My sophomore year AP Euro teacher thought she was being helpful when she offered me and Alyssa* to the class as an example of “two good writers.”
“Marianna is a good writer,” she said to our cohort. “Alyssa is a good ORGANIZED writer.”
It fucked me up for more than a decade.
Neither me nor Alyssa wanted that kind of attention. We were both shy girls. We were also pretty good friends, which surprised some people. Here’s the thing: Alyssa was a brain-explodingly beautiful, Ivy League-bound professional ballerina who owned a jewelry business on the side. I was just me, truckin’ along. I’d never claimed to be anything else.
Alyssa wasn’t to blame; she was as embarrassed by the attention as I was. In fact, I think she liked me in part because I was too concerned with my own ongoing saga to pay much attention to her. It was the year I discovered Atwood. I had a lot going on.
One day, I ran into Alyssa in the library. She was working on a science project with her friend, to whom she introduced me as “the quiet underdog.”
It felt like she’d stabbed me all over my body with one of her metallurgy tools. I was a 16-year-old girl, and the only part I heard was “dog.”
What I said back to her was patently nuts.
It was all I could say. But it also, weirdly, betrayed my defended ego. To my teenage mind, me being the underdog was not a foregone conclusion. And I love that. I absolutely love that I had that kind of ego at that age — that in spite of everything, my healthy self-image saved me from other people’s projections. (Thanks, Mom!)
All my life, teachers and editors have kept trying to give me their old copies of “Bird by Bird.” They’re generally pretty nice to me once they find out I’m smart. I can’t blame them for not clocking it sooner: To outsiders, I very visibly struggle with self-esteem and disorganization, especially when I’m writing to be read. I’m way more confident in the advertising world, where I’m writing to answer a specific ask that has nothing to do with me. I’m not bragging when I say that it takes me about three seconds to write branded content. The flipside is that it’s taken me seven years to write the title story of my short fiction collection. I refuse to be hurt by that fact.
I owe it to myself and my ideas to get organized, but I can’t lie: It hurts. It hurts and hurts and hurts.
By the time I entered college, I had already learned the lesson I would keep learning for years, and which I’ll probably keep learning it for the rest of my life: Revision is the only way to end the pain. Finishing a thought makes you well. Beyond that act, the performance you bring to the page may reach others, but only if they want it to, and only if you dare to convey your thoughts clearly. That kind of clarity can be scary for some, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it to be seen. It’s worth it to give others that moment of recognition that can only be found in a piece of art.
Fuck discipline for discipline’s sake. That sort of thing only works if you’re an egotist. For the rest of us, contact is enough.
*Name changed because I have no idea who reads this thing.