The Public Intimacy of Private Ink

Susan Goldberg gets inked. (Photo: Farrah Braniff)

Spring came late this year, but I can tell it’s here because all of a sudden people are commenting on my tattoo.

I live on the Canadian Shield; I spend at least nine — often 10 — months wrapped in multiple layers. Each year, when it finally gets warm enough to wear a tank top, I forget that much of the general public hasn’t yet seen the typewriter inked onto my right upper arm. It’s like seeing the first robin of the season.

“Hey, cool! I love your typewriter!” someone will say at a bar or restaurant or on the street, usually followed up with: “Are you a writer?” And I nod and smile and say, “Thank you” and “Yes.” And then there is a bit more smiling, and I pray inwardly that they won’t next ask, “What do you write?”

If you write, then you know there’s no worse question than “What do you write?” Particularly if you happen to be, say, the kind of writer who writes first-person essays about intense emotional moments and posts them on her personal blog. Which is what I do, at least when I’m not writing service articles about life insurance or parenting tips or cancer, but no one wants to hear about that.

Still, it’s a perfectly reasonable question, and so people ask it and I stammer something about a blog or magazine articles, and then we make some more awkward small talk and that conversation ends, and I go back to living in my bubble where I imagine no one notices me or reads my work until the next tattoo conversation.

Please, don’t get me wrong: I’m happy that people like my ink. I love it, personally. It was one of those simultaneously well-thought-out and spur-of-the-moment decisions: I was in San Francisco, and I had the appointment at the tattoo shop on Valencia with a vague idea for a design that I couldn’t translate into a tangible image. And then it hit me: a typewriter, the blank sheet of paper and all its possibilities. Only later, once I’d peeled back the plastic wrap, felt the raised edges of the scab and had a chance to write in my journal on the flight home was I able to articulate the full measure of its significance.

It’s like they’ve broken the cardinal rule of Blogging Fight Club, which is that you don’t talk about Blogging Fight Club. At least, not until you’ve gotten to know each other a little bit. Or you’re slightly tipsy.

I wouldn’t say I learned to write on a typewriter, but my sense-memories of myself as a writer were formed on typewriters, from the manual machines we learned on in eighth grade to the massive, humming IBM machines at my dad’s office to the $300 machine I bought with my bat mitzvah money at Woolworth’s and then noodled on for years.

Today, ironically, I can’t type: After too many years of keyboarding, I blew out my wrists and arms and now dictate into my computer. And so, inking that image onto my arm, watching the artist carefully outline each key, felt like a reconnection, the satisfying of some primal urge to, quite literally, leave my mark. In the moment of the needle’s first electric jolt, I relaxed, flooded with the knowledge that the pain was exactly the pleasure I needed — the risk and reward rolled up in one.

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The fresh result on Susan. (Photo: Farrah Braniff)

When I got the tattoo, though, I didn’t anticipate that people would want to talk about it. And while I clearly have a story or two about the whole process, I don’t tend to tell them to the people who comment on my ink. Mostly, the context isn’t appropriate. Also, I am a writer, which almost by definition makes me an introvert. And so I find frequent, unplanned, mini-conversations with strangers — even well-meaning, complimentary strangers — a bit challenging.

(And there was the one time a woman came up to me in a restaurant and told me how much she liked my tattoo. And I thanked her, feeling perhaps the tiniest bit smug that so many people think my tattoo is so great. And then she asked, “Are you a secretary?” And I was forced to confront my own self-image, this time through my assumptions about class and social hierarchies.)

In the same vein, I love when people read my work. I love when they engage with it, when they tell me it speaks to them, moves them, makes them think.

But, for the most part, I prefer it when people engage with me online, from the safe remove of the comments section or a Facebook page or maybe via DM. Those times — as few and far between as they are — when, say, a teacher at my kids’ school or a dad at the public swimming pool walks up to me and mentions that they’ve read my work, that a particular post really resonated, that they’re a fan, those times make me feel awkward, caught out. It’s like they’ve broken the cardinal rule of Blogging Fight Club, which is that you don’t talk about Blogging Fight Club. At least, not until you’ve gotten to know each other a little bit. Or you’re slightly tipsy.

All of which leaves me in a slightly awkward position: my typewriter tattoo, my blog and personal essays. On the one hand, they’re intensely intimate. On the other hand, they’re invitations for interaction, meant to be read and (at least in warmer months) seen. It would be disingenuous to issue those invitations and expect people not to take me up on them, or to take me up on them only in the contexts and times and media that make me feel most comfortable.

Because writing (any genre, but maybe especially personal writing) isn’t supposed to be comfortable. Writing this essay, for example — trying to balance my desire to not come across as a jerk (and my fear that I’ll have failed anyway), my worry that no one will engage with me online (or in person) ever again and my sincere if perhaps ill-conceived wish to explain clearly this particular, tiny, dynamic — is painful. As is carpal tunnel syndrome. As is being stabbed repeatedly with an ink-soaked needle at high speed.

And yet, I still write. And I’m planning my next tattoo. It’s going to be a traditional Sailor Jerry design. You know, the heart and the swallows, the banner that says “MOM.” I’ve been itching to get it for a while now, on my right forearm. I’m seasoned enough by now to get that it will likely spark conversations — maybe about my own children, more likely about my mother, who hated tattoos but who would hopefully appreciate that, a dozen years and counting after her death from breast cancer, I still need to carry her memory with me, to etch her indelibly into my skin. Some of those conversations will be brief or awkward. Maybe a small handful of them will be rich, about what it means to love and lose and one day find beauty in that loss.

I’m looking forward to the jolt and hum of the needle, the push of ink onto blank surface and the painful pleasure of the birth of a story.

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