I was really good at being good. Maybe the best. I wrote happy stories about happy things like parades and sisterhood. I was high school valedictorian. I was really good for too long.
Then I discovered life writing, where hurt thrives on the page in raw, reflective clarity, where I felt empowered, finally, to screw up. Feeling empowered to fail is an off-putting concept, one I resisted for a long time.
The life writers I admired told me about the ways they screwed up. At 14, Phoebe Gloeckner had sex with her mother’s boyfriend. Kathryn Harrison had a years-long love affair with her father. Anne Lamott was an alcoholic and a drug addict. They screwed up, they wrote about it and life continued; it amazed me.
I slowly found an unnerving sense of power in writing about the ways I’ve failed. I wrote about how I’ve never had a boyfriend and feel I’ve failed my family for it. I wrote about the semester of college I spent drinking cheap wine and whiskey in a sorry effort to cope with a beloved professor’s death and falling illogically, irreversibly hard for a charming European guy on a study-abroad trip. I wrote about the times in college I drunkenly made out with guys I didn’t like that much.
Life writing gave me a space to learn from my mistakes without fear of judgment, without the pretense of some syrupy-sweet ‘personal brand,’ where the good, work-appropriate you falsely presents itself as the whole you.
It was in the sacred circle of undergrad writers’ workshops that I learned I could be the whole of myself, I could write about it and I could share it with strangers. There is a writerly camaraderie and maybe, a sense of bravery, those workshops instilled in me, a bravery I’ve struggled to replicate without them.
Though I no longer have access to the collegiate circle of writers, one I miss and crave, I’ve realized that reading life writing is a kind of workshop all its own, one I can participate in at 6-something in the morning on my rooftop, 15 stories up, or on my couch on a rainy day.
Phoebe Gloeckner, Kathryn Harrison, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Elif Shafak … They all inspire in me that familiar wisp of bravery. I’ve replaced being really good with being a little bit braver. It’s scary to write openly about all the stupid 20-something stunts I’ve pulled, but I think it’s one step in moving toward a personal brand defined not solely by my job or professional skills but by authenticity and a commitment to the whole me.