It’s been true of you since you were an infant: you’ve always been terrified to do anything in public until you know you’re good enough at it.
You learned to talk in private. You were supposed to be napping, and your mother, downstairs, heard an eerie voice through the baby monitor: Jack spat eeee no fat why eeee no lean? She ran upstairs to find you sitting upright in your crib, where you flashed her a devilish grin, dove under the blankets, and began speaking in full grown-up sentences a week later.
More than a quarter century later you still proofread every email you send six times, practice everything you need to say in the mirror five times, refuse to let anyone read a draft of anything you write until it’s ready. You didn’t openly come out as queer until you’d been involved with half a dozen girls and felt you had, like, a good handle on how the whole being-a-homo thing worked. It’s good, sometimes — people have always thought you unusually precocious, unaware that in private you are always rehearsing, rehearsing everything. And it’s screwed you over — people find you cold and aloof, because you can’t make small talk until you understand the situation and have analyzed the right things to say.
But it’s made you seem like you’re the smart one your whole life, always studying, always practicing the right things to do, the right things to say, the right way to do it. You go from average middle-class suburbs of New Jersey to a fancy liberal arts school full of kids with yachts, and you learn rapidly that rich, content, utterly vanilla people find you — tall, blonde, whiskey-swilling, temperamental, some sort of queer, foul-mouthed, awkward, sarcastic, dressed funny, from a quaint suburban middle-class background, shy-but-brash — somehow interesting. You capitalize on it. You imagine yourself the enfant terrible of the English department: you break all the rules, and your professors tell you time and again that you’re brilliant, that they’re impressed by your attitude, your dedication, your everything. At graduation, fueled by champagne, you confess to a friend: I love my internships and my jobs but someday I’m gonna write a book that’s what I wanna do and they laugh, and then you laugh too because god, what a stupid thing to say.
You graduate, and you flounder between a bunch of jobs, jobs you like, sometimes even love, mostly in music, entertainment, fashion. One you love but only pays 26 grand a year. One pays twice that but the agency rapidly loses a number of clients (The Recession) and you are among the layoffs. You feel sad: you were good at that, you liked it. You bounce between internships and assistantships before landing an admin receptionist job where you like the office but rankle at ordering toilet paper, at cleaning up other people’s spills.
You write the whole time: your stupid fashion blaaahhhhg, a few magazines, a few secret blogs, that awful novel you wrote as your college thesis. Midwinter, three sazeracs in (the absinthe has seemed romantic of late, combined with your usual bourbon), you lose it in front of your friends, babbling. Babe, they sigh, eternally patient. You’re never going to get paid for it unless you ask people about it, they say. Stop writing for free. You’re never going to have a career you’re too afraid to admit you want.
You shrug and fiddle with your cell phone. Whatever, you say. You make an excuse: I don’t want people to associate anything I wrote with me personally, I don’t even know where I should be trying to publish, I don’t even know who would care, I’ve already devalued my name by posting too many photos of myself or whatever, and I do honestly genuinely like the other work, I like having a dayjob. And you do, genuinely.
Then you lose your dayjob, for the second time in five years. Amicably, and over time - something about the role changing, something about social capital - but you will panic. What do you do? What the fuck are you going to tell people? What does it mean?
You get paranoid about your friends who wrote amazing “I quit my job and I sold a book” blog posts. You get paranoid about everyone younger and more successful already. Who the fuck are you? You have some goofy-ass fashion blog and a dozen half-finished unpitched essays and a really awful novel you wrote in college and a bunch of secret blogs of your other writing, and you have other jobs you can do and that you like, besides. Who the hell are you? What do you do? How dare you?
You start writing a blog post about it and think: oh fuck, Meg, second person, really? You sound like some third-rate internet Lorrie Moore. Give me a break.
Then you’ll be at a party, or an opening, or a reading, or whatever. A friend of a friend, an almost aggressively boring brunette, will shake your hand, introduce herself, ask what it is that you do.
Your mind will race as you think up a hundred replies. I’m an ex-beleaguered secretary, you’ll joke. Well I’ve worked in music and in fashion, I know both pretty well actually and I have a few part-time and freelance gigs lined up, I mean yeah it’s kind of all over the place, it works though ha, ha. I’m a freelance creative and marketing professional with a lot of technical and strategic skills which I am desperate to put to use for anyone who will have me and I think I have enough experience to freelance full time now but I don’t know how I’m ever going to do that. I’m a creative strategist. I’m an English major. I’m halfway through my twenties. I can waitress I can make a cappuccino I can answer phones. I’m basically just really good at getting by. I can do all kinds of things, is there anything I can do for you, please, I can do it.
You take too long to answer and the brunette raises her eyebrows. You exhale and say, “Oh,” and your voice will sound a little stronger than you expected, and you’ll think, fuck it, I don’t have to do it right. Is there a right way to do it? And you’ll push your shoulders back a little (you’ve always had bad posture) and say, surprised at your own flippant tone, “I’m a writer.”