Bill and Emma Keller

Bill Keller

Photo by Bill and Emma Keller

Mrs. Keller, You Lost Me the Second You Said “TMI”

The Guardian writer’s parlance was the first warning sign that her takedown of Lisa Adams would be adolescent and lazy.

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The Keller kerfuffle is officially on the fade, and I have little to add to it. Not because I didn’t have feelings over it, just that smarter people with more articulate ones and quicker metabolic reactions to shock said those things first. What did stand out to me, though, was Mrs. Keller’s use of TMI, and that, I think deserves a moment. The quote from the now-taken-down post read like this: “Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience? Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies? Why am I so obsessed?”

The most surprising thing to me about the outrage that accompanied Mrs. Keller’s post, in which instead of discussing her discomfort with her own fears she went on the attack of a woman chronicling her own pain, is that I don’t ever read anything after I see the phrase “TMI.” TMI is a secret code that means that not only are you a lazy thinker, but you’re not a very good writer, and there’s just so much to read out there. TMI is a signifier for me, a highway exit sign that reads: It’s okay to stop now.

TMI, teen parlance for “Too Much Information,” is rooted in an inability to understand the need to share, or more likely a refusal. It is unclear what the etymology of TMI is, but allow me some conjecture. At the dawn of the hour when we started saying “OMG” because full words had become far too burdensome—there were, after all, so very many, and typing them out on our new RAZR phones “666 6 4” for OMG, “8 6 444” for TMI, was untenable if this was to be our new form of communication.

Here’s the thing: You simply cannot speak smartly while using “TMI.” That’s why I stopped reading Mrs. Keller’s column. One who writes “TMI” simply doesn’t understand that there’s no such thing as too much information. There’s only not enough information, and the point of connection. We are people looking to connect. Look at what the Internet did: It gave us access to unlimited porn and all sorts of nefarious practices, but it also gave us access to each other. Deep down, to say that you’re being given too much information is to speak to your own limits of empathy and tolerance. Those limits aren’t something we should be dismissing with our new abbreviation. They are things we should examine. The urge to say TMI or to look away should really convert to the urge to better ourselves.

Exposure to other people’s pain hurts, but it’s necessary. For every Keller-family smackdown of a person innocently chronicling what’s happening to her, there are untold numbers who receive comfort from the feeling of understanding that is present when someone understands your pain. Forget the friends and family deriving benefit from understanding what someone who is writing about her discomfort says; any essay writer knows that the first thing you learn about writing about yourself is that you are actually writing about other people.

That’s the lesson I’ve learned. That people read for connection we all know. But that people are willing to put aside so many details to see their own story is an act of generosity of the reader that ultimate accrues to him or her. When a reader is smart enough to look for the underlying emotion that forced a writer to write something—pain, fear, pride, sadness—that reader is engaging in a cathartic practice. Students in my essay classes want to know why anyone would want to read about them, the students. My answer is that they are not reading about the students, but about themselves. Knowing the story is about someone else allows the reader to enter. The identification of themselves in the writing forces them to stay. They leave with an understanding of themselves they never had, conscious or unconscious. (The most rewarding letters I’ve received from readers have been those conscious understanders.)

Another lesson I’ve learned from writing essays is this: We believe we are all magical and special—I know this because we’re taught it in kindergarten; my son comes home with these lessons now. But the truth is, we’re all the same. That’s why we cry at the same point in the movie/book/show; that’s why we gravitate toward the same art. Especially right now, during awards season, there should be no doubt that we are, at our hearts, very much the same.

So take that into consideration when thinking of TMI. A few years ago, I wrote a story about post-traumatic birth for Salon and for Self. I believed I was writing about a health issue, but what I was really writing about was myself, which is to say I was really writing about anyone who had gone through childbirth and couldn’t brush the fear of that day off of them. To this day, I get a letter maybe once a month from someone who has just gone through it, and who felt lucky to find my story. I’ve accepted my mantle as the patron saint of traumatic birth, and each time I listen and I answer their questions—which are only ever one: Were you able to have another child? I tell them yes, and I tell them it was amazing the second time. I never hear from them again after a “phew” and a “thank you.” That’s fine. I’ve done what I was needed for. Those women often times had a much rougher time than I did. They lost their babies during the process, or they passed out in the street, waking up to find a baby in their arms in a hospital. At first I was shocked that a woman who lost a child would see herself in me. That’s when I realized we’re all the same. That’s when I realized we’re all searching for ourselves in each other.

TMI is the opposite of the way humans have evolved. We are here to connect, and we are here to share. Discomfort in the face of someone else’s pain is a worthy thing to examine. To dismiss it with a “TMI,” is to dismiss the pain, to say you should keep it to yourself. Where would we be if that was a viable option? That’s why the usage of “TMI” makes me stop reading. After “TMI,” after the information is cut off, after the attempt at connection is over, what more is there?

Maybe a year ago I was waiting at a stoplight to cross a street when I encountered an old friend from college. She said, “I read those stories. I can’t believe what happened to you.” I smiled and waited. She continued, “I mean, I was like TMI!”

I walked away.

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