I was very young when I became interested, so interested in stories of people doing something in secret.
Secret drinking, secret gambling, secret boyfriends, secret girlfriends, secret/second families, secret lives.
I didn’t go to church very often, but I remember nearly eidetically a sermon I listened to when I was fourteen, at a school friend’s church. The sermon was about secrets, and after Ephesians 5:12 — for it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.
The idea, said the pastor, is that if your deeds are in darkness, they are dark, and would be a source of shame for those who are in the light to even speak of. I’m not a theologian, so I’m not sure of that pastor’s take, but this idea seemed at once titillating and awful. What I was compelled to do secretly was a compulsion born of the inherent shame of that thing. That anything I did secretly was proofed by the secret-keeping as a sin.
When you are fourteen, you can think of a lot of examples that support this idea.
This was also a time when it seemed like everyone I was growing up with was getting out their maps and finding their direction. My best friend announced she would be a doctor (she is, dear reader, today), a couple of my orchestra-mates started serious studio study, advanced math tracks were taken up by those citing engineering as the future.
I didn’t want to choose, the choices had come to bear too quickly. I wanted college to stay a daydream, and my future to remain nebulous and changeable. As soon as a chose, I felt I was choosing fear. Fear that if I wanted to be a doctor I would flunk AP biology, or if I wanted to be a musician, I would choke auditions, or if I wanted to be a physicist, everyone else smarter would outpace me, and if I wanted to be a writer, or an artist –
Then maybe I wasn’t good enough for anything else, and how could I even know I was good enough to write books or make art, anyway? No test, no admissions could tell me.
Of course, this is how secrets are born. They are born of fear. The landmark decision by the Supreme Court of the United States this last week revealed generations of secrets forged in legitimate fear. So many loved, but loved in secret. When their secret was brought to life, so many came to die, or be terribly hurt. When we moved to our house, we were told that the house across the street used to be the home of a couple who maintained they were roommates for fifty years. In their life, they never walked down our leafy street holding hands.
The decision removes the institution’s power to force people into secret, but our government isn’t the only source of fear. The scripture I cited gives us the source of shame – it is us. We force shame and secrets whenever we hate, or dampen, or tell the world or yourself, someone else – you can’t.
My family was lousy with secret artists and writers, on my dad’s side. The aunt who was told by her community college professors to go to art school, but she wouldn’t, because she had a baby, because how would she make money, because how would a community college know if she was good at art, because moms don’t go to art school, because she’s not that good. The grandmother who tatted award-winning lace, and made ceramics, and designed and sewed dance costumes for her girls, and doodled funny cartoons, couldn’t be an artist because she was an immigrant, and had to work for a living, and did stuff anyone could do, and had five children. Another aunt whose house was full of shelves and shelves of books and bought me a Mont Blanc when I admitted, graduating from high school, I might want to be a writer who admitted to me, then, that she fooled around with writing.
I was a smart girl who grew up without money, and every semester, when I signed up for classes, the kind guidance office, when I asked if I could take an art class, take the creative writing class, reminded me that I could always write on the side/take a community art class/join a group if I wanted to do those things, but that it was most important, in my situation, to take the classes that would get me into a good teaching college. After all, then I would have summers off.
If I had been Kyle, who was a boy, and from a nice family, and drew beautifully on his math worksheets, right where everyone could see, right in the light, maybe I would have been encouraged, like him, to take all the art classes in school, to apply to art school. Maybe, like him, I would have had a world-famous art studio and have things that I made in contemporary art museums.
But maybe, also, I was never good enough.
In college, I focused on the study of English and music, and I was strong enough to fence off a few places where I could be an artist. Professors were artistic, and if I couldn’t make it in music, I could profess English. I wrote novels in secret. I wrote poems in secret. I graduated and got two things – a job offer at an elite private high school to teach English, and admittance into a creative writing program based on my written-in-secret portfolio. Summers off, or full-time exposure of my secret self.
Except, it wasn’t that easy. I went to the creative writing program, and then another. I wrote. I published. Everyone saw what I trying to do, all the secret manuscripts that I wrote as a girl weren’t shameful or a waste of time, after all, but practice. However, the bookmaking classes, the hanging around a friend’s letterpress work, the sewing, the needlework, the constant inspiration from museums and films – that was just on the side. It wasn’t real work, wasn’t authorized by an education or talent. Music, too, on the side. In the margins of a poetry manuscript I had finally given myself permission to write.
Then there were other years that meant everything was on the side, and then there were secret manuscripts, secret books, secret poems, secret music, secret etsy shops with things I made with color and string and imagination but were hobbies, their success a fluke.
Proverbs tells us that bread eaten in secret is pleasant, and I think this is true, but only for a few servings. Eventually, secret bread is going to get stale if just for lack of company. When I came back to writing, it was in secret, and at first, it was delicious, and a retreat – a place to go that was familiar and novel at the same time. It wasn’t long before I started to feel afraid, though, and the fear came in once I realized that what I was writing wasn’t just for me, but that I intended it for the world, and so now it would be brought to light, looked at, and I would have to know if it was good enough.
When it is in secret, it can’t be spoken of, but when it’s brought to light, it doesn’t just belong to you. At what point is the shame, discomfort, and oppression of a secret endeavor a greater pain than the fear of failure?
Well, it’s not just one point, it turns out. Or one year, or one day. Or one event. Or one conversation. Or one person. Fear is overcome by the persistent realization that where you are is not where you want to be. One day you tell one person your secret, and they meet it with joy and it encourages you, or they meet it with their own fear and you are discouraged. In both cases, you’re in a different place. Another day you’ll do something with your work that isn’t a secret, and something else will happen.
My secret-artist aunt becomes a hairstylist, an extraordinarily talented one, but her body can’t do it anymore after thirty years, and she decides to try working the office of a glass arts studio. There’s the day she starts talking to the artists. The day she tries blowing glass.
Things come to light.
Secrets can be good plot devices because they won’t stay in the dark, and the more life your character lives, the more chances the secret will be exposed. When the character’s life has stayed small, the character can guard the secret and nurture its safety. But then, the character meets someone, goes on a journey, experiences tragedy, or love, or terror. Every experience, every change undermines the character’s ability to protect the safety of their secret. The character’s world gets big, the secret seems so much smaller. They bring it to light and the new world that they have created out of change and experience is able to accept and absorb it.
Which is why, to keep their secret, the couple that once lived across the street from us could never walk down this street holding hands. Except, for their secret to come to light, for it to be accepted and met with joy, the entire world had to change.
I’ve been a secret writer, and a published one. Secretly unhappy, and at the center of change. I’ve nurtured the safety of my dreams because I wanted them to stay dreams, and my future to be free of the fear that comes with declaration, hope, and goal-making. Then the dreams aren’t sweet and pleasurable anymore, after so long dreaming them, and too many things are happening in my life to pretend I can keep a secret.
One verse later, Ephesians says everything exposed by the light becomes visible – and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.
At first, I can tell myself that it’s an experiment. I’ll do this needlework again, but in a new way, without rules. I’ll show it to someone I love. They’ll tell me what I did was art. Then I won’t do it for a while and remember all my other art dreams that have soured, except this time, I tell them. I tell all the secrets, expose all of them. I read books, I visit museums, I buy the kind of art I can’t ever imagine being able to make. I talk to people, one at a time. I talk to one person about it, all the time. My new pleasurable dreams aren’t if but what if. My new dreams are a litany of specifics – letterpress manufacturers and serial numbers, guilds, ink, and paper. Type. My new dreams buoy the dreams that have never stopped resurfacing, and so I write and dream and learn.
And I’ve encountered you can’t. The older I get, the more there is an attempt to force me to shame and secrets. From myself, from others, from communities, from the world.
Except, the point of the sermon is the same as mine — light precludes shame. Telling, showing, dreaming out loud, permitting process, permitting failure. If I had anything to say to the girl I was, it would be you don’t have to. You don’t have to choose, you don’t have to be validated, you don’t have to be ashamed.
We have to be safe, but only as long as we actually are, and a secret is time-limited in its protection. So many times, I’ve been safe until I’ve been miserable. Secret drinking, as an illustrative example, isn’t evocative of safety and fun. Don’t ask, don’t tell was very good at shame, terror, misery, and harm but very bad at happiness, self-actualization on the job, and genuine safety.
Secretly making is very good at producing beautiful things, but won’t do a good job making a place for you in the world, or making room for yourself, inside of yourself.
You can’t probably comes from someone else’s fear and shame.
This week, I started a chapter in a new novel. I had the pleasure of reading work from another author who has been secretly writing for years, knowing that I would publish her book and make it beautiful. I told a man who volunteers at a museum that I would drive south and load metal type cabinets into our car, and when he asked are you? Are you a printer? An artist? An expert?
I told him – I’m only just getting started.
Only – as if it were easy. As if starting hadn’t taken years.
But I told.