search and religiously read every post. When I bumped into him at a Fourth of July parade, he said, “I read about your bikini wax. That was kinky.”

Only after we broke up did my ex-boyfriend read my blog. He claimed to have found the posts about him amusing, although he didn’t entirely agree with their content. If he’d read them when I first posted them, though, he might not have been quite so forgiving.

Ultimately, what curbed my oversharing was this: dating, and then living with, a man who reads everything I publish. My posts became less personal and more prudent once someone close to me was reading them. Finally, they dwindled away.

These days, most of my writing is for publications and class assignments. It reflects my public self, not the unguarded inner me who made my blog an invitation for voyeurs.

That part of me still writes, of course. But only in my ninety-nine-cent Staples notebook. And I’ll never tell you where I hide it.


Filed under Magazine, Talking Writing

2 responses to “Baring a Private Self on a Public Page

  1. Well don’t let them dwindle away again. You’re a remarkable writer.

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