3 February

On Being Open

by Jon Katz
Being Open
Being Open

On Sundays, I try and answer questions about my life  on my Facebook page and it is always interesting and inspiring for me – I get a lot of blog ideas from it. I have made it clear that I am not a dog trainer or a vet and the quality of the questions has greatly improved. I look forward to it. One came this morning from Deb Jones, who asked me if I ever regret “being so open and honest about your life and experiences on the Internet?” It is a good and important question for me, and the answer is simple, even if the issue is complex:

When I started the blog in 2007, I looked around at the corporate, political and writer blogs that were emerging and they seemed somewhat fake to me, mostly about selling and position but not about the lives of the people creating them. Writers put up their books covers and linked to bookstores and online retailers.  They rarely, if ever, shared the writing process. A lot of them seemed like corporate blah-blah. My publisher was unhappy with my blog, they thought at the time it would cut into book sales by offering too much free stuff. If it was important, they told me, put my experiences in a book and charge for it.

In our culture, it is now expected that people in public life lie about themselves. Our political leaders consider the truth dangerous and self-defeating. I consider it essential. And there are problems.  For one thing, there are all kinds of disturbed and angry people on the Internet, and if you are open online, you will meet some of them. Lawyers have public people terrified about liability issues, but since I mostly write about myself, that is not a problem.

I made two promises when I began the Farm Journal and bedlamfarm.com – one was that I would post frequently, so that the blog and my writing would not get stale and would be worth visiting. I wanted people to see the site as honest and fresh. I don’t want it ever to be stale.  Another is that I would be open about my life. I wanted to share the process of growth and change.  I did this for selfish reasons. I knew if I were honest about my life on the blog, then I might become honest about it in my life as well. I also though it might be helpful to people, and I believe it has been.

When you admit your many struggles and  failings – and triumphs –  openly, you no longer need to hide from them. Others can learn from them.  And if you publish them on a blog, you can’t hide from them. As my problems deepened and my life became more complex, the blog grounded me and forced me to think about my life in a new way every day. The feedback and support I received was not glancing, it was seminal and important to me.

People should understand that I am not totally open. You only know what you see, not what you don’t. I rarely write about anything that happens inside the farmhouse, and nothing about Maria’s private life, or those of my family. I have never written about my divorce, or offered details of my original family’s problems. I do not write about my brother and my sister, or other people who have passed more recently through my life. I don’t reveal private conversations Maria and I have or talk about the details of our sex lives. I do try to be open about my own life. Anxiety, depression, anger, money, the ups and downs of publishing, and the area where being open has perhaps drawn the most controversy has been decisions I make about animals: am I grieving enough, should I have put Orson down, euthanized Rocky, let the old sheep go off to die, refused to build bomb-proof chicken shelters, sent Elvis off to market, shot Winston Jr., the belligerent rooster.

Being challenged online has strengthened my decision making and confidence in my decisions. When I shared our evolving decision to put Rocky down, many of you may remember the angry, sometimes quite vicious and hurtful messages that came pouring onto my Facebook Page. These messages forced me to consider what I was doing carefully, and by the end of the process I was absolutely solid about it. Challenges can be a gift if you can handle them. I can.

In my case, acknowledging my problems and realities has usually triggered the process by which I acknowledge them and begin to deal with them. The blog is often where I am going, not just where I am. It pulls me along. I seek an authentic and meaningful life, after years of lying to myself and others, I mean to stand in my own truth. Openness (and photographs of the animals I write about also) has been a major reason for the blog’s success and continuing growth.

Among the lessons of openness: I have learned to not see my life as an argument, or be drawn into arguing about it with strangers over the Internet. I keep clear boundaries around e-mail and social messaging. I do not allow any of my public sites to be infected with hostility and self-righteousness.  I do not take orders for ideas or photos – I write and shoot what I want. I share my life, I do not give it away or surrender my decisions to others. I do not seek advice but try and solve my own problems. I do not listen to warnings and alarms, so easy to transmit. I do not do the nasty-Internet e-mail thing.

I am aware that my openness makes some people uncomfortable, Deb’s questions is perhaps the one I am asked the most. Being open is challenging, sometimes painful, often unnatural. It has profoundly shaped my book writing. Being open is much reflected in my photography. I am not open for therapeutic or marketing reasons, although I am conscious of them. I am open because I am a writer, and I believe strongly that this is the writer’s mission – to touch emotions, to share lives, to use writing as a bridge to being authentic and connecting to the authenticity in other people. Openness is my primary writing theme, it is the spine of my books. As a memoirist who has not always been open or authentic in his writing, I am just beginning to write more openly. My best work is, I think, ahead of me for that reason. Openness is the hallmark, in my mind, of every great and true writer – the willingness to face his or her own life and share the wondrous and often difficult march to a meaningful existence.

Being open is not new for writers, it is a deep and ancient literary tradition.

So I thank you for the question, Deb, and I can tell you that the answer is no, never. Not for a second do I regret being open. Nothing worthwhile is easy, and the fact that something is difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. It often is. For all of its challenges and difficulties, being open is one of the best decisions I have ever made.

The Internet is what you and your own sense of boundaries and discipline make it. It can be a wondrous tool for communicating or a nightmare of unwanted thoughts and feelings. Stand by. I am just beginning to understand what openness it.

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