My compulsive and nervous-boredom-induced stroll down Facebook’s news feed every morning is revealing yet another up-the-wall-driving trend. It’s two-pronged and it’s going to make me look like either a Luddite or a very insensitive, butthurt jerk to point it out: a) celebrities “coming out” about their struggles with mental health and b) the glut of articles and blog posts, the volume of which is rapidly approaching the amount of memoirs (especially, horrifyingly, of people under 30) water-logging the creative nonfiction market, titled something like “What I Want The World To Know About Bi-Polar Disorder/Anxiety/Post-Partum Depression,” etc.”
So I’ll just admit right now the half-crazed pangs of jealousy grabbing at my chest. Why do some voices get heard and not others? I acknowledge that conclusion, strung out to its logical end, is essentially the exact flood of life stories I mentioned above, the ones by people who really haven’t lived long enough to have much in their rear-view mirror to reflect contemplatively on (or, in the cases where life experience makes up for lack of life length, too much of a refined ability to perform such contemplation in a publicly beneficial way). And yet, here I am still, attempting to reckon with my own emerald-eyed reflection.
My other, honestly more manageable, problem is the grandiose conception of one’s audience. I get that the title – “What I Want the World to Know About ______” – is a right conceit intended to make a point about how little the author’s particular ailment or struggle is understood or accepted by broader society and – more importantly – how much said misconceptions hurt. I, too, have wanted to scream at The World for failing to do the right thing (in my case or others), for ignoring me and my personal issues that would justly be at least somewhat universalizable and have even in this very blog post already moaned about how little of The World reads anything I write or cares that I’m writing at all. And also.
And also, this Wanting the World To Know is catching like the common nasopharyngitis and it’s doing bizarre stuff. Stuff that quietly chips away at the very message of these often anguished cries for The World to reform. Here’s what I’ve noticed happening in these WIWTWTK pieces:
1) They tend to assume that personal story followed by list of tips/advice (with some lip service towards “one size may not fit all”) will reach their readers’ hearts. Now, I’m a writer. Woe to me if stories are incapable of major impact. But the whole point of any story, the little engine trucking each one around, is experience. You simply cannot assume that your story is enough to connect with someone else’s experience, especially if you’re not consciously making the effort to build that bridge. Facts and figures aren’t going to do it. Advice, even if it is manicured to fit your conception of who needs it, isn’t going to do it. Personal experience is. I don’t mean hearing about some stranger’s. I mean mine. I can tell when a writer has me or someone like me in mind – in other words, an intentionally crafted message – when they wrote whatever it is I’m reading and when they had this delusional idea that The Whole World is ever going to get their hands on whatever it is I’m reading. And actually, if you think about it, you can probably tell, too. For example, do you write missives to The World? If not, then there’s either another reason you’re reading this post or you’re likely wasting your time. All good writing is targeted; if it’s not, it’s advertising at best and self-aggrandizement at worst (though really, those are – thanks, Capitalism, for demonstrating this so nauseatingly well – basically the same thing when you come right down to it).
2) They tend to make and somewhat rely on cinematic sweeps about their issue du-jour. I realize the mirror-on-mirror action going on in that last statement; I have read enough of these WIWTWTK things to find myself, by the end of them, kind of lost as to both what the issue actually is as the author understands it and also what I’m supposed to do about it. It may start out being about one person’s issue with depression or borderline personality disorder, but presumably the reason you’re writing is because you believe you have something to say that pertains to others (otherwise, why write?). When you’re talking to “The World,” you tend to have to generalize a very personal and therefore granular experience in order to make it apply in some way to seven billion other people. This is why we end up with tropes like “all people with depression go around sadly moping all the time” and those tropes are themselves one reason why you always hear about how shocked everyone is by a suicide. “But they seemed so happy…” Yes, that’s because people struggling with mental/emotional distress are going around faking being well (not sick), which our stereotypes of mental illness completely disable us from seeing. These stereotypes come from overly general listicle-type writing that seeks to address all of humanity all at once.
3) They seem to seek the lowest common denominator. Rather than tailoring to people who can and want to do something about their issue, they’re adding to the constant, high-pressured sandblast of “awareness” campaigns from everyone else who wants The World to listen up, too. 100% of the articles or posts addressed to The World appear to be operating with the premise that the reason that stigma, marginalization, judgment and mistreatment exist is because people simply aren’t aware of the issue; if they were, surely they’d spring into compassionate, helpful, nonjudgmental action. I don’t think lack of awareness, in the Information Age is really the problem, at least not anymore, and for my part, I’m experiencing some pretty tarpaulin awareness fatigue. The celerity of the news cycle is too much for my already tightly-wound nervous system. I’m willing to bet many people are picking and choosing what they read; and that’s why, counter-intuitive as it seems, you’re not going to grab the attention of who you’re looking for by blanketing The World with your message.