Baring it All

By Louise Ure


I’m just back from the Murder in the Grove writers’ weekend in Boise. It was a beautifully organized workshop and much credit goes to T. L. Cooper, Joanne Pence and their team for such a smooth running and intimate session. I spent a lot of my off time catching up with old friends Chris Grabenstein, David Morrell and D. P. Lyle, and learning more about new friends like Betty Webb, Ken Kuhlken, Michael Sherer and Charles Benoit.

But the most striking moment came during the Awards Ceremony, when Guest of Honor J.A. Jance took the microphone.

But first, let me tell you a little bit about my affair with J. A. Jance.


Ours has been a long love affair, albeit one-sided. I started reading her J.P. Beaumont series in 1985 and came to think of Beau’s Belltown Terrace apartment and his lunch dates at the Doghouse as part of my day. I evaluated potential spouses based on whether or not they had the good sense to order Beau’s Makers Mark instead of a lesser brand of bourbon.

The more I learned about Beaumont’s creator, the more I fell in love with her. She was an Arizonan like me, and a graduate of the University of Arizona. Also like me, she’d been advised to have no lofty ambitions. In Ms. Jance’s case it was being denied admittance to the U of A’s Creative Writing Program “because men are writers, not women.” In my case it was the high school guidance counselor who pooh-poohed any of my suggestions and said she thought I’d “do quite well in retail.”

When I moved to Seattle in the late 80’s, I carried four J.P. Beaumont novels with me and reread them, replacing his footsteps with my own to learn about my new hometown. In subsequent years, I came to know Jance’s other series characters, Joanna Brady and Ali Reynolds, and added them to my family tree.

I sent Ms. Jance the electronic equivalent of mash letters. She – wisely — did not reply.

So, back to the Murder in the Grove weekend.

Jance had made herself available for all kinds of presentations – panel discussions, keynote speeches and bookstore signing events.  She’d already told us about growing up an ungainly female, six feet tall. About being denied the Creative Writing Program and the despair of her 18-year marriage to an alcoholic who she finally decided to divorce on the day he attended their child’s softball game and had to crawl from the bleachers back to the car in his drunkenness. About surviving as a single mother after his death from chronic alcoholism at the age of forty-two.

She was asked to speak again at the Awards Luncheon on Saturday.

And this time, she didn’t speak. She approached the microphone and then sang – a cappella – all the verses to Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen.”

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
and high school girls with clear skinned smiles
who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth

And those of us with ravaged faces
lacking in the social graces
desperately remained at home
inventing lovers on the phone
who called to say – come dance with me
and murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems at seventeen

A brown-eyed girl in hand me downs
whose name I never could pronounce
said – Pity please the ones who serve
They only get what they deserve
The rich relationed hometown queen
marries into what she needs
with a guarantee of company
and haven for the elderly

Remember those who win the game
lose the love they sought to gain
in debentures of quality
and dubious integrity
Their small-town eyes will gape at you
in dull surprise when payment due
exceeds accounts received at seventeen

To those of us who knew the pain
of valentines that never came
and those whose names were never called
when choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
when dreams were all they gave for free
to ugly duckling girls like me

We all play the game, and when we dare
we cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting other lives unknown
that call and say – Come dance with me
and murmur vague obscenities
at ugly girls like me, at seventeen

Her voice was lovely and clear. She didn’t hurry the song, she sang it with all the pathos and heartache the writer had intended. The room was hushed.

When she was done she looked straight out at the audience and said “Thank you for making my dreams come true.” Then she sat down.

I joined in the standing ovation, but somewhere deep inside I quailed.

This woman, this writer I had come to admire so much, had laid herself bare in front of us. Telling us her most secret fears and disappointments. She showed us the door into not just her writing, but her soul.

Is that what you ask of us, dear readers?

Or is it enough to talk about where our ideas come from … to share the names of other writers we admire … to talk about our daily writing schedules?

I know I’ve written of very personal things here at Murderati. The death of my father. My mother’s slide into Alzheimers. The last three days of my brother’s life. It is supremely egocentric of me to think that you would even be interested in those things. And yet … why would you care about my daily ritual of a crossword puzzle before I can begin the workday either? Or where the protagonist’s name in the most recent book came from?

I still have my Secret Shames. Things I haven’t blogged about yet and don’t know if I will. I’ll put them in my fiction instead, where I won’t have to lay claim to them. Where you won’t think less of me for it, because you won’t know it’s true.

But I doubt that I will ever have the courage of J.A. Jance to talk in public about my childhood disgraces or those people I felt had ruined my life.

How do you other writers feel about soul-baring in public? And how do you readers react to it? Does it help you come to know us, or is this closer than you’d like to be?

PS: Credit for the Smoking Skeleton Mystery Writer photo at the top of the column goes to Jude Greber, who brought me back this fine talisman (taliswoman?) from a recent trip to Mexico.


33 thoughts on “Baring it All

  1. Wilfred Bereswill

    Good questions Louise. Questions I certainly can’t answer, because for me it has to be a case by case basis.

    It depends on so many things. I’m the sort of person that goes into relationships very cautiously. Once you have me, it’s for life. So, with that in mind, I think sole-baring is more personal for me.

  2. Louise Ure

    Well said, Wilfred. I, too, am more comfortable with intimacy and honesty between two people, or maybe just a few.

    But that still leaves me in the dark when it comes to expressing that persona publicly.

  3. R.J. Mangahas

    This can be a tricky question. First, I think it even takes courage to bare one’s self (or soul) to people, even to those who are closest to you. According to the norms of society, real men don’t show their emotions. I say it takes more of a man to show emotion than to keep it bottled up. Bottled up emotions (for men and women) can lead to self destructiveness (I learned this the hard way, but thank God I learned it. I was lucky, I got to redeem myself for it, not an opportunity you always get).

    What gets me is that some people think showing emotions makes them weak and that people will walk all over them. But really, it’s these emotions that make us human. Without it, we’re empty shells.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to get all philosophical there. As a reader, I like to know a little bit more about the people I read. It really makes the individual seem more dimensional. Mind you, not every intimate detail is necessary. I think some people have this image that writers do nothing but write and tour and talk about their books, writing method, etc. It’s the same with people like actors and musicians: People have this certain image of them, but tend to forget that these people have families, are brother, sisters, husbands wives, cousins, parents…The point is, they’re people too, it’s just that they are more in the public eye.

    That’s it, no more responding to posts when I’m working off only a couple hours of sleep!!

  4. Louise Ure

    R.J., you’ve beautifully played both sides of this argument. Yes, showing one’s inner self can be a sign of strength. And you like getting to know more about the whole life of that public person. On the other hand, we don’t need to hear every detail.

    Guess that says it all.

    Now go take a nap!

  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    You know, Louise,These are questions I’ve struggled with as well.

    With the facility we have now in communication, I think readers do want more of the person than ever before. This might also play into the whole cult of the celebrity trend. But no one wants that level of emotion all the time. It’s too exhausting.

    I believe that as a human being, we can’t constantly bare our souls because we’d be too raw, unable to act or create if we lived in that place 24/7.

    So it comes down to comfort level — for both writer and reader. What Jance did in Boise was profound, in part, because it was a rare display and that made it meaningful, special.

  6. Tammy Cravit

    I have no answers to the question you’ve posed, Louise, but I offer instead yet another question: Given that many readers feel a strong emotional connection to the authors whose books they enjoy, is it a positive or negative thing to constrain that connection to one direction? Or, can the readers who benefit from those connections give something back to the writers who fostered them?

    In April, 2004, I wrote an article for my local newspaper. I’d been freelancing for them for some time, and they were looking for a first-person story to accompany the paper’s coverage of our city’s planned events to commemorate Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Though I’ve spoken at a few candlelight vigils about my experience as a survivor of sexual assault, laying that part of myself bare before my whole city created a vulnerable feeling that I really wrestled with.

    The article that ultimately ran “page 1 above the fold” was unquestionably the most difficult seven hundred words I’ve ever written. But, you know the funny thing? For WEEKS afterward, everywhere I went, people came up to me to express their support, to offer hugs and words of encouragement. I stopped by the newsroom the day after the article ran. My editor – a gruff sort of man who embodied every stereotype of the old-fashioned just-the-facts newsman – put his hand on my shoulder and said, “That took some guts.” That was all, but those four words remain the most meaningful compliment I’ve ever received for something I’ve written.

    In the end, I have to agree with Pari — it depends on your comfort level. But I’ve noticed that the readers who’ve connected, over the years, with my words feel as though I’ve given them something in my writing. It seems only natural for them to want to give something back, emotionally, in return. Should we as writers accept those gifts, or ignore them?

    Boundaries are slippery, moving, changeable things, I suspect. In some cases, a low stone garden wall or picket fence might be appropriate. In others, you need the chain link and razor wire. But I supsect that writers who maintain an unflagging wall of emotional distance with their readership are doing themselves and their readers both a disservice.

  7. Louise Ure

    The two comments above seem to be polar opposites, and show the range of behavior and reaction possible. Pari, you talk about not wanting to be that raw and open all the time, and the emotional toll it can take on the speaker. So right.

    Tammy, you take the other extreme and say you suspect that those keep-your-distance writers might be doing themselves a disservice. And most importantly, you talk about the returned gift of intimacy and support from those who hear our “confessions.” Maybe that’s the most important point of all.

    Like the best of our writing, our public face has to have pacing, too. Nothing but angst in either our presentations or novels would be inappropriate. But some raw emotion can and will be well received and well understood by our audiences.

  8. Tammy Cravit

    Louise, I often come back to something Albert Einstein advocated: “Moderation in all things, including moderation.” While I suspect that too much distance between writer and reader is bad — or at least, can be doing the writer a disservice — I also suspect that too little distance is equally harmful.

    We tend to want our heroes (and, like it or not, many readers view their favorite writers this way) a little larger-than-life, but at the same time we want them human and vulnerable. Nobody likes the ice queen, but nobody likes sniveling, either.

    The struggle, of course, is in the balance.

  9. Tom Barclay

    You can’t live on a mountain peak. Rivers don’t run there, apple trees won’t grow, and the wind’ll knock your hat off. But who, in their heart of hearts, doesn’t want to be up there at least once?

    The sharp-edged mystery novel has literary value. Why is that? Past the to-ing and fro-ing and scene dressing, the genre is about the search for a reliable truth.

    Alan Watts said, “Even God gets boring, after a while.” Familiarity, contempt, more reasons you can’t stay on the mountain. But perhaps Ms. Jance needed to speak her truth out loud. Perhaps we all need to make a pilgrimage, once or twice in our lives.

    So write as the spirit moves you, Louis. I certainly value your insights into The Prologue.

  10. Elaine Flinn

    Great post, as usual, Louise.

    Personally, I don’t need to see all the warts of my favorite writers, nor do I feel they are obligated to show them to us. Not that sharing some life experiences (such as you have) to help others know that ‘life goes on’ isn’t admirable.

    I agree with your reply to Wilford. Some aspects of ones life needen’t be public knowledge. We owe readers a good mystery, but not our personal history.

  11. Louise Ure

    God, you guys are articulate today.

    Tammy says, quite rightly, I think: “We tend to want our heroes a little larger-than-life, but at the same time we want them human and vulnerable.”

    Tom quotes “Even God gets boring, after a while.”

    For better or worse, I suppose writers do have some celebrity standing. And just like that face of the movie star on the screen, we want it to have just one flaw. It puts the rest of her beauty into perspective, and lets us appreciate her as a person.

  12. Louise Ure

    Another writer friend, wishing to remain anonymous, sent me a comment by email. She echoes Elaine’s sentiments with the following:

    “I don’t care what readers want–I want to use my emotions fictionally and be a different persona/person when I appear as a writer. Not all life is AA…”

  13. Allison Brennan

    I think the poem is beautiful and it will help any number of people. I think if she wanted to share, she should be able to.

    As far as baring all for the world to see, it depends. First, on the person doing the sharing, and second on the person doing the listening. I’m a very open book person, but there are some things I don’t share. Yet, I also believe that we’re all in this world together and if we all live in a vacuum and don’t share some of the pain or heartache or success stories, then others who are facing the same sorts of thinks don’t think they have any support, that they are in it alone. Hearing from people–particularly those in the public eye who might be considered a sort of hero–about how they have overcome obstacles in their life, can be hugely inspiring to others.

    Mary Higgins Clark’s publication story hugely inspired me. She was a recently widowed mother of five when she started writing early every morning before her kids got up–then got them off to school and went to work because she had to, after being a SAHM. If I hadn’t heard her story, I may never have had the kick in the ass to do the same thing–getting up at 4 am to write.

    Stephen King talking about his alcohol addiction may help others who face the same problem.

    My mom was a six-foot tall skin-and-bones kid from the age of 12. She would have related to JA Jance’s story.

    Anyway, if someone wants to keep things private, great. If they want to share in a constructive way to help others, great.

  14. Rob Gregory Browne

    I have no secrets. I tend to bare my soul until people tell me to cover it the hell up or they’ll have me arrested.

    I do, however, give credit to Jance for doing such a brave thing. And that also happens to be one of my favorite songs — Janis Ian is a brilliant songwriter — so hearing about this moment gave me chills.

  15. Louise URe

    Alison, you’re right. There’s a huge difference between whining and being inspirational. And you’ve got some good examples there.

    Rob, you can bare whatever you like around me. 🙂

  16. Rae

    Lovely, Louise, as usual.

    In my experience, there are two types of soul-baring: one that deepens relationships and allows us to share our humanity; and the other, that’s masturbatory and self-centered. The first kind is a rare and wonderful pleasure; the other makes me want to take a shower.

    As far as authors baring their souls to readers, I don’t think it’s necessary, and I agree with Allison’s comment. I think authors, like other artists, deserve their privacy, and shouldn’t be required to let us in on every detail of their lives. If a writer wants to bare his or her soul, fine, but I don’t believe it’s part of the job description.


  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I have to say that I’m sure it was lovely, but it would be a hell of a lot easier for me to stand up in front of people and sing “At Seventeen” than to actually tell the truth about myself in my own words.

    I mean, that’s what’s so great about a song, right?

    I feel like I have so many different facets and aspects and personalities and personas that I’m always telling the truth – and never telling the truth. The truth changes, after all, and it can change from moment to moment. The person we’re speaking with changes the nature of truth. I doubt I’m alone in all that.

    I don’t worry too much about people knowing too much about me because I don’t even know myself all that well. If you ask me, people are infinite, and you can never know too much.

    I love the smoking skeleton.

  18. Louise Ure

    That sounds like a fine, tolerant middle road, Rae. And I say, if a friendship comes along with the exposure, all the better.

    X, you make me laugh. You’re such a chameleon that even if you were lying to me I’d think you were baring your soul and sharing the truth! A performance artist, that’s you!

  19. Cara

    Great post Louise!Considering many writers i know are solitary folk, who do a solitary job every day, baring the soul – other than on the page via a character- seems at odds.

    .Does Jude have any more of those dolls?

  20. JT Ellison

    Ah, Louise, you always know just the right question to ask.

    I think I’m a pretty classic voyeur. I’m fascinated by other people’s truths, but I’m not willing to share too many of my own. It’s why I don’t reveal my real name to most people. Keeping my private life separate from my writing life keeps me sane. No one needs to know what I’m doing, they need to know what J.T. Ellison is doing. My friends and family know who I am. They are the only ones who need to. But I always know when I’m slipping too far into the author side of me — hubby starts “J.T.”‘ing me. I ratchet myself back to “me” PDQ.

    But that’s just me. I have my own personal lines that I’d never cross. You have to do what’s right for you. I’ve met total strangers who tell me their deepest secret within moments, and I have friends I’ve known forever who I can’t read. To each his own.

  21. Kaye Barley

    Oh Laws, I love that Smoking Skeleton Mystery Writer! She is TOO fun!Baring it all.If you want to do that, then I think you should – sometimes it just feels right to get some things out there. And I’m assuming you’re doing that with an audience you must feel some level of trust with in order to feel comfortable enough to do that. If you’re comfortable with it, and they’re comfortable with it, it can be lovely for everyone.Do you owe that to your readers? Well, no. No you don’t.Do your readers expect it?Hard to say. Personally, I doubt it.Some might like the baring of the soul thing, others might squeal “Ack – Too much information!”You just continue writing beautifully – I think that’s the only thing your fans have a right to expect, and it’ll certainly keep this fan happy.

  22. Louise Ure

    Cara, maybe we’re such solitary folks that we use these public events as our social life? Our therapy?

    And I’ll ask Jude about the smoking skeleton. Too cool, non?

    JT, you’ve struck on the perfect solution. Bare the soul of the pseudonym/writer you’ve created! It’s brilliant! You can spill your guts about anything you want, but none of it is about the real you. I think I’ll rename myself Carla … or Darlene.

  23. Catherine

    I’m wondering how far someone goes when they are exchanging information, before they hit soul?

    As an in person encounter, I would find someone I didn’t know well revealing very wrenching information way past my comfort level. I wouldn’t walk away, and I’d be respectful, but I tend to empathise a little too readily.I’d put that in the too much information basket.

    However apparently I have one of those faces, where people reveal all sorts of things to me, friends, or strangers, the whole she-bang.

    I guess that’s why I’d find it a little tough to have someone soul-bare in crowded public arena. I think that would catch me off guard.

  24. Louise Ure

    Catherine, I saw some evidence of the kind of discomfort you describe when Ms. Jance sang. Some looked down at their hands, others sat with frozen smiles. There’s entertainment … and then there’s pity.

  25. patty smiley

    Maybe the song wasn’t about her life at all. Maybe she just wanted everybody to know she had a decent set of pipes.

    I’m not much for baring my soul in public. In my experience, people have their own problems and don’t really want to hear about mine.

  26. Catherine


    I probably should make clear that in terms of the written word, I’m very much in my comfort zone, sharing and or reading disclosures of what is important.

    Each time you or any of the other authors have shared some aspect of what drives you, either from family experience or of any writing delights or disillusionment, it broadens my understanding. I genuinely appreciate your trust in sharing whatever part of your experience you feel at ease using to illustrate a point, or bring forward for discussion.

    Do you think it was pity some people were experiencing, or could it of been a little too raw for them?

    I had for me an unusual response to Pari’s latest book where the sister relationship evoked some very strong reactions as I have a ‘challenging’ relationship with one of my sisters.It certainly wasn’t a comfortable reaction, but it was enlightening. I’m just glad I was able to sort through my feelings in private.

    That’s were the discomfort would be for me, in response to someone elses pain, perhaps dragging some of my own stuff into public. Although it may prove cathartic, it might also feel a bit like an emotional ambush too.

  27. patty smiley

    I’m not in favor of baring one’s soul to the world, except on paper. It’s been my experience that people have their own problems and a finite capacity to take on yours.

  28. Louise Ure

    Catherine, pity may have been too strong a word. Empathy perhaps? Or discomfort in the baring of raw emotions? Maybe that’s closer to the truth.

    I can understand your strong reaction to the sister relationship in Pari’s last book. She went to great pains to create two completely disparate characters with those sisters, and wove a story where their fundamental beliefs and behaviors would come into play. It sounds like that resonated with you. that’s a sign of both good writing and good reading.

    Patty, you’re right about folks being unwilling or unable to take on others’ troubles. But maybe there’s a bit of schadenfreude in there … there but for the grace of God and all that stuff.


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