Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I Am Hiding in Plain Sight by Roxane Gay

Everything I write is true or perhaps it would be better to say there is truth in everything I write.

***

I have worked a number of soul-destroying jobs. Most people have. This does not make me unique or special. We all have to shelter and clothe and feed and entertain ourselves. Compromises must be made. I have done outbound telemarketing and Gallup polling. I truly know darkness. I have also done other kinds of phone work revealing an altogether different kind of darkness. I’ve worked the graveyard shift and had to go to school the next day for months on end. I’ve had an office with a door that closed and locked and I have taken advantage of having a door that closed and locked. I’ve worked in a cubicle where I was privy to the terribly intimate details of the lives of others. I have worked behind a cash register, at the door of a nightclub, and behind a bar. There was a brief stint, in high school, where I washed dishes in the dining hall of my boarding school because my parents wanted to teach me humility and the value of a dollar. I learned and promptly forgot those lessons. I don’t enjoy work but I have a good work ethic. When a job needs to be done I will do it. I will do my best.

***

I have lived a charmed life. I am well educated. I am loved and I am respected, I think. I was raised in a country where I’ve never wanted for anything and have taken for granted the most basic of necessities—clean water, clean air, fresh food, adequate healthcare and have spent a great deal of time in a country where most people don’t have any of those things. I am lucky enough to know I should never complain. I have endured difficult experiences with my sanity and emotional infrastructure fairly intact or at least I can fake survival pretty well. Every day is a gift. I am probably wasting that gift.

***

In junior high, someone wrote the word slut on my locker. I had no idea what the word meant. I was not a slut. I was twelve. I still believed in things. I knew who wrote the word and why. It made me so angry but like I said, I was twelve so I didn’t know what to do with that anger other than to swallow it. For the entire day, I heard people whispering. In class, everyone stared at me and snickered. I sat there trying to reconcile what I didn’t know about that word with what I knew about what had precipitated that word being written on my locker. I grew angrier. I slid lower in my seat. I tried to fold myself until I disappeared. My classmates thought they knew something about me. They knew nothing. They knew nothing at all. It took hours for the janitor to wash my locker clean but it didn’t matter. The word was always going to be on my locker. It was going to follow me. I didn’t know what the word meant but I knew I would never get away from it. When I went home that afternoon I looked the word up in the dictionary and learned that slut meant a promiscuous woman or a saucy girl and I didn’t really know what promiscuous or saucy meant so I looked those words up too. I have always loved the dictionary for the clarity it provides. I learned a lot that year.

***

I must confess there are days when nothing bores me more than writers talking about writing. It’s all so solipsistic the way we go on and on. When I talk about writing I bore myself. It is important to talk about writing, but anytime I say something about writing, I feel about as useless as the most useless thing I can imagine. Still, there is the question: why do we write? Why do we write? Why do we write? There was a time when I said I wrote because I needed to, because it was so vital to my continued existence. That was true but it wasn’t the whole truth. I was young. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have to pay rent. I’m older now. I’m calmer. I’m less ridiculous. If I had to stop writing, my life would go on. My life would be lesser. My life would be hollow, but it would be. We’re writers. It is in our nature to be melodramatic when we are faced with an interrogation about our writing existence. The existential is too tempting. We have to make grand statements. We have to prove our commitment to the craft. We have to prove we are not just writers. We are Writers. We are true to the word. We are true, we are true, we are true. I love writing and reading. It feels empty to say that. I’m a writer. I’m supposed to love writing and reading. Nobody cares about the intensity of my love for these things. It’s personal and therefore rather uninteresting but it’s also real and strong and abiding. Writing has been my best friend for my whole life.

***

My parents will not consider me a real writer in a way they can truly understand until they can go to Barnes & Noble and find something I’ve written, not in an anthology, but with my name alone on the spine. My writing career is the least relevant thing about me when it comes to my family and friends. It’s not that they don’t care but honestly, they do not care.

***

When I publish genre fiction, I am generally paid $50 a story. I was paid $300 for a story in Best American Erotica and felt like I had received a six-figure book deal. I cannot pay my bills with these payments but I can buy my favorite books and magazines. Those payments used to subsidize my smoking habit. I don’t smoke anymore, unfortunately. When I publish literary fiction, it is rare I am paid cash money. Compensation always shocks me. I have gotten so used to “writing for free” it makes me a bit uncomfortable when an editor asks how I would like to be paid. It’s not that I don’t want to be paid. I do. I embrace capitalism. It’s simply that I have become accustomed to the reality that there isn’t a lot of money in writing short stories. I made my peace with this a long time ago, that I would not be able to write to earn a living. My love for writing would have to be compensation enough. It is.

***

I have been writing stories as long as I can remember. The first stories I wrote were simple, pastoral tales. I would draw a little village on a paper napkin (and I have no idea why) and then I would write stories about that village on the other side of the napkin. My parents grew concerned about the rate with which I was using napkins and got me a typewriter. I loved typewriter paper. It was thin, felt like there was a fragility to it. I loved my typewriter because it allowed me to write as fast as the stories came to me. The stories have always come very fast. I think in stories and sometimes, I can’t even catch my breath as I try to put a story to screen before I lose it. I hate losing a story that I’m trying to write. It makes me feel I’ve lost something more important than the words.

***

I was angry but I was impotent. I couldn’t do anything with that anger. I was too shy. I was too much of a lot of things. I didn’t know I should have done something more external with that anger. Writing is the only thing that made sense. After I understood what the words slut and promiscuous truly meant, I started writing stories about slutty, promiscuous girls. These girls were brassy and strong and fucked up and interesting and like writing, they too were my friends. I wrote these stories every day. I am still writing these stories. I decided I was a superhero. At school, I was Slut. I wore that name day after day. I accepted it. I answered to my new name in all kinds of ways. I wore glasses. I was smart and awkward. I was Clark Kent. After school, when I wrote, that was the real me. That’s when I could wear my real name. That’s when I was Superman. I could do something amazing with words and it didn’t matter that no one knew. It didn’t matter that everyone ignored who I really was beneath who they believed me to be. I was hiding in plain sight. Why do we write when most of us will never be able to make a living from it? I suppose it depends on how you define making a living. I was a superhero. I am a superhero. I have always been hiding in plain sight. I knew it. I know it.

***

Everything I write is true or perhaps it would be better to say there is truth in everything I write. I wrote a story about a year ago about a woman with gray skin who only wore pink dresses. When she was a young girl, her father liked to keep her in a glass box. She had to stand in that box while her father charged passersby money to get a closer look at the gray girl wearing the pink dress in the glass box. She hated it, how everyone stared at her, how she couldn’t move, how she had to just stand there. Their curiosity suffocated her and yet, when she ran away from home, she joined a roadside attraction, a traveling carnival. That’s what she knew. All day, she would sit on a garish stage, her gray skin shiny with oils. She wore a pink band of silk across her breasts and another around her waist. As she sat there, this gray girl, her name was Rosa, she would remember sitting in her father’s glass box, the weight of the stares of strangers, how by the end of the day her little box was filled only with her breath and sweat. Sitting on the stage, with the open air on her skin, it felt different for Rosa. She had a choice.

2 comments:

  1. After school, when I wrote, that was the real me.

    Here is the essence I think for many writers. That point in space and being when they are lost in their words and define the feeling, the sense of place as the "real" them.

    Job are designed to be soul sucking. Writing can be, should be, aspires to be; revealing.

    I like the space where this took me.

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  2. I'm with Michael - that was the line that meant the most to me too (in a thoughtful piece where I agreed with so many of the feelings and emotions about writing, about being a writer).

    For all kinds of reasons that are far too personal to relate here, I have spent - and continue to spend - most of my life not being sure who the real me is. I know, too, that I'm not alone in putting on a mask as soon as I leave my own four walls, but that mask seems to stay on for almost all the hours I'm awake. The only other time I can seem to slip it off is when it's just me, a keyboard and a screen.

    For the past 18 months or so, I lost my way with writing (and I'm not entirely sure I've got it back yet). Writer's block, yes. But it's felt especially awful because I felt I'd lost touch with myself, somehow.

    Thanks for these thoughts.

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