Writing Naked

Writing Naked

Autumn Jefferson
Media Staff

Is there truly a way to hide oneself when writing?

I sometimes feel shame while writing. Certainly, not all forms of writing make me ashamed or awkward. Most of the time fiction does not; neither does purely academic writing. What is left, then? Perhaps the combination of the two—when I wish to compose an affective piece but can only write in an abstract and impersonal way.

Once I wrote an email to a person, telling her the chaotic sense of time I felt during the pandemic. She responded to me very quickly with a touching reflection on her own experience of living through the pandemic. Reading it, I was moved to tears many times. I tried to write something back but could not. I felt ashamed for my inability to convey my feelings. I procrastinated for a long time and regretted my procrastination very much.

Perhaps this kind of writing shame is, as the writer Elspeth Probyn claims, elicited by an inability to make the writing equal to the subject being written about; it arises when one has an intense interest in the subject but is unable to convey its attraction to the readers.

But accompanied with this source of writing shame, there is at least one other source of shame—the shame felt because of one's ultimate form of nakedness while writing.


Writing impersonal things or writing things in an impersonal way camouflages me and offers me a place to hide. 


Several times I have worried that the topic I was writing on was insignificant, and its insignificance would reveal my innate mundaneness, and present me as an object vulnerable to critique or curious observation. Other times I have worried that my topic was too abstract. Writing impersonal things or writing things in an impersonal way camouflages me and offers me a place to hide. But also, it is precisely this hiding that reveals something fundamental about me (which I do not wish others to know). Writing exposes me: either it reveals what I wish to show to others, or it reveals what I do not wish to reveal about myself.

Again the question: Is there truly a way to hide oneself?

There have been many times when, after I posted somethinga picture or a few sentences on social mediaI waited just two minutes or so and then, almost unbearably, turned it into the mode "invisible to others."

I wish to reveal a certain part of myself, I also wish to hide the other part of myself, for fear of being found out.

The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas thinks that shame is one’s riveting against oneself, the awareness of one's own pressing presence, the intimacy with one's naked ego. In other words, shame is the realization that one cannot escape from oneself. If I sent a message or said something or wrote an email in a state of pleasure or even ecstasy, then when I am out of that state (which comes very soon), I would feel a sense of shame. In other words, the "ego," while being almost invisible in the state of ecstasy (that I can hardly notice or be aware of myself), grew enormous and pressing outside of that state (that I would almost feel suffocated). I would, almost immediately, wish I had a different, more reserved way of presenting myself. But why is it so important to me to present myself as “reserved” instead of as someone experiencing ecstasy? Why is it so hard to show others who we really are in our most carefree, unself-conscious moments?

Because we don’t want to be laughed at or judged. We don’t want family and friends turning against us. We don’t want to say or do anything “wrong” or offensive or hurtful.

The intimacy with one's own naked being doesn’t lead to shame; rather, it is precisely because one is intimate but not intimate enough with one's existence that one can still feel ashamed. In this quasi-intimacy, one's existence remains partially estranged and exists as a form of resistance. It is in this sense that one can realize one's pressing existence and experience shame—that is, experience the desire to escape from it but at the same time know in despair that one ultimately cannot escape.


The intimacy with one's own naked being doesn’t lead to shame; rather, it is precisely because one is intimate but not intimate enough with one's existence that one can still feel ashamed.


Perhaps only when I am truly comfortable with myself will I feel no shame when I write in a personal waywhether that’s on social media or in an email to a friend. If I am estranged from myself, my writing will feel estranged to me and others. I need to be willing to trust my voice will be “enough” even if it’s still evolving, the way I am still becoming as a thinker, a person, a writer.

Easy to say these things, harder to practice them in a world we feel so judged by what we say and do not say, where people are constantly documenting and sharing, “liking” or emoji-responding to every little thought. Sometimes it’s easier to be “invisible to others” than it is to expose yourself for all to see. So to move past my shame, I ask myself: What parts of myself can’t I reveal to others? What parts of me do I wish to hide? Am I being authentic? Why do I care so much about how other people see me? David Velleman writes on shame and says something like, “there is nothing dishonest about choosing not to scratch wherever and whenever it itches. Although you don’t make all of your itches overt, in the manner of a dog, you aren’t falsely pretending to be less itchy than a dog; you aren’t pretending, in other words, that the itches you scratch are the only ones you have.” Yes, there are aspects of ourselves that we choose not to make explicit, but there is nothing dishonest or hypocritical about that. We have our quirks, our “itches,” and we can choose to reveal those or not.

The other thing I’m struggling with is the idea of self-sufficiency. I know I care too much about what others think of me, and this “care” itself makes me anxious and ashamed. I want to be self-sufficient and independent, even though I know deeply that “self-sufficiency”—the idea that I can find satisfaction and fulfillment (or so-called “happiness” ) on myself alone—is merely a myth. Starting from infancy I had to rely on help from others (food, shelter, care, education, etc.), and as I’ve grown older my identity has been shaped by my interactions with others. Even if someday I reach old age, I cannot escape this “shackle”—the need to live with and partially depend on others. I still struggle to accept that.

Is there truly a way to hide oneself? Maybe it’s time to stop trying. Writing something personal doesn’t have to mean baring my soul; it just means I have some thoughts, and I’m trying to express them. It just means I’m trying to connect with someone else. Maybe out there someone else feels “invisible to others,” and by reading this piece they’ll feel seen and heard, in all their nakedness, without shame.


Levinas, Emmanuel. On escape. Stanford University Press, 2003.
Probyn, Elspeth. 3 Writing Shame. Duke University Press, 2010.
Velleman, J. David. "The genesis of shame." Philosophy & Public Affairs 30.1 (2001): 27-52.