I was talking to a new writer friend recently and we got into a discussion about the insecurities and doubts that hold us back. And I told her a story I’d like to share here because I think it has value for other writers:
In 2007, the summer after I graduated from college, I moved to London to live with my then-boyfriend. It took me months to find a job, and when I did it was only part-time; to make a little extra money I took a gig doing after-school supervision for a coworker’s son. I also spent some of my free time (and most of my savings) writing my first book, a ‘chick lit’ novel that never saw the light of day.
The kid I was looking after liked to go to the park with his friend and play ‘football’ for a couple hours before we met up with his mom; the friend’s mom, K, was usually there too. K and I became friends of a sort – we would chat about our very different lives, and often she would ask me about my goals, career and otherwise. Eventually I told her (nervously) about my dream of writing a memoir.
Her first question was “Aren’t you too young?” This is a common mix-up, the idea that memoirs are akin to autobiographies and can’t be written by the young. I explained the difference, that memoirs are usually centered on a particular subject or theme or event, rather than being the accounting of a life.
She asked what I wanted to write about, then, and I told her (again, nervously – my ears are burning just remembering it 13 years later) that I wanted to write a book of essays about my struggle with weight and body image. I hadn’t ever told anyone that. I hadn’t even admitted to myself that I harbored hopes of writing a whole book about the subject that consumed my thoughts during most of my waking hours, and some of my sleeping ones.
“But would people really want to read that?” She asked.
Her tone was innocent, as if she hadn’t just shoved a needle-thin knife through the softest part of my writing insecurity. In the moment, I felt a combination of resentment at the question and shame at what I felt it shined a light on: my own self-absorption. But underneath those two reactive emotions, I felt something harden. Resolve. Hearing myself say it out loud forced me to acknowledge that I wanted this – I wanted, needed, to write out all my complicated feelings about my complicated history with my body (and society’s response to it).
I didn’t have the awareness or confidence to tell her that, though. Instead I fumbled through something about how body issues felt universal, how when I told stories about my internal struggle to new people they always responded with a reflective story of their own, and how we often marveled together at how few stories we felt reflected our shared experience.
And then she twisted the knife:
“Why would anyone care, though? What makes you special?”
That one, I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t promise that anyone would care about my feelings; I just knew that I cared. And as someone who grew up in a family where other people’s needs were always to be put before our own, where I learned that my feelings should take a backseat to ‘the family’ or logistics or guests or even someone else’s dog…it was very hard for me to just own the fact that my story was important to me, and that was enough.
Of course if you read this blog, you know that I wrote that book, and that someone else did care about my story, enough to publish it (let’s not talk about sales, though – I’m fragile enough!). And that day, the day I signed my contract with Faber and began working on revisions with my editor, was one of the best days of my life. It was the realization of a dream I’d barely admitted to myself, let alone anyone else, and it was the rejection of that voice in my head that’s always telling me I don’t matter, my story doesn’t matter, nobody cares.
But it wasn’t a panacea. I still hear that voice all the time, and I still think about that question K asked me that day in the park so many years ago: “Why would anyone care?”
And that’s what I thought about when my writer friend and I were discussing insecurities: why someone would care. It was easy for me to tell my friend that there’s room for her story, whatever it is, and that self-doubt is untrustworthy, but I had to reflect on that conversation with K to realize that I believe it for myself, too. Even if sometimes I have to dig to find the confidence under a lot of messy doubt.
As for what makes me special? As I’ve ruminated on the purpose of my writing over the years, I’ve come to value K’s questions as part of a marketing exercise rather than an attack. Some people may think I’m special (hopefully at least my husband), but the truth is it’s not that I, or my story, or even my writing is what makes my work worthy of a readership – it’s the bare fact of willingness.
I write about things that so many people go through: body image struggles, heartbreak, family strife (those essays have been mostly private so far, but watch this space…maybe). And I’m willing to put myself out there, to be vulnerable in a way that a lot of people (rightly, maybe) fear. That has value. At its best, vulnerable writing creates a space for people to feel less alone, to feel seen by the writer.
All I can hope for is to hit that target. To make people feel seen by allowing them to see me. And to do that, I have to do the work.
I do. And that has to be enough, at least for now.
A very important PS:
It always bears repeating that what I write about, which is essentially basic bitch stuff from a basic bitch white lady (I say this with affection for all my fellow basic bitches – hang in there and read to the end), is not more important than the work being put out by people in oppressed groups. I feel that especially hard right now, as my country has erupted in further police violence and BIPOC voices have been straining to be heard over cries of ‘but the property’ and ‘ALL lives matter.’ Those are the voices we need to hear. Mine is not one of those voices, and I will endeavor to never talk over them, no matter how badly I want to add my perspective.
The thing I try to remind myself and other white writers of is that other voices deserving more air space and amplification isn’t the same thing as there not being space for us basic bitches. The whole reason minority voices need our support is because there is already so much space for us. And readers aren’t a finite resource – there’s room for everyone, or at least there should and can be.