Is It Easier to Share with Strangers Than With Friends?

In our social media age, even the terms “stranger” and “friend” can be confusing. I consider some people I know on Twitter “friends” even though we have never met, and others I’ve crossed paths with in person “strangers.” For this post, however, I’m going to consider a “friend” someone I’ve repeatedly spent time with in person on a social basis during changes in our lives.

My problem? Recently, I was able to share an emotionally painful creative work with strangers, but held back with my friends.

I’ve come a long way since the time on this blog when I wrote about my journalistic resistance to Oprah-style sharing. A personal essay of mine that reveals true vulnerabilities from my past will be published by a literary journal next week, so that will be shared with the world, friends and strangers alike.

Vermont College of Fine Arts. Forget Hogwarts. This is where magic happens.

Some readers know I am writing a travel memoir, and am being aided in that process by my instructors and workshop mates in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program. A couple of months ago, I had to submit my 20-page creative-writing sample for this summer’s workshop. The essay that is being published online next week was the piece I submitted for winter workshop last November. At that time, I also shared the essay with my local writer’s group, five talented individuals who over the last year-and-a-half have truly become friends.

I chose for this summer’s residency to submit a chapter of my memoir. It is what I would call a keystone chapter. Like a Roman arch, the story builds to this scene, then rushes to a conclusion based on what this scene sets in motion. In other words, it’s essential to the narrative.It is also emotionally raw. I feel quite vulnerable even knowing it has been put from mind to page.

I submitted this piece of myself to a workshop that hadn’t even been composed yet. But I did not share it with my local writer’s group. Instead, I have been sharing chapters that follow that keystone chapter. Not surprisingly, the critiques have been of less value, because my readers are spending half their time wondering what the heck is happening. Showing a character’s response to something when you don’t tell the reader what the character is responding to is not good storytelling.

It was very awkward at our latest meet-up on Tuesday night. I confessed that the scene I withheld from them will be workshopped by 13 other students and two faculty members this summer in Montpelier. As it turns out, a handful of my VCFA workshop members are students or instructors I’ve spent time with in two previous residencies. But I can’t honestly say I know any of them as well as I’ve gotten to know my friends in this writer’s group.

Why was it easier to share a piece of myself with strangers than with friends?

My Vermont dorm room. VCFA, I have stayed in the Las Vegas Bellagio. You, sir, are no Bellagio.

Perhaps I feared judgment. Perhaps it’s part of the mystery of an MFA residency, the thought that sharing vulnerabilities in Vermont would be safe because “what happens in Montpelier, stays in Montpelier.” (Trust me, my MFA residencies are only like Vegas in that I get too little sleep.)

Whatever it was, this dual-track life wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t getting creative value from my writer’s group. But, more importantly, I wasn’t getting the benefits of friendship, that is, being able to make yourself vulnerable without fear. This essay may have less to do with my ability to share myself on the page, and more to do with my ability to understand the rules of friendship. Something to reflect upon.

For now, I addressed the issue by uploading that keystone chapter to my writer’s group. I told them they don’t have to critique it–no reason to give them extra work–and they don’t have to read it. But if they’d like to–if they feel it will help them critique chapters going forward–they may do so. It’s been three days since I uploaded it, and the world hasn’t come to an end.

Am I somehow dysfunctional in finding it easier to have someone learn my vulnerabilities when I have never met them?

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About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

38 Responses to “Is It Easier to Share with Strangers Than With Friends?”

  1. Patrick,

    I think this is a very common phenomenon; I feel the same way. It’s perhaps the reason I’ve resisted fully investing in a writers’ group. I don’t know what alchemy happens in Vermont, but it’s true it somehow feels “safer” to share in that environment. Maybe because it’s an intense experience and then we all get to go away for 6 months, whereas you have to face your friends each week ; )

    I don’t have any solutions to propose; I just wanted to chime in to say you are not alone. The fact that you’re talking so openly about it here and took the step to share the raw chapter with your group shows you’re aware of how powerfully helpful that process will be.

    A similar phenomenon happens for me when public speaking. I’m a thousand times more nervous in front of friends than in front of strangers. Logically it seems it should be the other way around. I’ve figured that it’s because my friends are supposed to “know” me, yet often I feel like some sort of imposter in a more public context. With writing, sometimes what we reveal on the page is quite intimate; things that are private and personal crafted into art. Revealing that to people who are already supposed to know you but may not have heard you express certain things – well, of course that’s scary! With strangers – eh, they can think whatever they want ; )

    I think what helps is remembering that it is the WORK people are workshopping, not you. Your group is there to make your piece stronger, not to dig into your personal baggage. I think the same rule might apply to sharing your work as to actually doing good work: go where it hurts. The most powerful writing is often the most painful and urgent. That is the kind of work that most resonates with me as a reader. Perhaps it’s not unreasonable that sharing might feel like a similar process – painful, yet ultimately offering incredible results.

    Good luck!

    • Hi Sion, this is such a welcome and helpful response. I agree there’s some fascinating alchemy with a VCFA residency. I blogged about that after my first residency (your graduation residency!): https://artistsroad.wordpress.com/2011/07/13/sharing-without-fear/

      You make a good point that it is the WORK people are workshopping, not you. But it doesn’t always seem to play out that way. Even if someone doesn’t come out and say “You did what?!?” people bring their own perceptions and biases to what they read. That’s not a terrible thing, because other people who think and feel like them also will read the work if it’s published, so it’s useful to learn different reactions. But I have felt workshop criticism–including at VCFA–has bordered on the personal, and I fear I’ve been guilty of that at times as well, even when I didn’t intend it. (That introduces another topic, how sensitive we as creatives can be, but that’s another post!)

      The speaking analogy is helpful. I don’t do much public speaking now, but for about four years there I did it constantly. Public speaking is like acting to me; I’m playing the role of “public speaker,” so it’s easy to detach. Harder to detach from the truly personal. Much to think about.

  2. I don’t think your reaction is uncommon. It’s one thing to share my work with people who aren’t close to me. Even if they shred my work to bits, they don’t know me. It’s easier to not fall prey to the idea that they’re criticizing me. That isn’t always the case when I present my work to people who know me. They can be offended or misinterpret the work. It’s dangerous to share work with people I know; I run the risk of hurting them or of them hurting me.

    I don’t think this new version of my comment is as good as the one I was writing at 5:30am, but it will have to do.

    • Some of my best writing happens at 5:30 am!🙂 Sorry my WordPress ate your first comment.

      Your reaction supports Sion’s above, articulating clearly the “risk” of hurt, going both ways. What I know of my writer’s group is that none of them would intentionally want anyone hurt, so that’s helpful.

  3. I don’t think your response is dysfunctional at all. We are so much more at risk with friends and family than we are with strangers. Sion’s comment struck a chord with me. I don’t belong to a local writers’ group, and I’ve always told myself it’s because there isn’t one that will “work” for me. Maybe I’m afraid of opening up to folks who, even though they might not know me personally, know me as part of our rather small community. There’s much wisdom in Sion’s comments.

    I want/need the approval of those closest to me, and I know I’ve withheld certain stories because of the risk of my sons being hurt, or their disapproving of what I do. It’s a fine line to walk, although some people are able to put the most sensitive material “out there” and maintain their relationships. (I’m thinking of Mary Karr’s LIT as an example.)

    I write fiction, which helps! But I’ve had my kids interpret stories as though they were gospel truth, unable to separate the kernel of truth that sparked the story from what gets woven around it. It’s a tricky business.

    You know, I came very close to applying to VCA’s summer workshops. I might not have gotten in (see my insecurity?!), but we might have crossed paths. Interesting. Maybe next year. Good luck, Patrick!

    • Hi Gerry,

      Thank you for this comment. I thought it interesting you mention how you are lucky that you write fiction, but then note that your kids read things into your writing. Since we all put ourselves in our creative output, they’re looking for you in your fiction. There is discerning what is ‘true” and what is not, but I wonder if they ever see a part of you that is in there that you didn’t realize you had put in?

      I can understand you being reluctant to share too much in a small community. I will note that I didn’t know any of the people in my writer’s group before we started. I met another writer at The Writer’s Center who also wanted a group, and we put out the word. I consider them friends now because of the time we’ve spent together. As it happens, they do not travel in my circles, personal or professional, so there isn’t a real concern about the idea that my “community” is impacted by what I share with them, if that makes sense.

      Of course that introduces a new question: I can share this work with “friends” who are writers, but not my “friend” friends? Ugh, now my head hurts.

  4. The most honest response I’ve got for you right now, Patrick, is

    “I don’t know.”

    Maybe intuition tells you when you can unburden yourself to a given person or group — most often, I believe, you find that it’s easy to confess to a single individual.

    One-on-one communication is fundamentally different than group communication. With memoir, you are writing a love letter to the ideal reader, the one who will understand everything you have to say — because that ideal reader is a perfect, divine, internal entity. He, she or it has been with you since forever; we’re talking about your internal listener.

    Some people we come across, online or off, remind us of that internal listener and it’s easy to share facets of our lives with them. These chance meetings are privileged moments, they’re almost like falling in love.

    I don’t believe such magic can automatically emerge from a writers’ group. It’s never occurred to me to join a workshop because I don’t think I could get anything out of a group dynamic. I’m very much a one-on-one person and am not interested in group feedback. (…Also, being a perfectionist never helped. Still working on that.)

    There’s an analogy I often resort to. Here it goes:
    During the Renaissance, Latin was the lingua franca of the scientific community in Europe. Friendships were forged that lasted for decades, though these friendships were never tethered by face-to-face meetings. Kepler, Brahe, Linneus, these people enjoyed profound intellectual relationships that, to the average turnip farmer, must have been quite unreal.

    What happens with the Internet is that now mostly everyone can participate in such intellectual relationships. They are no less real than the relationships you cultivate with those physically near you, if choose wisely and you put in the time and effort they deserve.

    Or, as they say in Saxet on Bizarro World, “A friend is a stranger you have already met.”

    • John, what an excellent point, the notion of individual vs. group. Yes, I write with an ideal “reader” in mind. Having a group of writers then critique me is, by definition, out of step with the vision when writing. And I could see why you would prefer a on-on-one to a group.

      I like your example of Kepler, Brahe, etc., and you could go back even further (look at all of Erasmus’ correspondence). But don’t you think Brahe would have liked to have had his friends visit him at Ven or Prague more often than actually happened? Maybe, maybe not. I think of the Inklings at Oxford, with CS Lewis, Tolkien, etc. Here in the US, we had the Transcendentalists (Thoreau, Emerson, etc.) who spent much time together in the 1800’s, then the Algonquin Round Table a century later. There is merit in connection by correspondence (social media would be the modern form, what we’re doing right now) but there’s a place for in-person as well.

  5. I think that’s totally normal, Patrick. Forgive me, but you got me thinking about Oprah. Just remember all of the guests she had on her show who were able to tell stories they’d “never spoken of” before. People who rehashed the most traumatic events of their lives with her and the audience (and the world) even though they’d never even told their friends about it. I think speaking to strangers gives us a sense of anonymity, even if it isn’t true. It’s probably part of the reason people pay shrinks instead of talking to friends; we are allowed the safety net of walking away. If they judge us or respond badly, we can always leave with no great loss. So I don’t think your reaction is dysfunctional at all; I think it’s a normal, healthy defense mechanism that we all have. Your choice to move beyond it might bring you a new sense of freedom or relief, and I hope that it does.

    • Yup, that’s what I was getting at with Oprah-style sharing! Yes, you certainly lose the protection of anonymity with friends. Interesting you mention psychology. In this case, I’m not really looking for therapy. Many people write for therapeutic reasons, but here I’m writing about things that I’ve already worked through, a look back with an if-I-only-knew-then perspective. But maybe part of it is my fear group members will try to offer therapy rather than literary criticism!

  6. Patrick! Congratulations for winning the Vernick Award for Nonfiction! Can’t wait to read it.

    • Thanks, PJ! I can’t wait for it to be published. They haven’t given me a specific date, but “mid-June” is getting pretty close now. I’ll link to it here on the blog when it’s published.

  7. I agree with the comments above and completely relate to your feelings on this, Patrick. I was tickled to see Sion mention the word “imposter.” Feelings of being an imposter are a big part of why I am very much more willing to reveal things to strangers than friends or family.

    It’s true that the risk of personal judgment is higher with people you’ll continue to see, but it goes beyond that for me. When I reveal a new side of myself to someone who already knows me, I always feel like they’ll think I’ve been somehow deceiving them by not letting them know about this side of myself previously. Kooky, but true.

    Or, in the case of speaking, they’ll see me adopt that public speaking persona and know it isn’t really me. Everyone adopts a slightly different persona when they speak, right? But it feels uncomfortable to have people who don’t normally relate to you that way see you in your podium personality.

    Ultimately, I think this is a fear of intimacy. Really, it’s a matter of trusting the people who know you to accept every aspect of you. Ironically, what usually happens when I do share something with a close friend or family member that I had reservations about sharing, they act like there’s nothing particularly unusual about it. They might say, “I didn’t know ___,” but it’s usually with a certain glee in discovering this new information about me, and it ultimately brings us closer.

    • Sue, you’ve completely described what I mean by “imposter.” Exactly! To get through public speaking I have to take on a certain persona; I think of it as a role. But I’m not “acting” when I’m with my friends so it’s strange when they see me acting! Anyway, you said it much better than I did, but that’s exactly what I meant.

    • Hi Sue! Yes, Sion nailed it with “imposter.”

      “Ultimately, I think this is a fear of intimacy.” Ugh, Sue, I don’t want to hear that! I say that because it might hit a bit too close to home for me. But it’s a helpful insight. It’s harder to form intimacy, it’s harder to share with people whose opinion matters more.

  8. dignitarysretreat Reply June 8, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    What amazing comments your post has generated, Patrick! In my mind, vulnerability and fear go hand in hand by definition. In fact, I can’t think of an instance where I could feel vulnerable without also feeling at least a modicum of fear. Somehow, for me, the sanctity of strangers resides in their anonymity–it will hurt less if they laugh at/dismiss my words because we don’t know each other, lacking any emotional investment in the other’s person.

    The counter point is the “over sharing” of people indiscriminately broadcasting their experiences, no matter how dramatic their story, without a purpose other than to draw attention to themselves. However, if the motivation is to point out a universal truth through an individual’s experience, well that’s what’s writing for, at least to me.

    • Chrisanna, can you give an example of the indiscriminate oversharing you’re talking about? I’m thinking that people need to tell their stories as a way of processing what happened, not simply to draw attention to themselves. But as I think about what you wrote, I feel like I need a concrete example in order to know if we’re talking about the same thing. This definitely relates to Patrick’s post because it’s about revealing things with the appropriate audience.

    • Hi Chrisanna, yes, it really does come down to the issue of vulnerability. It’s something I’ve been reflecting on a lot as I explore creative nonfiction, where I find myself having to write about myself.

      Sue, as for her “over sharing” comment, I too am curious what Chrisanna meant. But I don’t think she’s passing judgment on the idea of people revealing themselves. Her new blog is a way to explore publicly the (in part) uninvited life transition she is in right now. Although, as Chrisanna knows, I’ve encouraged to share even more about herself on that blog. If she is holding back out of fear of “over sharing,” I can relate to that.

      • Yes, we all feel that when we write about ourselves. That’s why your comment makes me so curious, Chrisanna. Where is the line between sharing and oversharing? Are there certain things that are just taboo to talk about in front of a general audience? If so, what are they and why? And what responsibility does the audience have in this, as far as choosing to listen/read or not? Just pondering.

        • dignitarysretreat Reply June 10, 2012 at 4:28 pm

          Good questions! My point about “oversharing” has more to do with the motivation of the writer/speaker when telling their story. Specifically, while I consider writing as a way of processing and understanding our own experiences, the reading of it is the experience of someone else and it is here, at least in my view, where what is written and shared needs to have some purpose/direct benefit for the reader. I may not be being articulate enough but I believe there’s a difference is having a reader serve simply as a sounding board/mirror for the writer versus sharing an experience with a reader for the extended purpose of reflecting the universal so that they, too, might somehow be able to utilize it in the processing of their own personal journey. Does that make sense?

  9. I went to Middlebury College many years ago, and your dorm room at VCFA looks just like two of my dorm rooms at Middlebury!

    Yes, it is easier to share with strangers, because we don’t have to life with them later. And they don’t interpret what we say through the lens of personal experience with us. They accept what we say as the truth, because they don’t layer their own truth on top of it.

    • Hi Theresa, as to the dorm room, I wouldn’t have minded it too much “many years ago” when I was younger; less keen on it now! But if that’s all I have to criticize VCFA for, that’s pretty good.

      Excellent point about interpretation. All readers interpret what they read through their own filters, but if those filters don’t include us, that does make it easier.

  10. Jumping on the dorm room bandwagon! I participated in the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets back in 2004 and dreamt up my poems in similar looking rooms.

    As for with whom you share your work: I am all for whatever whets the creative flow. Perhaps you’d feel differently about another project and who saw it. Ultimately, just like in the act of writing something, you have to let the work dictate.

    • Maybe the muse is more likely to find you in a utilitarian space! Still, I’m willing to conduct an experiment with a space a bit more luxurious…🙂

      “Ultimately, just like in the act of writing something, you have to let the work dictate.” Well said.

  11. Honest and interesting post.

    I think some of us are more comfortable sharing with others of a creative ilk, in general. And those closest to us — family, old friends, etc. — might not be open to deep, difficult subject matter. Might not “get it.” Often, I think we find like-minded folks in our readership or in groups of other writers/artists/creatives.

    I think we writers and artists, ultimately, want to connect with others … about the human experience … whether through fiction or memoir or poetry, etc. Those with like minds/experiences will find each other through their art forms.

    Not all of my friends, over the years, would not have known how to receive my most personal, difficult pieces of writing (and the experiences that inhabit it). So, with some, the “connection” wouldn’t have come.

    All of that said, as time has passed, increasingly, I choose friends with whom I can disclose my full spectrum … and vice versa. Also, increasingly, I write very openly about difficult subject matter. For me, a few reasons factor in: having experienced enough so I don’t care as much what people think of me anymore … and, also, because I’ve seen stigma-induced silence’s effect on people I’ve cared about.

    As far as critique groups … there are good ones and there are those I’ve seen shut writers down.

    I was lucky in finding one, over years, that will “hold” my process and leave it up to me … how much critique I am ready for within the piece. If it’s newly processed material, I may not yet be honing it for a reader. I may need more time. However, when I’m ready to send it off, they give me the “next level” of critique necessary to do so.

    Vulnerability, yes, the willingness to be vulnerable, is at the heart of this matter.

    Thank you for your honesty (vulnerability) in raising the subject.

    • There’s a lot to like in this comment, Terri. Let’s start with this: “I think we writers and artists, ultimately, want to connect with others … about the human experience … whether through fiction or memoir or poetry, etc.” That is something I think I understood on some level earlier in my life, but as I have returned to an art-committed road, it has become clearer. Yes, it is true for all creatives, but perhaps more obvious with essayists, where we are (supposed to be) writing true stories.

      I also know what you’re talking about with critique groups. That’s what I love about my writer’s group; we are all so supportive. Thus some of my guilt in holding back from them. And yes, they were okay with me “holding” my piece. I felt no pressure to share it, but, to get the most value from the process, I knew I had to. I felt great relief when I did, however.

      Thank you for honoring my vulnerability.

      (FYI, I fixed your gravatar link, hope that’s okay!)

  12. Oh, Patrick, I had a similar emotional experience when I released the Love Essays (which are as close to the bone as I’ve ever written without the comfort of a “fiction” label). Anyway, after weeks (months) of writing, I was eager to share the collection with my blog readers. But of course, once it was up, people I know in the 3-D world – friends, family – downloaded it too. I was surprised by how nervous that made me. I was absolutely more comfortable being naked in front of strangers than I was in front of friends.

    I don’t know the answer to your question… maybe it’s because with strangers there’s a certain distance, and that distance – when we’re attempting fearless self-revelation – is comforting.

    Looking forward to reading your essay!

    • Thanks, j! And I suspect I’ll experience something like you did with the Love Essays when the essay is on line next week. In fact, there are a few people I haven’t mentioned it to because it’s so personal. Yes, I’ll be linking to it on my blog, but I’m assuming these folks don’t read my blog! You mention nervousness and comfort level; I think that’s right. No embarrassment here, just a certain vulnerability.

      Thanks for your latest visit!

  13. Great post.
    I personally think part of the reason I joined a critique group is because I prefer to hear the opinion of people I don’t know. It’s not that I don’t trust the opinion of my friends, but with them I get strangely defensive. What I want them to see is a more polished version of what I wrote. I think it’s because my friends support me and believe in me and I don’t want to disappoint them.
    With strangers I am free of those expectations, and that is why I will probably always find it easier to share first with strangers and then with friends.

  14. Hi Patrick. I found your blog while looking for an image of Vermont College for a blog post I’m writing. I graduated from Vermont College in 1993, so it’s been a long time, but I do remember those high tension workshops. For the past ten years I’ve belonged to the same writers group, so I do feel comfortable sharing everything I write with them. I don’t, however, like to show my work to my children. I suppose I think they’ll be more disappointed than my friends if my writing isn’t good enough. And they’ll read more into it.

    Back to your image of Vermont College: would you mind if I used it on my blog? I would of course give you credit for the photo.

    • Good to have you here! To begin with, yes, please make use of the photo. Also, if you want to do more of a trip down memory lane, if you search “MFA Nugget” in my search engine (about halfway down the right column) it will pull up all of the posts I wrote from various MFA residencies; I think it’s about 40 in all (I would try to blog daily at my four final residencies).

      So glad you have a steady and stable writing group. That’s so important.

      • Thank you, Patrick.

        OMG! I’m amazed that you found time to blog during your residencies. On the other hand, I didn’t even know what blogging was in 1993. Thanks for the invitation to read your “MFA Nuggets.” My memory of my time there could use some jogging. I was living in Vanuatu in the South Pacific during my residencies, so every trip to Vermont was a big, exciting change of pace.

        Nicki Chen

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 5 posts about writing you shouldn’t miss #freelance (Part one) « @charlotteclark - June 11, 2012

    […] *** 2. Is It Easier to Share with Strangers Than With Friends? from The Artist’s Road “In our social media age, even the terms “stranger” and “friend” can be confusing. I consider some people I know on Twitter “friends” even though we have never met, and others I’ve crossed paths with in person “strangers.” For this post, however, I’m going to consider a “friend” someone I’ve repeatedly spent time with in person on a social basis during changes in our lives. […]

  2. Essay: Baring it all to Strangers « Alchemy of the Word - July 31, 2012

    […] Is It Easier to Share with Strangers Than With Friends? (artistsroad.wordpress.com) […]

  3. Baring it all to Strangers | Alchemy of the Word - January 21, 2013

    […] Is It Easier to Share with Strangers Than With Friends? (artistsroad.wordpress.com) […]

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