“Personally, I would hate to be the subject of someone’s writing. I dated a comedian once and the first thing I told him was don’t turn me into one of your jokes!” My coworker told me this as she slammed the door of the microwave. 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, or like I was in a bad dream and 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 but deep down I was terrified that it was true.
God, why couldn’t I be a fiction writer instead? If I had any smarts about me I would just 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. I just don’t seem to have that luxury.
I had been sharing with my coworker about my most recent writing project, a collection of schizophrenic snapshots about an old lover who I still refer to as my real life Peter Pan. The summer we met we waited three 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.
“But what are you going to do with it when you’re done?” My coworker 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 say 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. Maybe my coworker’s right because no one seems to be fond of the way I represent them in my writing.
My mom probably didn’t like that she seemed “uptight”. My ex boyfriend didn’t like reading about the ex boyfriends before him. He didn’t like that I shared how he ate strawberries and let the juice run down through his teeth to his chin, smiling like a 5 year old who’s just done something he’s really proud of, like caught a bunch of fireflies in a jar on a humid summer night. That I shared how he smelled like salt water taffy and lemon and sometimes tucked the napkin into his shirt collar at restaurants. He hasn’t even read the essay where I reveal he sucks his thumb when he’s tired, but I bet he wouldn’t like that one either. Marguerite Duras says, “Men cannot stand a woman who writes.” 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 it must be a reflection of who they are. A guy that didn’t even qualify as my boyfriend had a meltdown over an essay called “5 Year Plan” that sarcastically mentions in 5 years maybe dating someone who texts back and has a real job and doesn’t snore.
“Tattooing is a real job!” he said 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 just write because it feels like I have to. I feel possessed. As if I don’t have a choice. The thing about writing personal essays is it’s 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, also a gift from my mother, and the year my dad first went to jail. I couldn’t speak about it, but I told my journal everything. 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 I should hide indefinitely or beg for attention. That was the year writing saved my life for the first time.
19 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 knew I had 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 our makeup club or our 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 is only the truth as I see it. It’s self-indulgent, but I’m the one writing. If you don’t like it, you are free to go write your own truth the way you see it. Maybe I’ll read it.
The truth is, I don’t write to “do something” with my writing. 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.
But there isn’t time during the casual office lunch break to explain that to my coworker. “Nothing” would have to suffice. I’d just write the real truth later on.
Want more? Read Trading Time