j’s Journey: Getting personal

By Judy Clement Wall

When I first decided to take myself seriously as a writer, I was writing fiction. Only fiction. I was in my thirties, in the midst of getting my creative writing degree, writing short stories for workshop classes (which, in hindsight, maybe wasn’t the best place to decide to take myself seriously as it made the whole critique process much more painful). I wrote only fiction for years, and while I think to varying degrees writers are always present in their work, I most often wrote about things I’d never personally lived through – being a single mom, for instance, or a rodeo girl, or just plain invisible.

Then one day, on a crazy whim, I publicly declared 2011 would be my “year of fearless love.” That year changed everything. It changed how I think of love, how I act on my impulses, how I move and operate in the world. Throughout 2011, I set myself monthly goals like hugging 28 different people in the 28 days of February, consciously loving myself through May, writing love letters in October, and I blogged about my experiences. During that time, I began writing more personally, on the blog and especially off.

What I didn’t blog about (but did fill page after page after page of my journals with) were the behind-the-scenes effects of the love project on my personal relationships, particularly my marriage. My husband and I had been through a very difficult period, and we were struggling to find our way back to each other, and while my blog was definitely becoming more personal, my situation at home wasn’t something I ever considered blogging about. I felt the disconnect of that decision. I was writing weekly about love – big, fearless, beautiful, heartbreaking love – without ever mentioning the most important relationship in my own life. I knew it was the right thing; we were too raw, too breakable. But it was like living two lives, balancing precariously, trying to write meaningfully about love without writing about the love that meant the most to me.


I’ve always loved reading fiction, but more and more over the years, I’ve found myself drawn to the fearlessness of writers telling their own stories, as openly, as honestly, as nakedly as they know how. In 2010, Laura Zigman, a writer I follow (and adore) online, wrote a post to explain her months-long absence from her blog. While she’d been gone, her mother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was sick for five months before she died, and Laura wrote about that time so bravely; not just about the brutal regiment of caring for her dying parent, but the emotional turmoil of reconciling the mother she’d grown up with and the woman who now needed her care.

I thought a lot, too, about my relationship with my mother — how complicated and, in so many ways, how disappointing it was — and how I would feel when it was finally all over and I’d have to face the fact that I’d never been able to fix it and make it work. Friends who’d been through similar situations told me to say everything I’d always wanted to say to — to hold back nothing — but the problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted to say. Even worse was that I feared the reason I was holding back then and had always been holding back was because I didn’t have anything good to say.

Laura’s words rocked my world. I cried because here was something I understood, absolutely, deep down, beyond my ability to express it. My relationship with my father has always been difficult and tense and – yes – disappointing. I have often wondered about what will happen at the end of his life. How will I feel? How will I mourn? Will I mourn? These are such hard questions to grapple with and even harder to talk to someone else about, because everyone thinks there is only one answer: hash it out. Say everything. Clear the air. But in my heart, I know that isn’t true – there isn’t only one way, and sometimes what you hope for is a less-sad ending rather than a happy one.

I felt intensely grateful for Laura’s piece, for her heartbreaking acknowledgement that we’re complicated, that love is weird and murky and it hurts and sometimes there aren’t any easy answers, and I’m not a freak for not knowing how to feel about my dad.


In February, I decided to summarize my fearless love year in a collection of essays. I knew going into it that writing about the year honestly would be a challenge for me, and it has been. I regularly brush up against what I’m willing to reveal – about myself and about the people in my life – but writing these essays has become a journey in itself and I’m grateful every day I sit down to write.

Recently a friend asked me how my husband feels about the essays, and I told her that he’s supportive because he is, but he’s nervous too. He’ll read them all before I publish them; I can’t do this any other way. My mother, who I love dearly, asked me why I would want to tell my personal stories to the world. (I love that she thinks “the world” might read my work. I didn’t correct her. I like to pretend.) She asked because she’s a very private person. My whole family is. To her, it feels like I’m airing dirty laundry, and I get that. But then I think of Laura Zigman’s piece (and Dear Sugar, and Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life“, and Michael Lockhart’s honest, searching posts about his mother’s fight with Alzheimer’s, and Annie Neugebauer’s pieces here and on Beyond the Margins about writing through her grief),  and I think that our stories connect us, that we are made stronger in the sharing, more whole, more sound.

That’s why I’m doing it. That’s why I’m finally getting personal.

(The Love Essays will be available on A Human Thing in June.)


JUDY CLEMENT WALL is a freelance writer and course presenter for the Fear of Writing Online Course. Her short stories, essays and reviews have been published in literary journals and on some very cool websites like The Rumpus, Used Furniture Review, Lifebyme and Beyond The Margins. She recently finished her first novel, BEAUTIFUL LIVES, and here at FoW she chronicles the ups and downs of writing for publication. Judy writes about living creatively at Zebra Sounds, love at A Human Thing, and is a staff writer at Milliver’s Travels.

19 Responses to j’s Journey: Getting personal
  1. Nuttin
    May 4, 2012 | 11:13 AM

    Well done j.

    • j
      May 4, 2012 | 3:06 PM

      Thank you.

  2. Annie Neugebauer
    Twitter: AnnieNeugebauer
    May 4, 2012 | 11:37 AM

    “But it was like living two lives, balancing precariously, trying to write meaningfully about love without writing about the love that meant the most to me.”

    Wow, this is powerful, J. It makes me even more eager looking forward to your essays. And thanks for including me in that list of incredible people. I agree with your reasons for sharing, and have faced some of the same issues, but I do think it connects us all and makes us stronger. I really believe honesty is integral to love.

    So good for you. I wish you all the best with the experience.

    • j
      May 4, 2012 | 3:07 PM

      Thank you, Annie. I agree, it’s critical to love and it’s critical to art, as is, I think, the willingness to be vulnerable. Tricky waters, but worth the risk. Thank you for being another brave role model.

  3. Ann MG
    May 4, 2012 | 1:58 PM

    There’s an Anne Lamott quote going around lately about your associates feeling nervous about your memoirs: “If they wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” 😉

    I just went to a funeral with my dad. Overnight trip, long drive, and feeling cranky and shocked at the death of someone his age, whose family has been part of our lives for a long time, so frankly, my major trip prep was charging the mp3 player and being ready to nap. I wasn’t expecting revelations, though, and somehow that made the trip so much better (easier?). There isn’t going to be one magical event or conversation that’s going to change this relationship–we’re not going to get all noble in the face of loss–but we do keep showing up.

    And that then I see is one of the values of my enduring people: I won’t send this to pieces with just a word. We can take some ups and downs, some dumb stuff along with the great.

    • j
      May 4, 2012 | 3:10 PM

      LOVE the Anne Lamott quote!

      This: “we’re not going to get all noble in the face of loss–but we do keep showing up” is brutal and beautiful and right, I think. Thank you, Ann.

  4. Christie
    May 4, 2012 | 3:54 PM

    I so love this post!

    You and I talked about some of this recently in light of the situation with my mom. Although she is still alive and we are currently not talking, I have no idea how to reconcile at this point and I think if I don’t and something happens, then what?

    In the past she has said that she loves my posts but when they get a little too personal, she says the same thing you mom did about telling the whole world my story, airing my dirty laundry but in writing I feel I am connecting, like everyone else here. In writing I find kindred spirits, a community where I belong which is a feeling I don’t associate much of the time with my flesh and blood family.

    Thank you for being so courageous, for sharing your stories because I cannot imagine a world without your words ♥

    • j
      May 4, 2012 | 8:09 PM

      Thank you, Christie. Whenever we talk about the connection between writers, or between writers and readers, I think of Michael Chabon’s observation that “Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake.”

      Yeah. It’s like that.

  5. Anthony V. Toscano
    May 4, 2012 | 5:59 PM

    The practice of writing for so-called blogs owns its origin in online journals. Nowadays, most people are taught to believe that the word BLOG (Sorry if I sound a grumpy note here, but the word sounds a lot like a clogged nose blowing itself without benefit of a muffler, so on my own website I avoid its mention.),as in WeB Log. But that isn’t so. Scrunch and squeeze together Biographical & LOG and you own the the truth.

    Then commercial interests conquered the Internet. Newspapers. Pop Culture Magazines. Publishers like SmashedSyllables.com, etc.

    So today we writers are oftentimes encouraged not to place fiction or memoir essays on our websites. The NEW GURUS promote “branding yourself” in order to gain a following that will someday buy the books we haven’t yet written.

    Such a sad game. People become brands, and brands follow other brands, until the snake chases its own tail without realizing it (Follow me, I’ll follow you!).

    I remain intrigued by writers who tell the truth. Still, the risk is high, and asking for permission before you write about a person who’s part of your life is a solemn obligation.

    • j
      May 4, 2012 | 8:11 PM

      True, but real art happens when we’re willing to risk something, I think. I hope.

  6. Lance
    May 4, 2012 | 8:09 PM

    I’m both living vicariously through your personal revelations and balancing my paths of writing my first fiction book and telling my personal stories with my family and my anxiety disorder.

    here’s an example of the latter: http://lancemyblogcanbeatupyourblog.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/the-chemicals-between-us/

    Your positivity radiates through my screen each week. I’m proud to read you.

    • j
      May 4, 2012 | 8:23 PM

      Holy shit, your post blew me away, Lance. I love when you write about yourself; I admire your bravery. Off to tweet you!

  7. Travis B. Hartwell
    Twitter: travisbhartwell
    May 4, 2012 | 8:22 PM


    I think this trepidation over sharing the lives of others is one of the reasons that I feel held back in trying to write my story, at least for an audience greater than the very few people I’ve been opening up to over the last year or so.

    It’s especially hard when these events and feelings I would write about are so closely associated with those that might not be an active part of my life any more. If I had the ability to share, as you have with your husband, perhaps I’d feel more open.

    Somehow, I’ve got to find the openness, in a way that respects the privacy and dignity of others, which exposing that vulnerability necessary for my own growth, and perhaps my chance to empathize and share with others.

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about empathy the last few days, and I know that an essential part of this empathy that leads to deep human connection is to tell the truth of life. In so doing, we give others permission to see their own truth and to share it and to know “me, too.”

    Somehow, the blocks on the path starting with the self-knowing of “I am” leading through the reaching out of empathy of “me, too” and on to the “we are” filled with loving-kindness and compassion, must be removed. It’s something you are helping me find, j, through this and the other times you so willingly share.

    • j
      May 4, 2012 | 8:31 PM

      I so understand your struggle. It’s been mine too. I’m lucky that my husband is as supportive as he is; not everyone in my life would be… and I don’t even think they necessarily should be. It’s a difficult balance but one that is worth the struggle to figure out, I think.

  8. Estrella Azul
    May 5, 2012 | 1:31 PM

    I know what you mean, j, I’ve been there. Posting more personal blog posts while keeping everything a mystery and only hinted at is something I seem to be quite good at.
    And honestly, I’m scared of true “out there for the world to read” writing. Oh, and yes, I like to pretend too 🙂

    Your more personal writing is so awe-inspiring. Thank you for continuously making me feel safer about getting personal.

  9. j
    May 6, 2012 | 12:30 PM

    Thank you, Estrella.

    It’s hard on blog posts, I think. I can take my time with an essay, there’s more space. I don’ think everything that happens to us is bloggable, not just because it might be too personal, but also because the blog as a medium doesn’t always feel suitable. Or at least that’s how I see it right now, but then again, my writing life is a continuous evolution.

  10. […] Fear of Writing Blog. Having suffered from about 25+ years of writer’s block, I have a soft spot for blogs like these. There’s something about being an artist, about having an open, tender heart, about being mindful and present, that makes you somehow more sensitive to fear and doubt–at least, that’s my theory. People who make art, feel it is their calling, love so big that the potential for loss and ruin can sometimes be overwhelming. I learned of this blog because one of my favorite bloggers, writers, artists, big hearts, Judy Clement Wall, wrote a post for them recently, “j’s Journey: Getting Personal.” […]

  11. […] week, in a piece for Fear Of Writing titled “Getting Personal,” I talked about why I’ve felt myself more and more drawn to “the fearlessness of […]

  12. Bell
    Twitter: StartYourNovel
    May 22, 2012 | 11:07 AM

    You know, Judy, there’s a way to write about intimacy and family life and still be discreet or private. I know you can tell the difference — most of us know when they’ve crossed the line.

    (Some people make their whole lives about crossing lines willingly. Several times. We often meet them on tabloid pages.)

    Your year of fearless love sounds like the kind of project only a fearless person would take on. Because there’s so much vulnerability there. And vulnerability is immensely valuable. As Brené Brown told a crowd of hundreds of thousands, online and off, vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity and innovation.

    Thanks for crossing a reasonable number of lines, Judy.

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