Tonight I will be at a Soho bookstore in NYC, reading the essay I had published in the anthology Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God: 73 Women on Life’s Transitions. This is the first time I have ever done a book reading….or had something published in a book….or typed the words “Soho.”
My editor’s instructions were to start the reading with “a few words about your experience with the book.”
Almost two years ago, I entered an essay contest – the topic was “Transition.” I read the contest requirements while sitting at the dining room table of our rental cottage in Scituate, MA, surrounded by boxes of books and board games. Most of our possessions were still in the house in PA we had yet to sell; the rest sat in a storage unit waiting to be reclaimed somewhere in the ambiguous future. I knew a thing or two about transition.
I entered the contest. I didn’t win. I wasn’t even a finalist. This was not at all surprising, considering the last thing I won was the Book Mark Contest in 4th grade. And even then I didn’t exactly WIN, I tied with my friend Deirdre.
A few months after the contest, I received an email from the editor at the publishing house who sponsored the contest, asking if I would be interested in having my essay included in their next anthology, Transitions.
I hooped, I hollered, I did the Dance of Joy. Then, I panicked. Like, cold-sweat-holy-shit-what-did-I-do kind of panic. You see, when I wrote the essay, I didn’t think anyone was actually going to read it. Especially the people who I actually wrote about in the essay. People like my mother-in-law. And pretty much Phil’s entire family. I had gone from happiness to hives in two minutes.
It’s not that I wrote anything bad. I love my in-laws; we are actually very close. Hell, this blog is named after my mother-in-law. The woman gives me some priceless material; she’s practically my muse. But the essay touches on how overwhelming it was for me to marry into Phil’s large and boisterous family – and how for many years I was a fish out of water. So while I didn’t write anything bad…I did tell the truth.
Putting the truth out there – or at least the truth as you see it – can be a tricky business: Am I hurting someone’s feelings? Is this my truth to tell? Should I wait until everyone is dead?
But I am a writer. I write about the world around me in order to make sense of it, because if I don’t, I start to go a little crazy. Sometimes a lot crazy. And it’s important for me to write the truth as I see it, because that is the only thing I know for sure. Writing about something I don’t really know triggers my deep, dark fear of being a fraud. Of being found out.
As an English major, I spent my college years writing like I knew what I was talking about, when in reality, I was completely making shit up. Most of my papers were complete BS. My motto was: When in doubt, find the Jesus figure. It was a Catholic college, I figured no one was going to argue with that.
But this shot-in-the-dark strategy gave me terrible anxiety. I was sure people were going to call me out for the academic imposter that I was, because I am a terrible liar. My theory is that lying is controlled by the part of your brain that does math and reads maps.
This doesn’t mean I’ve never tried to lie. When I was a freshman, I came home for fall break with a giant hickey on my neck. I didn’t even attempt to hide it, even though it was the year of the J.Crew roll neck sweater. That’s how bad a liar I am – I didn’t even think to put on a damn turtleneck. I walk in the door and my mother says:
“What happened to your neck?”
“Uh..I walked…into…a wall..?”
“With your NECK?”
She walked away, disgusted by either my sluttiness or my inability to hide it, or both. She sat me down later and said: “You know, Jessie, some people can lie and get away with it. You will never be one of those people.”
Wiser words were never spoken.
So, I write the truth, because when I try to be coy or breezy, I look like a poser-idiot. The flip side to not looking like a poser-idiot, however, is the possibility of really pissing people off. Important people. People you need to sit next to at Thanksgiving.
Hence, the hives.
When Phil’s family got wind of my essay’s publication, they were obviously excited and wanted to read it: “What’s it about? Send me the link!”
I tried to avoid this in my signature suave, hide-the-hickey fashion: “Yeah…sure….I will….except that my computer, like…melted….because it was like, too close to the…sun…OMG I GOTTA GO I’LL CALL YOU BACK.”
One night at my house, my sister-in-law Trisha finally called my bluff. Despite my attempts to distract her with
cocktails conversation, she insisted on reading the essay. I printed it out and hid in my bathroom.
When I came out, she looked up and said, “I never knew you felt this way. If I had known you felt this way, I would have…I don’t know…tried to help you not feel this way.”
A few things I have learned about the truth:
- When I think I know someone else’s truth, I am always wrong.
- When I think I know someone else’s truth, I am avoiding my own.
- When I am vulnerable, I give others permission to do the same.
- People want to tell the truth. You just need to give them a chance.
- There is always a deeper truth beneath the truth. So keep digging.