“Personally, I would hate to be the subject of someone’s writing.” My coworker Genevieve told me as she slammed the door of the microwave. “I dated a comedian once and the first thing I told him was: don’t turn me into one of your jokes!”
She was heating up a frozen Amy’s meal and already walking away with purpose back to the refrigerator. It was just a casual lunch time conversation at the office, but it felt like my face was on fire, like I was about to be ambushed, or I was in one of those dreams where I just realized I was naked in front of a crowd.
“Yeah”, I forced a laugh, “I guess writers are dangerous, huh? We’re always exploiting someone for the sake of our stories.” It was supposed to be a joke to lighten the mood, but deep down I knew it might be true.
Dear God, why couldn’t I have been a fiction writer instead? If I had any common sense at all, I would write novels, science fiction novels or romance thrillers. That’s a safe way to hide, a safe way to write about people and get away with it unscathed. But I don’t seem to have that luxury.
I had been sharing with Genevieve about my most recent writing project, a collection of schizophrenic snapshots with no plot, about an old lover who I still refer to as my real life Peter Pan. The summer we met we waited two weeks to decide we were in love and then went traipsing across the United States in a beat up Mercedes he bought for $1,000 and drove without a license. I told her how I’d been staying up all night, possessed by the words needing to come out.
“But what are you going to do with it when you’re done?” she asked. Genevieve had this way of asking perfectly practical questions that instantly made me feel like I had no idea what I was doing as a human being.
I’m embarrassed to tell her the truth, which is “nothing”. Nothing. In fact the thought hadn’t occurred to me that I might “do something” with it other then compulsively get the stories out on paper and then move on. Here I am uncovering the most intimate details about my experiences in the world, and the world gets no say in what I write or the words I use to write it. Neither do any of the people who inevitably get tangled up in the stories I write.
I feel my cheeks get even hotter, because my coworker has a point, no one seems to be fond of the way they get represented in my writing. My mom probably hated when I described her as “uptight”. My ex boyfriend probably hated that I shared how he smelled like salt water taffy and lemon and sometimes tucked the napkin into his shirt collar at restaurants. He doesn’t know about the essay where I reveal he sucks his thumb when he’s tired, but I’m betting he wouldn’t like that one either. He especially didn’t like reading poetry about my sexual highs with the ex-boyfriends before him. Marguerite Duras says, “men cannot stand a woman who writes.” Honestly, they’re always deeply enamored by my writing at first, until they become the next subject.
Even when I’m not writing directly about someone specific, the people closest to me assume whatever I’m writing about must be a reflection of who they are. A guy who I’d gone on three or four dates with had a meltdown over an essay called “5 Year Plan” that sarcastically mentions in five years maybe dating someone who texts back and has a real job and doesn’t snore.
“Tattooing is a real job!” he said over the phone with a mouth full of scorn, “Sorry I’m not the man in your 5 year plan.” He sounded like he might cry. I tried to tell him it was supposed to be funny and it wasn’t about him, but he did indeed snore, so I just let it crash and burn instead. I mean, the more breakups the more writing material, am I right?
Really, I should just wear a sign that says “WARNING: LIKELY TO EXPLOIT YOU AND CALL IT ART” around my neck on all first dates. But it’s never my intention, I swear, I just write because it feels like I have to, as if I don’t have a choice. The thing about writing personal essays is that it’s always a risk. But for me, it’s a bigger risk not to write them.
1999 was the year I got my first journal, a gift from my mother, a black fabric journal covered in pink roses. I was in 5th grade and the first line on October 23rd reads, “maybe I need this to organize my thoughts.” It was also the year I got my first therapist, another gift from my mother. Shortly after, my father first went to jail for reasons that remain unclear to me almost two decades later. I couldn’t speak about it so I retreated to my journals, each one getting replaced by a new one as soon as the prior was filled up. It was easier for me to write than to talk. I was a painfully introverted and confused 5th grader with caterpillar eyebrows and the last remaining baby fat, who didn’t know if she should hide indefinitely or beg for attention. That was the year writing saved my life for the first time.
20 years later and I’m still writing all the things I haven’t quite figured out how to say aloud. Sometimes it takes words on a page to make it real. I need it to be real. I need to remember who I am.
When I first heard my childhood hero Harriet the Spy say, “I want to remember everything. And I want to know everything”, I found my calling. I created my own Spy Club with the neighborhood kids, but none of them seemed as into it as I was. They preferred our bike club or makeup club or magic club–we had a lot of clubs. I was that creepy existential 10 year old peering into windows and lurking people’s backyards, trying to capture the meaning of it all in my notebook.
Like if I just wrote it all down then I’d begin to understand why I felt so panicked, why my heart felt so heavy and broken. Like if I could write down what the next door neighbors were eating for dinner and what the expressions on their faces told me, then I could put my broken family back together too.
I obsessed over getting the exact “facts” in exactly the right way they happened without a single detail missing. But one day I realized there are no facts. There’s only the truth as I experienced it. There’s only unconnected dots and the ever-present bias of the past. It’s self-indulgent, but I’m the one who’s writing. If you don’t like the way I write my truth, you are free to go write your own in whatever way you’ve experienced it. Maybe I’ll read it.
The truth is, I don’t write in order to “do something” with my writing. Sure, I like being a published writer. Someday I want to hold my own book in my own hands, I want a book tour, I want to be translated into other languages. I want to make an impact on people, and maybe someday I will, and maybe I already have. But when it comes right on down to it, writing is my secret survival strategy–it’s how I’ve stayed alive for so long.
Duras also says that’s what makes writing wild, that one returns to a savage state, a manic state. One becomes relentless. I am a writer because this relentlessness lives inside of me and there’s nothing I can do about it. I am from this wild place. I will always be from this wild place. I can tame the savage only by writing, writing for the sake of writing, writing to expel the truth, writing to make it real…
But there isn’t time during the casual office lunch break to explain that to my coworker, that I am from a wild place where savage writers are from and am relentlessly compelled to write about my experiences in the way that only I experienced them as if my life depended on it. And that I truly believe my life continues to depend on it.
“Nothing” would have to suffice. I’d just write the real truth later on.
Next: Hide & Seek