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On Proving I Exist

Image: Kevin Dooley

Note: The author asked for this piece to be published anonymously. All names and locations have been removed.

Recently I attended my first real writing workshop. I had a great time. Generally. There was this incredible generative vibe, this real feeling that we were all in it together, working on our best stories. I adored my instructor and my classmates, most of them, except for one.

They were a former lawyer writing about their clients. Noble on the face of it, until you read the parts of their thinly veiled life account in which they called those clients “pieces of shit” or explained that one had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, “meaning they were an asshole.” When they didn’t openly hate them, they wrote about them in a way that came across, mostly, as trauma porn. They revelled in the torture of an old person in prison, and I should mention that the story also included enough information about this particular prisoner and their case that I was able to discover their real name within five minutes of opening up Google. Always, in conversation and writing, they centered the exhaustion that had caused them to leave the profession, as if they being burnt out were more of a disaster than anything their clients went through.

On the first day, they noted they’d been raised with great financial stability, had never really struggled, but still, they wanted to talk about cycles of poverty in their fiction. They had developed, they assured us, “strong opinions” while in the legal profession, and saw their work as promoting social justice, humanizing the sometimes indigent and mentally ill folks they had represented. They were, in short, embarking on a misguided effort to speak for people whose problems they had never remotely experienced, never once related to their real life. One could argue they were giving a voice to their ex-clients, but this presupposes that such people are voiceless. Then they bragged about having been “yelled at by crackheads,” and, well, I too have been yelled at by crackheads, but I’m hesitant to use “argued with a crackhead” as some sort of badge of honor.

The kicker is not that they said this stuff. The kicker is that the class nodded when they introduced themselves that first day, and congratulated them on having such great material to work with. Nobody seemed to believe there was a problem with what they were writing. Nobody asked, “Do you worry about breaking confidentiality when you share stories about your ex-clients?” Nobody asked, “What are the ethics of writing from a homeless person’s point of view when you yourself have never faced the possibility of becoming homeless?” Nobody asked, “Can you compassionately describe the plight of mentally ill defendants while also calling everybody with borderline personality disorder pieces of shit?”

I was not surprised at all when, later on in the week, they began explaining that they never wanted to read any story from the point of view of a mentally ill person. That they felt “no stories narrated by a mentally ill person” should be some sort of rule, because stories by the mentally ill don’t work. Nor was I especially shocked that they thought the constant stream of abuse that single mothers endure in America was “not enough” for any of my stories to carry weight. Once, the instructor pointed out that, yeah, it kind of is enough, and they shook their head.

“I support moms,” they clarified.

And yet I did not believe them.

*

I think anybody who’s spent a lot of time in workshop has met someone like this. Some folks are just awful. Some will go to ridiculous lengths to sound edgy, rather than respect the humanity and privacy of the crackheads they have encountered. Some people hate women, and hate single moms especially.

And yet, you might notice my tone: I’m angry when I think about this person. I care an awful lot about this inexperienced writer’s various workshop transgressions, and no, it’s not all because of their inability to recognize the plight of single moms.

The truth is, I tried crack once. I was a prostitute then, and a client insisted I have some of the crack he was smoking during our hour-long meeting. It smelled like burnt rubber. Then he got mad because I insisted he use a condom when we had sex.

The truth is, I have needed help from time to time. A social worker. An EBT card. WIC. A free lawyer. A free doctor. A free psychiatrist. Free clothes. Free college, or college as free as a person can get in America. That the government employees and nonprofit workers and volunteers who I encountered during that desperate stretch in my life might be out at fancy writing retreats composing tragedy porn based on my life makes me physically ill. Makes me want nothing more than to vomit and vomit again and sleep forever.

The truth is, when they say horrible things about the people they used to serve, they’re talking about me. When they try to explain their former clients to the world, they supplant my lived experience with their outsider observations. They deprive me of my voice. When they express in any way the belief that these people will never be capable of writing about their own lives on their own behalf, they are calling me an idiot.

And well-meaning, wonderful writers, folks I absolutely adore and admire, keep praising them for it. Someone let them into the conference we both attended. It’s not even worth naming names, the name of the conference or the people who were enthused about the lawyer stories in workshop, because everybody does this. Probably, many of my close friends would want to be their friends too. This blind spot I’m describing, the one that makes people think this is okay, is nearly universal.

That’s why I’m mad.

*

The last day of the workshop we all left before lunch, returned to our homes. I cried in the car. I cried for hours of driving, all the way to my family, and at the same time I felt so stupid for crying. For attending an MFA or a conference in the first place. For trying to be a writer in a world that thinks I’m not real. I felt run down and over caffeinated and like I should disappear.

I turned on the Johnny Cash station on Pandora and sang along.

It’s times like these I focus on my daughter. When I picture her face, I want much less to veer off the highway and crash into some trees. She has a turned nose, not my beaky one, and curly hair. But the eyes are my color. My gold eyes look into her gold eyes, and I’ve never met anybody else with these eyes. There’s no good reason to crash the car, which is really my fiance’s car anyway, and wouldn’t that make me feel like an asshole?

I know nobody’s trying to hurt me on purpose. I know I am being dramatic, that I am a depressed person who lacks a certain capacity for self-soothing. Being aware of all this doesn’t really help in the moment, doesn’t really fix my perception that the world is out to get me. This flawed perception is the crux of post-traumatic stress disorder. I no longer trust the universe to be a good place.

I am trying to be a good workshopper, a productive member of the literary community, but sometimes workshop feels like smug liberals who don’t know my life patting each other on the back for making baby steps. I am trying to be kind to everybody I meet, but sometimes, when my brain reminds me nothing and nobody will ever be safe, I cannot be good or productive or nice. Perhaps this is why some people feel no story should be written from my point of view. That my story written in my voice wouldn’t work.

*

What if we assume that everybody can write? Well, no, not everybody can write, but what if we assume there is no class of people predisposed to writing well, that everybody is equally likely to possess some talent or uniqueness? I don’t mean just the old comfortable people who show up to conferences or the younger polished types who show up to MFA programs to chase down something they call “professionalization.” What if we assume everybody can write their own lives? What if it were no longer okay to openly despise those for whom it is much more challenging to enter this literary community? What if MFA admissions committees were no longer obsessed with rooting out any “unstable” elements, because those committees realized “instability” is so often a function of oppression?

And what if I admit I can’t write certain things, but that doesn’t mean I want other people to do so for me? What if I admit that when I sit down to explain my feelings about the person in question my mind becomes cluttered and shuts down? If I have trouble coming up with the words, does that really give them the right to put some new words in my mouth?

I shouldn’t have to explain my humanity, but also, I cannot. More and more often, the stories spring from my head almost fully formed, but essays don’t work. Essays will probably never work. They require a searing examination of the self, but my trauma means I don’t enjoy staring into my own soul for hours. Shit’s fucked in there.

I can really only write an essay about an argument, some point I am trying to make. So this is one of those. I’m not sure yet what I’m arguing for, but please, let me persuade you.

*

How strange it is to be a person who can drive home in a car listening to Johnny Cash. How strange to have a happy healthy baby girl, a man who loves me, housing and daycare subsidized by a university.

How strange that I can call myself a fellow, a person with a fellowship. How strange, especially because of the other things I have called myself: a mom, a cashier, a barista, a busker, an escort, a stripper, a doggy daycare worker, a temp, an editor. The estranged and desperate daughter of people with money. A townie. A renter with bad credit. A victim of domestic abuse. a writer, a Dean’s List student. A person who eats with food stamps. A person who eats the food she stole. Recipient of many scholarships.

How strange to win prizes at litmags that have won dozens of Pushcarts, and yet, I have done exactly this several times in the past year. How strange; I didn’t think they read stories by people like me.

I am in this strangeness every day, when I watch Powerpuff Girls with my daughter and when I sit in workshop in a circle with people who talk about domestic violence, prostitution, stealing, rotten cops, hunger, rape, mental illness, and desperation as if these things are theoreticals. As if nobody in the room could possibly have experienced them. As if the class of people who attend funded MFAs on fellowships could not possibly include me, and we’re all just making this shit up. There is an assumption that I do not know how to talk about shoplifting because I must never have stolen to survive. There is an assumption I could never have been on food stamps. I am the best faker, the worst fraud, because I rarely bring it up. I am so in this strangeness that I feel totally detached. I hate myself, or I don’t think about myself at all, or I imagine it all happened to someone else.

Because I can’t talk about it.

Because I don’t want to freak people out.

Because I know they wouldn’t want to hear it.

*

And how do I know people don’t to hear about it? I know because I told this person. I did. I said exactly what I was thinking on the first day of workshop, and they hugged me, and I thought things were fine. But their behavior did not change.

I told them I’d been that person, and that the idea of someone writing fiction about their encounters with me was, in fact, my worst nightmare. I used the exact phrase “worst nightmare.” But they continued to write about their old clients. I told them I’d stolen, but they continued to tell me in workshop, when talking about my story, how a person who had just stolen would “realistically” behave. I would try to interrupt their terrible rants about who gets to speak for themselves, about whose life is compelling enough, about who is too emotionally disturbed to be trusted with their own story and who is not writing “realistically” about stealing. And they would just get louder. Just tell me to wait my turn.

They feel entitled to my life. They are someone who wants to show their readers the ugliest parts of my existence in exchange for money. I am just so upset looking back. I am enraged. And the enraged part of me, the irritated post-traumatic part, can spring up at a moment’s notice. I can be furious and sad, so furious and sad I become incoherent.

It’s so frustrating not to be capable of rational conversations in the moment. I can’t process my feelings for the people who insist on a calm delivery, or they won’t treat me like a human.

So I didn’t bring it up again. Not to them. I just didn’t know what else to say, or how I could.

*

When the week was over, I went home to my fiance. I sang Johnny Cash, yes, and I cried and I lost my voice, and I went home to the university that supports me. I parked the car by the grocery store and my fiance met me there and we bought yogurt for our preschooler. Then I collapsed on a couch.

“What’s wrong?” my fiance asked me.

In tears, I explained I had been slighted by “a garbage human hell-bent on replacing my story with their own narcissistic monologue.” Then my fiance got me some ice cream from the fridge, which is a thing he’s learned to do when I cry, when I call people names.

Before we went to pick up our kid from daycare, he told me something that bears repeating: “This is why I worry about some of your stories. You know you’re writing it because you lived it, but the people giving you awards and letting you into conferences have no idea. They just like edgy stories about poor people. They can’t even tell the difference between this person’s writing and yours.”

He was right, of course. I’d never even considered it, but he was right. I’ve picked myself up and put me back together, and now those who meet me can’t always tell.

Would anybody believe me if I said it? Should I put my name on this essay? But why should I have to?

I don’t want to out myself, not because I care who knows I used to have sex with men my grandpa’s age for money but because I’m scared to be seen as a complainer. I strike that delicate balance, because in MFA land, it seems to me that ungrateful people run the risk of harsh social sanction.

So I don’t mean to stir the pot. I don’t want to be trouble; I just want us all to be troubled. Shouldn’t my story trouble people? Shouldn’t this person I’m writing about trouble people? Shouldn’t we account for the possibility that someone in our workshop has smoked crack?  

I might be too stupid, too damaged. I might have been too poor to write this essay. But shouldn’t I get to share my life on my own terms, before some lawyer who knew me ten years ago crawls out of the woodwork? I have the most right to the things that have happened to me.

Nobody needs a translator for my history. I’m already here in your writing world, struggling to tell you myself.

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7 Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    You have an authentic voice. You don’t come off as a complainer, even though you were concerned that you would come across that way in the piece. Kudos for sharing your story.

    Like

  2. Matt says

    I’m not in any MFA, but I’m recently MFA-curious. You are my favorite poster. Yes, I know who you are, though I don’t. You are just that good. Thank you for this.

    Like

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