Some years back, my wife and I were in the grocery store. It was our regular grocery store, and we were just going down the aisle, discussing groceries and putting things in the cart. The store was busy, but not unduly so.
A woman I had never seen before came up to us.
‘Hi, Hugh. Hi, Renee!”
I had no idea who this person was. I looked at Renee. She obviously had no idea who she was, either. Our confusion must have been evident.
“Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Maria. I go to [large church I had spoken at the year before], and I follow you on Facebook and read your blog and newsletters.”
I’m always a little uncertain about what to do next. I thanked her for reading my stuff.
“It sounds like you had fun at the beach. And what a cute beach house! And I hope Felix [our cat] is doing OK after that scare at the vet last week!”
She was harmless. But it felt just a tad creepy. It was the first time I had really experienced what I have come to call the “knowledge differential.”
In the first lines of Walden, Thoreau said, talking about his writing in the first person: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”
Like Thoreau, I only know myself well, and even that knowledge evades me at times. I write from my own experience and only feel qualified to tell my own story. The advantage to this is relative expertise on the subject matter, but a disadvantage is that our relationship – mine and yours – is asymmetrical.
You know a lot about me. You don’t know everything because I have boundaries, but my life is well documented. Frequent readers know my cats, hobbies, favorite candy bar, anxieties, hopes, and goals. There are probably 75 of you I know some amount of stuff about. For another couple of thousand of you, I know (or at least have) your email address. And that’s about it.
This asymmetrical quality sometimes makes having friends really difficult. But not as difficult as making friends.
* * *
I was in a strange town on the East Coast for a few days, and I had mentioned in my newsletter that I would be in this town and was happy to grab coffee on a given day if anyone was game. This is how I ended up across the table from Steve.
We have an hour or so, and I recognize him from his Facebook profile picture when he shows up at the coffee shop. I ask him a question or two – the sort of small talk you do when getting to know someone – and then, in response to something he says, I begin to tell him that I can relate because of this thing that happened to me.
He interrupted me.
“Yeah, I know that story. I read about that when it happened.”
He then asked me a bunch of questions about that thing, including some that were boundary crossing. The next 45 minutes felt like an interview. When we left to go our separate ways, he took a selfie with me that went on his Instagram, and then he told me that he was my biggest fan.
Maybe it’s my age, but I always hear that line in Kathy Bate’s voice.
* * *
It’s weird, this asymmetrical relationship we have, you and me. When I run into people I have not seen in ages, they tell me about things that happen in their life, and then they comment on my life – they mention the trip I just went on, my depression struggles, and my cats. I hesitate to mention things I have written about because I don’t want to repeat myself if they already know, and I don’t want to assume they read my stuff (how annoying is THAT guy? “As I said in chapter 9 of my latest book, …”).
And so, when I meet people for the first time, I find myself reluctant to bring up my writing. Like I want to have a person in my life who is not a consumer of my words, who only know the IRL version of me and not the curated version, who only knows what they observe and can gleen. Friends who never worry if I am going to write about them. Friends who get excited when I tell them about the big thing that happened to me and who don’t already know how the story ends.
I’m not complaining. I signed up for this gig. I enjoy writing, and I write confessionally and openly. I enjoy it. It’s changed my life. Hell, it’s saved my life.
But it’s important for you to know that the Hugh you know from here is curated. I mean, it must be, by definition. So you don’t know if we would be best friends if we met. Maybe I chew with my mouth open, and that would annoy the hell out of you. (I don’t, but it’s an example – just go with it).
And I guarantee that you don’t know the whole story.