The first thing--after "Congratulations"--that my mother said when I told her I'd won Chatelaine's personal essay contest and it would be published nationwide to a circulation of 3 million was, "So...is this a particularly honest and raw and personal personal essay?"
That was four months ago, and it took me almost to the eve of the issue's appearance on newsstands last week to process and be ready for the fact that, yes, it is a particularly honest and raw and personal personal essay, and I am putting it out into the world more visibly and on a larger scale than anything I've written or published before.
This is what we want as writers, right? This is part of why we make art--for the pleasures and challenges of the work itself, certainly, and for the drive that makes it impossible for us not to do it--but also, if my query and submission charts are any indication, for the publication. For the audience. For the desire to be read. But I was recently amused to discover, looking through a list I wrote a year ago, that I'd identified as one of my needed areas of development: Comfort with being visible.
Amused, because this Chatelaine win has shown me just how not-comfortable I am with visibility--with the stated intention of all this work I do. With a huge component of my life's goal. I received the proofs a few weeks ago, opened the PDF on my computer and recoiled. Physically pushed myself away from my words, all laid out pretty, awaiting my final approval. Last stop before 3 million readers, and all I wanted was to close it up and run away.
"Be fearless. Write the things that scare you. Go there," says Ayelet Tsabari in an interview that was among the numerous places where I took courage on the path to publication. This has long been my guiding principle. I have written the things that scare me. I have gone there. But it's one thing to go there in the privacy of your writing nook, in your quiet back garden, on your front porch in the rain--chasing the essence of what it is that wants to be said through you, or of what you need to say, listening and groping and reaching and refining until the story becomes the story it needs to be. It's one thing to do this, also, for your nice little literary journal audience, or your anthology that will need to be sought out by interested readers in the specific places where it is sold. I've never been published in something that can be bought at the grocery store check-out. I've never been read by an audience measured in millions. It turns out I like to be able to hide.
Learning I won the Chatelaine contest, I was amazed, I was thrilled, but I also felt like I'd taken a snapshot of myself with my pants down and was sending it to the whole world.
It was surprisingly painful.
It took me a while to realize what in particular was freaking me out about the Chatelaine essay's large-scale publication, about telling my parents anything beyond "I won a contest." Was it the sex? The leaving behind the faith they reared me in? I've written about these things before. And then I realized: a crucial part of what I write about in this essay is the depression my dad suffered throughout my childhood, and the deep ways that it affected me and my future relationships with men. In a light bulb moment I recognized that freaking out over this publication, I was responding from my little-girl self, eight years old and under no circumstances supposed to let anyone outside our immediate family know the secret of Dad's "dark seasons." (The first time I ever told, and the first time I uttered the word depression--and even then I wasn't sure it was the right word, because it'd never been spoken--I was 19 and braving therapy over this very issue.)
And now here I was, telling the secret, and telling it big.
Once I realized that, I felt freed. Taboos need to be broken. Mental health needs to be talked about. I'm no longer a little girl. This is my story and I have a right to tell my story. I wrote my dad a letter, printed out a copy of that PDF, and mailed it to him a couple weeks before the issue came out. He responded with a text message that made me cry. He said the essay was beautiful, that he was sorry, that he is glad things are better now. It was healing I didn't know I needed. My mom said similar things--you've fit so much into this piece, you're a beautiful writer, we're so proud of you. I was bowled over by the warmth and generosity of these people who raised me, by how lucky I am to have their support.
After that, my fear of visibility dissipated.
"The stuff that causes me anxiety...is usually a road map to where my creative growth can be found," said Merrill Markoe in another piece that gave me courage.
Because this is what we have. This is where we need to write from. If we are writers, we don't really have a choice.