From Rousseau to Karr: How to Share with Craft and Discipline

Jean-Jacques Rousseau | Mary Karr

Editor's Note:

Alan Gelb is a writing coach and widely published author of fiction and nonfiction, including his latest Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story and Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps. His work has been featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and CBS Money Watch among others.

“Fried clams for lunch. Aftermath not pretty!!!”

Check your Twitter feed these days and you are bound to see such pronouncements, many of which are being criticized widely as manifestations of oversharing. For those who are able to recall a time before Twitter and other social media, there is something self-indulgent and ill-advised about telling the world what you had for lunch and what the gastrointestinal aftereffects were. On the other hand, those who grew up on social media find it utterly natural to tell their followers where they have been, where they are going, what they intend to do when they get there, and what they plan to do after they leave. Finding some kind of middle ground with regard to what you share with others may now become the work of Internet users in a digital era that has passed beyond its infancy.

Oversharing will probably always remain a relative term, understood within the framework of one’s own social circle. There is no doubt, however, that millions of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram users are revealing their current locations and images of their homes and workplaces with the entire world, lacking any awareness of the necessary privacy settings. Indeed, ActionFraud, a national center for fraud and cyber crime reporting, has stated that 88% of social network users have shared information that could be used to commit identity fraud.

The proliferation of blogs has also contributed to this culture of “too much information.” In 1999, Pyra Labs simplified the process of creating and maintaining personal Web spaces, thereby opening up Internet expression to just about anyone. In May 2006, a study showed that there were over 42 million bloggers flooding the blogosphere. By 2011, it was estimated that more than 158 million blogs were in existence, with more than one million new posts emerging every day. That means vast swaths of humanity are producing content, often of the most intimate variety, on every conceivable subject, from gardening to marriage to spirituality to cooking to pets to sex to politics and more.

It is easy to poke fun and/or harrumph about people posting pictures of their risotto online or their cosmetic surgery results or their private parts. It’s important to remember, however, that the Internet has also encouraged sharing of the most positive and constructive variety. Parents have maintained online grief journals following the loss of children. People with cancer or diabetes or eating disorders have kept up blogs that chronicle their struggles with these illnesses. Are these examples of oversharing or are they the work of courageous individuals who are willing to share intimate details of their lives so they can help others?

The impulse to share such intimate details through writing goes very far back. St. Augustine of Hippo probably singlehandedly created the genre of confessional literature when he wrote his Confessions between 397 and 400 A.D., outlining his sinful youth and his conversion to Christianity. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, published in 1782, took confessional literature into another realm, providing the world with what is often thought of as the very first secular autobiography. In it, Rousseau details experiences that shamed and humiliated him, such as covering up a small act of theft by framing another person. Oversharing? Perhaps it was thought so in its day, but there is a direct line from Augustine and Rousseau’s confessions to the confessional writings of contemporary literature, such as the poetry of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman, or works of nonfiction like Darkness Visible, William Styron’s account of his struggles with depression, or Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, which told of an upbringing in Texas amid alcoholism and other psychological problems.

As a writer, I can better understand the phenomenon of oversharing if I think of it in terms of a lack of discipline. Having worked with many hundreds of writers, both in the 16-to-18- year-old range (college applicants) and now with adult writers who are crafting narratives that are a form of life review, I seek to impress on them that they, as writers, are borrowing the time of their readers. That time is precious and the reader’s attention will surely wander. When that attention wanders, it is extremely difficult to get it back. That’s why discipline counts for so much in writing. The clarity of your expression, the crafting of your prose, the meticulous care you take with every detail matters, for even an errant comma can throw off the reader and steal away time. I honor and salute the impulse to share because I think that impulse is at the very heart of writing and because I think that sharing through writing is an important way to gain clarity on one’s life. Sharing indiscriminately, however, without applying the discipline of craft, produces problematic results and can lead to a culture in which too much is spoken and written by too many who might be better served by focusing their efforts inward — at least for a time.