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.
Ugh. I feel like I have a writing hangover. I don’t know whether I’m over it or just scared of what might happen.
How do you know if something is really done? How do you know where to put the period? To say, “Enough, I’m done with this—for now.” I feel like I’ve been stuck in writing limbo for a long, long, long, very long time. And the longer it drags on, the more I question myself.
I question my motives. I question the quality of my writing. I question why I’m even writing about this in the first place. There’s a part of me that’s screaming at me, “Don’t do it! Don’t even THINK about it.” WTF, inner self? Why you gotta do this to me?
Truthfully, I don’t know how to find resolution, just in general. I think something does happen when you put a period on something—when you let it be out there, in the big wide world, all by itself. I wouldn’t call it magical, but I would call it “sort of done.”
And my hope is that in the sort-of-done-ness other people would find something that they can also relate to.
In a larger sense, I know that I’m hoping to find resonance in the world, in other people. I can’t pretend that I don’t want someone else to say, “Yeah, I get it” although it does seem like there are easier ways to get empathy than writing about some of your worst moments, trying to capture the kind of pain that feels unbearable.
Why this? Why writing? Why now?
There are no answers here, only questions; no periods, only ellipses…
I don’t know if you know this, but Jewel (yes, the singer) wrote an amazing memoir called Never Broken and you should definitely read it. I started re-reading parts of it recently in order to find one specific detail and it felt harder to read this time around.
I’ve been struggling to write this post for like, an entire two days, so basically forever. I keep getting sucked down this rabbit hole of thinking about care—what it is, what it looks like, what it means, why it makes me feel so incredibly vulnerable.
I want to get it right. But this is writing, there is no “right”—not really. Or that’s what I keep telling myself.
Jewel writes about busking her way all the way to and through Mexico as a teenager, hitchhiking alone, playing the guitar at bus stations, living off tips, etc. etc. And you might think, “Wow, what a free spirit, what a badass, good for her!” But I saw it differently: She had an unstable and abusive childhood. She was emotionally and physically neglected, and so she took risks that no sane person would ever let their own child take.
Her parents treated her like she didn’t matter, and so she treated herself the same way.
In so many ways, fear is a survival strategy. It keeps you alive.
If no one’s ever worried about your safety or well-being, you don’t know how to worry about yourself—and you put yourself in these unsafe situations, not because you WANT to be harmed, but because you don’t have that innate fear, the sense that you might be something of value worth protecting. And it doesn’t make sense to you that other people see you as vulnerable.
No. I’m just REALLY, REALLY independent. And I don’t need your help.
There’s still fear, of course, but it’s more this fear of screwing up or fucking up or being wrong.
I wasn’t taught to fear for myself, but in some ways I was taught fear of myself, that fear of doing something shameful and bad—that persistent fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.
When I think about the moments of care that have killed me—they have to do with having a body, with being physically vulnerable, needy even.
Do you know what happens when you don’t fear for yourself?
You do some dumb shit and you put yourself in some unsafe, stupid situations.
Fear is an acknowledgement of vulnerability—when we see another person as physically or emotionally vulnerable, we tune into their inherent value. But somehow I learned to equate my own vulnerability with weakness, and weakness with worthlessness, so that what makes me most vulnerable is to be shunned and despised.
I don’t know why it’s so easy for me to see the vulnerability of others as endearing and lovable but to see my own vulnerability as shameful and better hidden and denied.
Jewel writes in the foreword to her memoir: “I should probably not be here today.” I think it all amounts to a feeling, maybe it’s an instinct, a thought: “I shouldn’t be here.” Which really boils down to: “I shouldn’t be.”
Maybe one of the reasons care can feel so terrible and wonderful at the same time is that it closes the distance between me and being a person in the world. It reminds me that I am human, that I need food, air, water to survive.
I’ve been trying to write for a while (my entire life?) about not feeling at home anywhere. Call it third-culture-kid syndrome. Call it being a child of divorce. Call it being ethnically ambiguous (where are you from?). Call it whatever.
When I was studying abroad in college, I couchsurfed with this guy in Glasgow, Scotland over break. He had accepted my couchsurfing request, but seemed pretty ambivalent about my actual stay. Sort of a, “Yeah, sure, you can stay with me, or not, that’s fine” vibe.
When I got there, he had two other guys from Poland staying with him too. And maybe it was because I was a woman traveling alone, or for some other reason, but my host seemed genuinely concerned for my welfare.
It was already night, and he and the other two couchsurfers went out to go light writing, while I stayed behind to read my copy of Shakespeare’s complete works because I’m an English major, introvert and complete nerd.
When they got back, he tossed the guys some sleeping bags to sleep in the living room and asked if I wanted to sleep in his roommate’s room instead of sleeping out in the living room (all the roommates were out of town).
His roommate’s room was utterly wrecked and there were clothes completely covering the floor and even all over the bed, so I felt right at home. I made a little nest right in the middle and curled up like Rose on the door in the middle of the freezing Atlantic.
And I cried, overcome by a grief I didn’t even know I had.
I don’t know how to tell this story. I don’t know how to explain what it felt like to have this complete stranger show more care and concern for me in a few hours than I felt from my own family.
Earlier this year, I found myself in the type of shitty power dynamic I was pretty sure I had escaped for good.
And of all the people in the world, I feel like I should’ve known better. I mean, c’mon, I practically wrote the book on shitty power dynamics (I’ll take toxic jobs and relationships for $1,000, Alex).
But there I was, again, fumbling around in the dark with a constant low hum of guilt, shame, resentment and fear.
I’d been here before, more times than I care to admit. I think that’s what kills me the most, that sense of repetition, as if I’m doomed to repeat this shitty dynamic over and over again. Worse, I’m angry at myself for falling for it again.
I’m almost scared to go back and re-read the texts—to see how little it took to put me back in my place. Part of me wants to break down the diction, the syntax, the tone, the metaphors and similes, as if I can close-read my way out of shame.
I feel like this is the part where I should talk about not giving away your power, you teach other people how to treat you, don’t let anyone bully you over how much sunscreen you use, blah blah blah. But there are some narratives that hold so much power in our lives simply by virtue of their familiarity.
It’s impossible to exercise hyper-vigilance all the time, and as I’ve written about before, hyper-vigilance doesn’t protect you. I’m coming to believe that it’s basically the flip-side of shame, this idea that you can control how other people treat you or even how they see you.
When I write, I feel like I have so much power, but so little control—power to write into the unknown and the inexplicable, into those “Titanic” moments when I’m lost and adrift. And as much as I want to believe that I can control how other people “read” me (or leave me on read), I really can’t.
I’ve thought a lot about how love is particular: how it exists, like writing, in the details. You love someone not because they embody some platonic ideal of “friend” or “partner” or “parent” or “sibling” or “Chipotle server who gives you an extra scoop of chicken.” You love them because they are this specific human being, singular in the plurality of their peculiarity (sorry).
There was this one person—I had to suppress a smile every time they said the word “jam.” They always used it in the sense that I was least expecting and it was so adorable I could not cope. But I didn’t want to say anything because what if they stopped doing it!
Oh my God, I sound like a romcom: “Your hair. Your smile. That faraway look in your eyes when I try to talk to you about Blake on ‘Bachelor in Paradise’—HE LOOKS LIKE A WALKING BROOM OKAY I SAID IT.”
When someone notices details about me, it can feel like love—either that or they’re trying to Half-Asian-White-Female me, you never know.
[AWKWARD TRANSITION HERE]
I’ve recently started coming to terms with a pattern of emotional abuse in childhood involving shame and control about specific, everyday things. Do you wanna know what it feels like, as an adult, to realize that you have very strong feelings about how to load a fucking dishwasher, feelings that suggest that if you do it wrong WE ARE ALL GONNA DIE??
I think one reason abuse is the opposite of love is because it erases the particular. When you think about the cycle of abuse, it’s not based on the person being abused, who they are or what they’re doing or not doing. It’s about this engrained pattern that keeps getting repeated over and over again by the abuser, often with different people or in different situations.
But the thing is—it feels specific. It feels like it’s about you. I’m bad. I’m wrong. There’s something uniquely flawed about me that means I will never load the dishwasher correctly and therefore never be good enough or worthy of love.
It’s this perfectionism that holds on so tightly, thinking, this time, it will be different. I will finally get this right.
And when you inevitably encounter another person or entity who tells you, “You would be better/happy/successful/accepted/healed, if you only ______,” it feels like another shot at redemption.
And that’s what sucks about trauma too—you lose the particular. Instead of responding to this particular person or situation as distinct and different from all the other people and situations in your life, you end up projecting onto them patterns from the past that might have nothing to do with the present.
But that’s okay. That’s where I am now, trying to be okay. Yeah, maybe my coping strategies were/are imperfect, maybe I have irrationally torrid feelings about dishwashers, but my survival strategies got me out of a jam.
I recently wrote a comedy pilot about my church trauma (c’mon—you don’t have one too?). I wasn’t planning on writing this pilot. It just sort of happened to me, kinda like trauma itself (jokes!). Writing can be such a funny thing—not in the “haha” sense, more in the “what the fuck am I doing?” sense.
I felt pretty lost. I didn’t really know where the edges were, the boundaries. But like with most forms of creativity, you just have to let all that go at some point and do the thing.
There was this one scene I was feeling especially insecure about. I wanted it to work—I really did. I just wasn’t sure if I could pull it off. It was like the double-double dismount of my script, and I’m no Simone Biles. Not even close.
Writing this script brought up a lot for me, primarily guilt and also grief. It made me remember the person that I used to be, the person I was before the traumatic thing happened. Writing this, I felt like I had lost my faith—and that in losing my faith, I’d lost something beautiful. Maybe that self who had faith was naive or immature, but that version of me also seems, in retrospect, oddly endearing.
In Christianity we talk a lot about before and after—we emphasize the never-the-same-ness of life after salvation. I wonder if trauma works in reverse, a reverse-salvation of sorts, where you are never-the-same after.
I don’t know if it’s our culture’s emphasis on bright-siding that makes it seem taboo to admit that I’ve lost something, particularly something of value that I can never really get back. There are moments when I feel powerful and free and whatever post-traumatic growth is supposed to feel like. And there are other times where I still grieve what I once had, the person that I once was. Turns out, you can both/and that shit.
We did a table-read of my script in class and one of my classmates praised the one scene that I had struggled with the most, that I wasn’t sure if I could pull off, but that I fucking did pull off (HA! HA!!!!!!!!! Sorry, just had to go hubristic for a second).
And I think it’s a different kind of faith at work in me—faith that I can connect with other people in this space, that they might find resonance and truth and connection in something that I’ve written. Faith that I am not alone.
I wonder if it’s not unlike the same faith that I had before—the kind of faith that I never really lost in the first place.
About a month ago, I went to a panel discussion and networking event and a guy there asked me to send him a writing sample. Turns out, he hires writers. So I went down this rabbit hole of trying to find something to send him. Everything that I’ve written and published more recently felt too personal to send to a professional contact, so I read some of my old writing about mundane topics: lighting in dressing rooms, design-build firms in LA, human-centric lighting design.
I went down this rabbit hole of reading my own writing—and here’s the semi-shameful part—I surprised and delighted myself. Yes, I felt a surge of pleasure and pride in my own work.
Falling in love with your own writing feels, in a word, super lame. Kill me now. I want to go to sleep right now just thinking about it (Coffee give me strength).
I’ve been wanting to write about the mystery of writing—that part that you don’t control, the words that flow despite your thoughts, not because of them—the part that feels like magic.
So much of this series I’ve been doing on writing feels like trying to demystify writing. It’s just words on a page. Get over yourself already. Stop being so precious. But I think one of the reasons that writing can feel so vulnerable is because of the mystery of it.
How many times have I started to write one thing and then ended up writing something else?
I have to admit, when people tell me that I’m a good writer, or even if I repeat back their words in the first-person, “I’m a good writer!” I feel a sense of alienation.
What exactly do you follow that with? It sounds like this final pronouncement, this badge, this designation, do I get a plaque for this, where’s my members only jacket?
No really, I’m a good writer. If you say anything enough times, it starts to sound like a lie, that hint of a doubt.
Somehow, I feel exposed—like, they don’t know the truth. They don’t know how much of this feels like something happening to me or through me or despite me. And I don’t know if it’s this deep sense of shame—that everything good in me is a mistake, an accident.
And maybe if I can keep a safe distance from everything good in my writing, I won’t have to be present to the mystery of myself and all the things that I can’t control.
Somehow it’s the things that are the most effortless and easy that are the hardest to accept.
I went to a workshop the other weekend on getting an agent. I wasn’t interested in getting an agent, so I didn’t think that it would apply to me. I was there for the networking? [I was so tired and out of it I couldn’t talk normally to another human being, go figure.]
Anyway, plot twist, it did apply to me.
There, in a too air-conditioned library conference room with high ceilings and fluorescent lighting, I listened in rapt attention.
I don’t know how to describe it, exactly—but by breaking down in the most granular, specific way the costs and profits of being a writer, the presenter made one thing clear:
Your writing has value. My writing has value. Ironically, breaking it down into nickels, dimes and two dollar bills didn’t cheapen my writing, didn’t make it less valuable—quite the opposite.
“What do you write?”
When people ask me about my writing, I always shrug and reply, “You know, I blog and stuff.”
You know me—I dabble. I dip one toe gingerly into a sea of words, close my laptop and then amble leisurely to my hot yoga class, green juice in hand.
Um, have you ever had someone call you out on your bullshit? I wouldn’t recommend it, but it happened to me recently. I felt like I was completely vulnerable and exposed and on the edge of tears, but there was no reason for me to pretend that I don’t care.
Trauma is tricky, tricky.
By avoiding the commercial and professional side of writing—you know, the part where you actually get paid—I conveniently avoided assigning value to my work. I write. So what?
I’ve been living in this contradiction of pretending that my writing means nothing while giving it absolutely everything. I’ve held nothing back. There’s nothing I haven’t given, nothing I wouldn’t sacrifice.
At this point, this feels less like some inherent nobility of spirit and more like the lingering effects of childhood trauma: This idea that if I sacrifice myself, then I will be worthy. It’s almost like trying to prove that you deserve to exist by pretending not to exist at all.
It’s hard for me to articulate just how deep this goes for me, but that’s what writing is, right, trying to make explicit the very thing that resists explication.
I gotta be honest—you can run from your trauma all you want, but it will fucking come for you eventually. It will pound down your door at 2am in the morning and refuse to leave until you face it.
I woke up again today feeling a nameless stress. I’ve been stressed out recently, for no reason that I can really put my finger on.
Are there reasons to be stressed out? Sure. There are always reasons. But this feels different, like the stress is just floating around like an angry cloud of possums, waiting to attach itself to something and sink in sharp teeth.
I want to do everything, but I’m too wired to do anything at all. I want to do all the things, see all the people, read all the books, write all the screenplays, apply for all the jobs, take all the classes, make all the money, learn all the programming. My mind is screaming at me to do something, ANYTHING. But what?
What do you want from me?
Yesterday, I read Alexander Chee’s essay The Autobiography of My Novel from his book of essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. On the surface, the essay is a blow-by-blow account of how Chee wrote his first novel. But beneath that, it reads as almost a how-to guide about how to write about the most traumatic thing that’s ever happened to you.
Somewhere at the back of my mind, I know that this is the time of year when THE TRAUMA® happened. Part of what made it so traumatic was that I felt trapped, like I couldn’t escape.
[Cue your biannual reminder that it’s ALWAYS OKAY to leave a bad situation, full stop. If you need to GTFO, GTFO.]
I feel some of that same energy now, like I need to start running and never, ever stop. My body feels poised on the edge of something terrible, feet pressed into the starting blocks, waiting for the gun to go off.
In Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s latest book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, they talk about dealing with stress by completing the cycle. They differentiate between the stressor (cause) and the stress (effect). Even if you deal with the cause—being viciously attacked by a rabid Koala, you still have to deal with the effect—the stress hormones still coursing through your body after the koala is neutralized. Maybe you run a mile. Maybe you hug a friend. Maybe you run a mile while hugging a friend (could happen). Otherwise, even if the koala is no longer a threat, your body will still be freaking out on the inside.
One way to think about trauma is as stress that got stuck in the body because at the time, you couldn’t escape. You were trapped in a locked freezer with the koala and there was nowhere to run.
What I found fascinating about Chee’s essay is that he describes the process of completing the cycle of trauma by writing a novel, i.e., through narrative.
He describes this as moving from paralysis (the freeze response) to plot:
“All my stories lacked action or ended in inaction because that was what my imagination had always done to protect me from my own life, the child’s mistaken belief that if he stays still and silent, he cannot be seen.”
And so Chee searches for a plot he loves in stories that he already knows. He draws on Aristotle’s poetics and the conceptions of pity and fear, action and catharsis. Through story, he completes the cycle.
The brutal truth is that a straight retelling of trauma rarely makes for good story—perhaps because the cycle is never completed and catharsis is impossible—trauma is a kind of never-ending loop, your worst fears on repeat, not a linear story with beginning, middle and end.
But what if you could complete the cycle through the driving force of plot, one event after another, one event causing the next, all leading to catharsis and release? [This is why J Lo always kills her abusive husband at the end of the movie.]
I am not writing a novel right now, autobiographical or otherwise, but reading Chee’s account of his process, I wept in recognition (also, I was really tired, because stress and not sleeping). I feel like I’ve been trying to write the things that I least want to write about. I’m struggling like hell to write something that doesn’t make any sense, even to me.
I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I don’t know what shape or form this writing will take, let alone what genre I’ll end up writing in.
Chee in no way implies that writing his autobiographical novel resolved his own trauma, only that he had no choice but to write it, to write “across gaps, things that I wouldn’t let myself remember.” I feel the same way, compelled by something I don’t understand to do something I’m not even sure I want to do.
But if I’m going to run like hell from a nameless, faceless terror, I might as well make it story.