Writers Should Be Exhibitionists


It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting in my new living room with nothing but the sunlight coming in through the blinds in the windows. I am exhausted, not sleepy – otherwise I’d still be in bed, just tired from the weeks that led up to this move and all the work that still has to be done.

There are piles of clothes and frames everywhere. I can hear the chirping of morning birds that tell me it’s Spring and the humming of a plane nearby either leaving or coming into JFK airport.

I’m a few weeks behind in this #52essays2017 challenge, which is discouraging. But I’m telling myself that life happens and starting where I woke up this morning. There is no shame in living the stories I need to write about.


A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the dining room of one my private clients when I had an accidental onset of word vomit – you know said something in a way I didn’t mean to say it. The mother of the student I work with was sitting on the couch next to the dining room table nursing her 6 month baby.

I don’t usually ask a lot of personal questions of people I don’t know well, but this family is generous in their sharing of stories. I’ve learned that the mother is Romani, people living mostly in Europe that originate from the Northern regions of India or more colloquially known as “gypsies.” I know that there oldest two children are adopted and that they had their third child biologically.

In making conversation that weekday afternoon, I asked her, “Did you always plan to have your own kids?” I am cringing as I write these words now because I understand the implications post-awkward encounter.

She responded swiftly, with the quickness of a mother bird protecting her young, “You mean biological kids? They are all our kids.” I then apologize with the quickness of a mule deer escaping a predator.

She went on to tell me the story of how her biological son was conceived three weeks after she was misdiagnosed with cancer in her thirties. She also alluded to some kind of divorce in between the first and second adoption – all with the same man who is now her husband.

So I told her that she should write a book. She mentioned that she’s heard that a lot but she’s not much of an exhibitionist.

That statement keeps ringing in my ears like an incessant door to door salesman.

Why? Because in my mind she was calling me an exhibitionist. Because I write stories, personal stories, and publish them for the world to see. I didn’t understand why at the time – but I was uncomfortable with the idea of being labeled an exhibitionist.

Merriam-Webster defines exhibitionism as 1a: a perversion marked by a tendency to indecent exposure, 1b: an act of such exposure, 2: the act or practice of behaving so as to attract attention to oneself

Exhibitionism has the connotation of perversion and an inappropriate pursuit of attention. When I think of exhibitionism I think of the man that revealed himself to me and my friends outside of our high school or the man that jerked off behind the backpack on his lap in the corner of the 7 train while watching my pre-teen body sink into the subway seat.

No – exhibitionism does not have a positive connotation. I do not seek to be known as an exhibitionist. I do not want attention at the cost of exposing my most personal, intimate struggles.

And yet here I am – playing catch up with my writing on a Sunday morning. Reading essays and writing an essay on how writers must be exhibitionists.


In “Writers as Exhibitionists: Why Tell All,” Kiini Ibura Salaam journeys through the questions of why writers must use the power of the word to discuss the abhorred life, or the secrets that we all keep.

We do all keep them. Secrets. Experiences, feelings and thoughts we never dare to talk about.

And those secrets, as much as we try to push them to the backs of our closets, are with us always. While we go to work. When we go to the grocery story. When we speak. When we write. When we think.

Kiini Ibura Salaam poses questions to writers, “Why do we tell our own stories? Why do we publish our secrets? Are we telling the truth if we tell only the truths that fit in with what we want the world to know about us? Is it possible to tell a personal tale while wearing a mask the entire time?”

She goes on to discuss how the power of word touches people. She says, “we don’t know how many people will read the intensely intimate details of our lives and, as a result, breathe a sigh of relief, clear out the cobwebs, kill the nightmares, and finally embrace themselves as normal.”

When we suppress our secrets or untold stories, we give them power. All those dark, hated parts of ourselves that we try to hide create negative self-images that will consume us. The reality is that we are probably not alone in whatever struggle we are facing. And if we would be more open and honest with one another, we could figure out a way to deal with it together.

This is why I write – it is my form of rebellion and revolution. The world would have me believe that I am alone and undeserving of love because of the thoughts that I have and the past that I carry. When I write about them, I take back power and even help empower others who have the sames struggles.

I think a part of what made me so uncomfortable at the thought of being labeled an exhibitionist because of my writing is what other people would think.

I envy people who were raised to be fearless and loud and independent. I was raised to watch my tongue, present myself with etiquette and manners at all times and respect authority – no matter who that authority might be. In other words, I was raised to smile and keep quiet when people make inappropriate jokes or comments because it’s the “nice” thing to do and I shouldn’t ruffle any feathers because ::GASP:: what would people think?

I know I’m not the only one who cares too much about how other people are secretly (or not-so secretly) judging them. I’m trying to shake out of that mindset. I’m trying to be louder when I have something to say. I’m trying to pause in moments of any potential isms and turn back around to ask, “what did you mean by that?” or “I didn’t like what you just said.”

Caring too much about what people think will cause you to carry shame for being who you are – and I don’t know about ya’ll, but life is hard enough as it is. I don’t need to be ashamed for living my life.

So … I guess I am an exhibitionist. I’ll learn to take pride in that too.

“Writing about these secrets is a way of flinging it from your body and saying, this is not mine, I will not bear this cross. This is ours, world. Why do we do this? Why do we feel this? How do we get through this?” – Kiini Ibura Salaam

2 thoughts on “Writers Should Be Exhibitionists

  1. I too Amiga worry about que van a decir los demas… I was too was raised to respect and be nice, and to be anything else would be sinverguenzora…
    I worry what others will say about me… that nagging voice… who do you think you are sits on my lap as I write.

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