I got back a few days ago from GCLS in New Orleans and wrote all about it over at Women & Words.
One of the most memorable moments for me was when Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina and other works, said during her keynote speech:
My daddy was a son of a bitch, and my mamma didn’t love me. I write to survive.
Her speech was poignant and moving, and many of us in the audience got teary. Even Ann McMann, graphic designer and author of several novels, said later at the Goldie Awards ceremony that she’d had an epiphany. She said that she was a designer because she was trained to be one, but after hearing Dorothy’s speech, she realized that she writes to survive. (You can read more about Ann’s epiphany HERE.)
Now let’s fast-forward to the other morning. I was on the train going to work, and I was reading a Food & Wine magazine. There was one particular article (the topic is irrelevant) that featured a photo of a woman dressed in some kind of furry jacket and a big floppy hat, and she wore eclectic, large jewelry. You know the type—the artsy/fringe/hipster girl. And I thought, here’s someone who dresses to please herself and not others.
That started me thinking about myself and how throughout my life, I was always afraid to express myself. I don’t really know why that is. Maybe because I was bullied so much that I was afraid that if I stood out in any way, it would draw attention. Blending into the background was a strategy that I employed on a daily basis and mastered by the time I reached high school. It’s how my nail-biting habit began—it gave me something to look at and focus on so that I wouldn’t meet anyone’s eyes.
And just like that, I had my own epiphany about why I write. I already knew that I write to survive, but I realized that I write also to express myself, to be all the things I always wanted to be without fear of mockery.
Sure, people may read my stuff and laugh at it, but hopefully not to my face. Even bad reviews are not as soul-withering as being looked at in the face and told that you’re fat, ugly, stupid, and worthless. It’s not as paralyzing as having a girl who’s bigger than you are tell you that she’s going to beat you up after school.
I also knew that through writing, I allowed myself to be, through my characters, all the things I’ve ever wanted to be. But I didn’t realize that it wasn’t just about being this or that, it’s also about expressing my desires and personality, things that I suppressed while I was growing up.
I grew up in the ’80s and I loved New Wave music. I also loved the fashions associated with New Wave. But those styles were bold and only fashion-forward people wore them. I dressed like everyone else where trends were concerned, like T-shirts hanging off the shoulders, neon socks, gold lamé shoes, or really big hair. Those were all just the everyday styles of the era. But I never dared wear the really stylish stuff—I’m talking about the outfits you’d see in magazines, the stuff musicians and actors wore.
One summer, I went to Long Island to spend a weekend at a friend’s shore house. I remember very vividly one night in her bedroom just talking. I was flipping through a magazine and, pointing to the photos, I mentioned that if I had the guts, I’d wear clothes like this. She burst out laughing and said that I could never pull them off. (This was my best friend, mind you.)
I’m now doing what I love to do and this year, I even won a Best Anthology Goldie for my role as co-editor with Astril Ohletz of Ylva Publishing of Unwrap These Presents. It was an incredible moment for me. I shook the whole time I was up there accepting it. (It’s really hard getting a good photo of those awards.)
Anyway, the point is that I have finally made that discovery. I write to express myself, to express my tastes, desires, good thoughts, bad thoughts, intentions, and who I’d like to be. But I guess that’s part of survival, isn’t it? If we don’t find a way to express ourselves, if we just walk around like factory-made robots, then we’re just existing.
So, in the end, I guess it all comes back around to what Dorothy Allison said, anyway: I write to survive.