Mark Twain and the Problem of Self-Disclosure

Books, Featured — By on November 15, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Which is worse: The fear of being misunderstood or the fear of being understood?

For Mark Twain, it was the latter. I’m working my way through the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography. Clemens had the worst time getting his autobiography on paper. He struggled with the issue of how to organize his life’s stories. But he had a more difficult challenge. He struggled to tell the truth about himself. It wasn’t that Clemens couldn’t remember details about his life. He definitely wasn’t a liar. Clemens wanted to tell the truth about himself, but knew that it would lead to him being judged by others. In early drafts, he caught himself framing every story of his life in a way that cast himself in a best light. Clemens knew that he was sanitizing his pride or cowardice from every episode, and he wasn’t pleased. Clemens held opinions about politics and religion that certainly would have led to others disapproving of him. Nonetheless, he committed himself to writing unprotected and to reveal his true self.

The problem was that he could not overcome this fear of being judged. Every draft he produced evaded what he knew to be the complete truth about Samuel Clemens. After years of struggle and nearly scrapping the project, he landed on a solution. His completed autobiography would be sealed from the public eye for 100 years. He and the audience he feared would be a distant memory before anyone would be exposed to the uncensored author.

I identify with Clemens. On occasion, I will disclose a weakness on my blog and be met with a Bible verse, presumably given to let me know that I’m not okay. When I was writing A Nativity of Misfits, I had the thought that maybe I should fictionalize the story, add a quart of whiskey to a scene, and get my characters to open up. I grudgingly rewrote the chapters and risked more of my true self than I wanted.

A while back  Christian author, Matthew Paul Turner, blogged about the difficulties of being honest about his faith.  He wrote that it was easier to say that you had this struggle in the past than to admit that you were struggling with something in the present tense. Turner found himself managing his image for fear of losing blog readers, endorsements, or book sales. It was easier to push those struggles into the past. I can identify with that. It’s like going into a counseling session and talking about your friend that has a big problem. Time lets you disassociate from your weakness. When pressing into a corner, you can admit that you used to be that way but now you are a better version of yourself.

It seems we use time to protect ourselves. Clemens delayed self-disclosure for a century. Turner struggles with pushing his weakness back a decade or so. We’re okay with others knowing about our weaknesses as long as we have the cushion of time to break the fall of being dropped and rejected.

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  • Jo Hilder says:

    Hey Larry, I think you’ve hit on something here. It’s certainly something I’ve found to be true. I have been asked to talk about my experience with cancer, but if it’s at a Christian event, I’ll usually say no, because they always just want to hear the formula – This was wrong with me – so this bad thing happened – I fixed the bad thing – God revealed this – and everythings all right now. They call that a testimony. It’s never okay to say “I’m broken, and I’m not sure I’ll be fixed anytime soon.” Such a shame, because, as Anne Lamott writes, the greatest sermon we can preach is probably “me too”.
    Great article, Larry.

  • Prodigal Daughter says:

    Very interesting post. After I read your post, I read this one and was struck by how it somewhat addresses the issue you discuss:

    You’re free. Don’t let fear of anyone else bind you up!

  • After plowing a few hundred more pages into his autobiography I’m coming to a new conclusion: Clemens did not succeed. The 100 years buffer didn’t help. I think he believed that folks loved Twain but Clemens was another matter. I’m not sure he ever figured out how to turn off his persona.

  • jeff says:

    Great stuff. So very dangerous for the believer to try to squeeze into the two sizes too small holy image jeans; seems to choke off the flow of grace to the soul. Truth and honesty are a hard sell. Easier and safer to peddle a persona, than to live a confessed life. Thinking of the Seinfeld episode where we learned that Jerry would sew on smaller jean size labels. Wonder how protecting or projecting an image damages those around us.

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