I am petty. There are big things happening in the world right now, but two days ago I got so angry at something that seems so small. You see, I was trying to look up something that I’d written for a past job and I saw that my former boss had simply republished my work under his name. Again.
YOU didn’t write that, motherfucker. I did.
I shot off a quick email:
“Dude. You didn’t write this. Stop stealing my writing. It’s not right. This is how I make a living.” But then just after I pressed “Send,” I hit the undo button.
Is it strange that the worse things get, the more petty I feel? Like, the coronavirus might not be something we can control, but what about just not being an asshole? What about that?
I wonder if I am actually being petty right now, or if I’m using that word to downplay my own worth, my own value. Because truthfully, the plagiarism is just part of a pattern of emotional abuse and manipulation that I experienced with this boss, a pattern that still affects me today.
I don’t want to admit to how much it affected me. After all, one of the synonyms for “petty” is “trivial.” And this was not trivial. It was traumatic.
Speaking of petty, I once wrote a profile for my job about two friends who had started their own design-build firm together. They sent over a picture of the two of them posed like Instagram models or teen heartthrobs from the 90s because this is LA.
I posted the profile via WordPress. My boss loved it. Later, when I went to pull it up, I saw that he had made a single change: He had subbed out the color version of the photo for the black and white version.
I felt a wave of anger and disgust. It was such small change. But it felt like a violation.
It’s hard to talk about disgust, but it’s even harder to feel. It’s the smell of rancid meat, the taste of curdled milk, It makes me want to get as far away from the source as possible.
And I think this is the function of disgust: To signal that something is unsafe, unhealthy, toxic. Disgust communicates something beyond words, thought and rationality. If I discover a rotten bag of potatoes swarming with tiny flying insects and liquefied to mush hidden in a corner by my roommate who has forgotten she put it there, I do not need to know the scientific process of decay.
But at the time, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. I even tried to convince myself at one point that it was a mistake, that he hadn’t changed it, that somehow the photos had gotten mixed-up in WordPress.
Nope. He just thought the black and white photo looked better. It was petty. A small gesture of control, at having his fingerprints on my work, a small harbinger of things to come, of his name, his face on my writing.
But I loved my job. I told a friend, “I just need a sandbox. The size of the sandbox doesn’t matter. I just want the freedom to play.”
This was all well and good, but I had a boss who—not all the time, but enough to count—would knock my sand castles over, just so he could feel better. Until finally, even that wasn’t enough and he knocked me over instead. My talent and competence both awed and threatened him, and the only way that he could feel okay was to chip away at my work, and to chip away at me in the process.
Have you ever been both punished and praised for being good at your job? It’s confusing as fuck.
Trauma is so petty. It will make you account for every last thing, it will hold your feet to the fire of memory until you finally scream out in pain. Trauma is petty because you are not. And what happens to you matters and is in no way trivial or insignificant.
All this happened at a tiny lighting company that no one has ever heard of. This was work that I was too good for, and I knew it.
Just because something is small doesn’t make it safe. The stakes were incredibly low. I was way, way too good for my job (and I don’t say that just to brag). When the business or organization or project is small, sometimes the person running the show is even smaller. I don’t mean in stature—though I suppose that could be the case too—I mean on the inside. They are very, very, very, very, very small on the inside (and I don’t say that just to be mean). They don’t have the emotional capacity to treat you like a human being.
They are so small that your primary job becomes protecting their fragile ego. All this just to say: petty tyrants are everywhere (*cough* Writers Blok *cough*). Playing it small in your professional or personal life won’t keep you safe.
So why not shoot for the biggest sandbox possible. Or why not build your own fucking sandbox. It’s okay to need emotional safety in order to create. It’s okay to not want to be erased. That doesn’t make you petty. That makes you so human, so worthy, so huge that not even the worst kind of emotional abuse can keep you from bursting at the seams of life.
Buckle up, kids. It’s gonna be a wild ride. You mean there’s more? Yes, unfortunately. Or fortunately. I’m honestly not really sure.
Writers Blok and Me
It was a Tuesday.
When I got the email from Writers Blok cancelling my membership and helpfully recommending other spaces I might find safer, I was in shock. And shock surprisingly felt a lot like OMG LOLOLOLOLOLOL. I called my sister. I texted a few friends that I’d gotten kicked out. And of course, I posted about it on facebook. Call it a millennial’s default reaction. Call it a bid for attention. Call it whatever.
I wrote that I had gotten kicked out of my co-writing space for calling out a joke I thought was sexist on Instagram and also “What is life?” and also rolling on the floor laughing emoji, poop emoji, crazy eyes tilted tongue out emoji. People started commenting, “Wait, what?” and asked for details. So I posted screenshots in the comments, first of the IG joke, then of my DM, then of Writers Blok’s email to me. Other people were also shocked — shocked and angry. A few of them immediately wanted to call out Writers Blok on social media. I name-dropped Jon Ronson and said that callout culture isn’t always the best (yay understatement of the century).
I ended up talking to a couple different friends from Writers Blok on the phone that day. I’m not going to get into that because it still hurts to think about.
The rest is kind of a blur.
On Thursday, the founder of Writers Blok emailed me asking to talk. Except, he never actually asked me if I wanted to talk, he simply requested that I let him know when I could come into Writers Blok to sit down and chat.
We met up the following day at a cafe here in LA (I asked to meet in a more neutral location). When I got there, he shook my hand. He bought me coffee. We went back outside and he gestured to two stools and said he had set up a little office for us. I had expected to do the normal thing and sit at a table across from him, not in his “office,” but I wasn’t thinking about it too much at the time, because honestly, I was so stressed out that everything had this weird intensity to it, like the world had gone from standard definition to 4K, all sharp edges and blinding colors.
He did most of the talking. He explained that he had always known that I was unhappy at Writers Blok and that my DM on Instagram was the last straw. Back in March (I started going in November), he tried being more “bubbly” and outgoing with me, making an effort to be like — hey Maylin! How’s it going?
In retrospect, it seems clear that what he meant was that he never thought that I liked him, and by extension, I never liked Writers Blok either.
He also explained that by posting a screenshot of the email he had sent me on my private facebook page, I had crossed a “red line” and that I couldn’t come back to Writers Blok. He used the words “illegal” and “doxing” to describe posting the screenshot.
I have a theory: some words are the equivalent of waving a gun around — when someone has a gun, you can’t focus on anything else. All you see is the threat.
What was unsettling about our conversation was that he was half-smiling the entire time, as if he was trying to be as gentle and kind as possible, as if his only goal in meeting with me was to help me peacefully transition to a betterplace.
I asked him what he wanted from me. He said he didn’t want anything from me, he was just trying to help me move on. I think this is where I started getting angry. I said, “Here’s what I want from you. I will write about this in any way that I choose.” And he said, “That’s your prerogative.”
I tried to get clarity on what he meant by “doxing,” but felt like the conversation was getting a little heated. I didn’t want to argue, so I put down my coffee cup and vase and said, “I’m gonna go.” And he said, “Okay.”
And then I rode away on my bike like a fucking badass. Just kidding. Except for the bike part. That definitely happened because #carfreeinla.
The following Tuesday, one of my friends from Writers Blok was forced to meet with the founder to discuss what had happened in my situation. She was not allowed to continue with Writers Blok until she met with him and another staff member.
She was summarily kicked out for sending a group text message to other members at Writers Blok describing what had happened to me and attaching the screenshots that I had posted on my private fb page.
So let’s quickly review:
Tuesday: I get kicked out of Writers Blok via email after sending a private DM.
Friday: I meet with the founder of Writers Blok and he explains that he kicked me out because I was unhappy at Writers Blok and my DM was the last straw. I couldn’t come back because I posted a screenshot of the email he sent me on my private facebook page and this is illegal and doxing.
Following Tuesday: My friend also gets kicked out for trying to fight for me. She also gets hit with the words “illegal” and “doxing” for sharing the screenshot of the email in a private group text.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s two people in one week over the same thing: my response to a joke on Instagram, then my friend’s response to Writers Blok’s response to my response to a joke on Instagram. Talk about creating “a sense of community.”
Fear and Me
When I first started going to Writers Blok, I didn’t know about the rules and how important they were, but I soon found out. You see, I’m a rule-follower by default.
As a child, I was raised by my evangelical Christian parents to be not only unconditionally obedient, but to do so NOOOOOOOOOOOOOW. This meant unquestioning, instant obedience, always. I was the good kid, the one who never got into trouble, the teacher’s pet at school, the whole nine yards. I remember crying uncontrollably on the playground after I got caught playing chicken on the monkey bars. Our gym teacher had forbidden it but we did it anyway, got caught and had to sit in timeout. I was inconsolable.
As an adult, I don’t know that I’ve ever fully interrogated my sometimes overwhelming and irrational fear of authority. I only know that I am afraid of breaking the rules.
At the time, maybe my parents thought they were raising me the right way — the Christian way. But now, I wonder if I was raised to be in this world at all. As an Asian woman in the workplace, unconditional submission to authority feels like a trap. In our current political climate, it feels like a death sentence.
Purity and Me
I have this weird feeling that getting kicked out wasn’t necessarily meant to be the end, but the beginning.
Part of me feels like I simply didn’t play the role that I was assigned. I didn’t beg to come back. I didn’t ask for forgiveness, that all my sins be absolved. But at different points in my life, I have come to this place of false absolution. Men have explained to me what I have done wrong and what they have done right. They have pointed out all my flaws, mistakes, and errors — errors that usually involve how I make them feel about themselves. They have praised their own good intentions. They have tried to play God.
[Anyone else having serious Hot Priest flashbacks?]
And I do feel that pull. I, too, want to be pure, holy, accepted. The only thing I would lose in the bargain is myself.
I think for some men I am never afraid enough, will never be afraid enough, for them. Or is it of them? I’m not sure. And somehow I’ve internalized this fear that was never really mine in the first place.
Blame and Me
Part of me is afraid that if I admit that this has happened to me before, then it will mean that this is also my fault — because it’s always my fault.
And my trauma repeats itself, over and over again.
Here’s what I’ve found: it doesn’t matter what happens to you, where, why, how, when, with whom, with a cat or with a bat, Green Eggs & Ham style — there will ALWAYS be someone who will find a way to blame you for it. Hurricane? Definitely that library book that you returned three weeks late. Earthquake? You waited two days to text your mom back. Abusive partner? You haven’t worked hard enough on yourself.
Often, the person who blames you will be the very person who hurt you in the first place.
Joy and Me
I’ve never been fired for rejecting someone’s social overtures before —
Would you like some tea?
GET THAT TEA AWAY FROM ME BRENDA
But I have felt like I was being punished by men for rejecting them — romantically or otherwise — for making them feel insecure by my mere presence. I failed to reflect back to them what they needed to feel about themselves, whether it was respect or likability or attraction or competence or intelligence or worthiness or superiority.
For the longest time, I internalized that there was something wrong with me that made it impossible for me to get along with other people, failing to take into account the ways in which patriarchy and misogyny and sexism have warped the way that men have treated me, not as the subject of my own life, but as a reflection for them to admire themselves in (thanks, Virginia Woolf).
Was it my face? My eyes? The lack of deference in the way that I held myself?
The truth is, I suck at performative joy, and always have, which means I’m bad at: weddings, baby showers, wedding showers, any kind of shower, trips to Disneyland, trips to Vegas, trips to Target, surprise birthday parties, greeting friends after a long absence, meeting distant relatives, customer service, dating, networking, and being a woman.
If what Marx said about history is true — first time tragedy, second time farce — then getting kicked out of Writers Blok because a dude thought that I didn’t like him is one of the funniest things that has ever happened to me.
Writing and Fear and Me
When I wrote my last post about getting kicked out, I was afraid. I was afraid to post the screenshot of the email, even though it contained no identifying information. The words “illegal” and “doxing” reverberated in my head. Even though I knew at the back of my mind that I was doing nothing wrong, I still had all this fear of something bad happening to me.
And the fear is always the worst part. Because you carry it with you into the next situation and the next and the next.
But as I wrote, I realized that I had to post the screenshot, because if I didn’t, I would always be afraid. Always. I would always be that little kid terrified of breaking the rules.
Sometimes the only way to overcome fear is to do the thing that you’re most afraid of doing. That’s what writing has been for me, a way of confronting fear and moving through it.
Callout Culture and Me
I don’t believe in callout culture, not because of Jon Ronson’s book (which I didn’t even like), but because I feel like it brings out the worst in people. But I do believe some things deserve to be called out. Kicking me out was one thing, but kicking my friend out for trying to save me is just flat out cruel. So here’s me with my two Twitter followers and social media influence score probably in the negative thousands doing the thing anyway:
Hey, Writers Blok — Why ya gotta build community and then kick people out for trying to save it? Do. Better.