By Joanne C. Hillhouse
I’ve always been a very private person. To answer a common question, everything I write is not autobiographical, though life does bleed into the fiction. But mining my life for fiction is one thing. I’ve grown comfortable with that because very often what makes it onto the page bears little resemblance to what happened in the first place. It’s an emotional echo not a literal rendering of the thing that inspired it. Often by the time I write it, or by the time I get through the rounds of redrafting and editing, I have distance and perspective. Of course, there are times when something is still fresh and hews closer to the bone and writing it hurts, but that’s okay too; a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the craft that is also my therapy and the medium through which I process life.
Writing, when I can write, saves me; giving something of myself up to that process is a small price to pay. And because of what it reveals to me – and others – when I get it right, is no price at all. Writing is a gift and I pray each day to have the courage to go where it takes me. As Antigua and Barbuda’s most renowned author, Jamaica Kincaid, once said artistes to get to the sweet spot need to “lose shame” and on the page I can be shameless and, to reference another of Antigua and Barbuda’s writers of note, Althea Prince, “Write! Write as if no one is going to read it.”
But then there is publishing and twin to that, promoting. One I pursued aggressively, the other I forced myself to accept as a consequence of that choice. If you’re publishing, you’re promoting. Full stop. I didn’t get that right away (or perhaps couldn’t give myself over to the inherent narcissism of self-promotion) but, in the interest of reaching more readers, I’ve done my best to put myself out there, especially with the release of my third book and first full length novel Oh Gad! Social media has been my low-to-no budget-but-time-consuming frenemy in this regard. From blogging to facebook, newsletters to networks, I’ve done my best to get the word out and keep the buzz going about this book and other activities in my literary life.
Inevitably, the line between what’s strictly private and what’s public has blurred.
The thing I still struggle to come to terms with is how much of your privacy you have to sacrifice to this process. You can’t just push your work, that turns people off, you’ve got to cut off bits and pieces of yourself and give them away as well.
Part of me thinks that that hurts the creative process – apart from the time they take away from the writing, there’s the things that you give away casually that you might better use on the page, creatively.
The aspect of it I’ve had to confront more recently is the things people think they have a right to know once you’re out there; because once you’re out there it becomes harder and harder to be selective about what you feel comfortable sharing. A recent online encounter was a jarring reminder of this when I was taken to task, quite harshly, over information I didn’t, based on my conditioning, feel comfortable sharing. That I might and have, selectively, shared it when asked is another matter but before I could say here it is in this instance I was taken to task. The annoyance was prompted by an online posting on the desired information that was too coy, too tongue-in-cheek to be tolerated.
It was posted at a time when I’d been hit with request after request for said information from students who were reading my book in school or perhaps were sent with a check list of information on a local author. I was at once grateful for their interest and overwhelmed by it. I decided to do a post with their frequently asked questions – sort of a clearing house, based on past questions –from which they could access such information in future. But things sometimes get lost in translation and, the backlash via the individual encounter referenced above suggests that I was a little too cute with my response.
I suppose it’s true that as aggressively as I’ve promoted the published writing, I feel increasingly protective of my privacy, and struggle to balance what to keep and what to give away…and how to deal with unsolicited advice, commentary, and, yes, angry emails that come when I get it all wrong.
So I guess my question to the group is, how do you strike that balance in this world of decreasing barriers between public and private, especially when being expected, more and more, as writers to put not just our writing but ourselves out there?
Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of Oh Gad!, The Boy from Willow Bend, and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. Her fiction also appears in three recent collections – For women: In Tribute to Nina Simone; In the Black: New African Canadian Literature; and So the Nailhead Bend, So the Story End: An Anthology of Antiguan and Barbudan Writing. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Poui, the Caribbean Writer, Tongues of the Ocean, Womanspeak, Mythium, Calabash, Ma Comère, and elsewhere. She is a native and resident of Antigua and Barbuda. Find her online at http://jhohadli.wordpress.com and/or http://www.facebook.com/JoanneCHillhouse She also runs the youth writing programme, the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize; find out more at http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com