I spent my Thanksgiving weekend writing an article about Kari Bales, but this time it wasn’t for my blog; it was for the New York Times. As in, The New York Times.
Surprisingly, the best part of the whole experience wasn’t the moment I got the “it’s live” email from the editor and clicked as fast as my fingers could carry me to see the byline with my name staring back at me, the internationally recognized newspaper’s logo resting gently above it. The moment that still has me gobsmacked happened in my basement at my makeshift game-cabinet-turned-writing desk on a cold Sunday morning. I sat hunched forward, leaning into my screen, excising each word with bleeding precision. My legs were losing circulation and I was hungry and my eyes burned. I was still in my hideous bathrobe and I was stinky and I was freezing, sipping cold coffee. And I loved it. It was in that moment that I realized: I’m a writer.
I almost cried. It was as if I knew I would never again be a lawyer, a wife, a mother, a military spouse, a daughter, a friend, a blogger or even a woman. It was the moment I realized that, despite my best efforts to be something else, I have always been a writer first. I’ve always narrated life in my head, always embellished events as pieces of a continuing story rather than simply allowing them to occur in moments, always struggled to assign meaning and connection to the most trivial. Everything foreshadows something, leading to a climactic discovery that leaves me better off than wherever the story began, or tragically arcs into the next chapter of my life, looking for resolution. I’m a writer.
I was interviewed recently by freelance journalist Laura Goode for a piece in New York Magazine about beauty pageants. I spun my tale of woe about the terrible price of being perceived the dumb blonde and how I fought back with myself, winning a state debate tournament in high school, going to law school, becoming a prosecutor, steeling myself as the independent military spouse during my husband’s year-long deployment. The material wasn’t used in her story, but it gave me a moment to tell myself the truth: what I always loved about those things in which I excelled was the writing. Heck, I even won the essay contest in the pageant. I wasn’t overcoming the presumed stupidity of pageantism all those years; I was fighting the notion that I was a writer. Why?
I think I know, now. I think I’m horribly insecure and I need you to tell me I’m good, and yet somehow it seems wrong to desire recognition in a world that says we are supposed to be humble, supposed to know our intrinsic value. It seems more comely, more gentile, to get a law degree and use my writing prowess to win cases for someone else than to parade my writing around for publication, presuming someone wants to read it. It feels like I should write simply for the joy of it. It feels like I should write about other people, for their good. It feels like I shouldn’t want it to be about me, somehow. But my wise friend Rebekah Sanderlin, also a writer, knowingly guided me along as I struggled through this conundrum. It jolted me when she said, “People who write simply for the joy of writing keep diaries. People who get published do it for validation.” I laughed when she said it because the conclusion I’ve come to so many times about turning 40 is that it’s the year when you are finally allowed to admit your flaws because you’ve realized the world isn’t as perfect as you once believed. You’re allowed to turn your flaws into assets, somehow. You’ve finally earned the right to them.
So I admit it: I’m a writer. I no longer want to keep a diary, except as raw material for a memoir. I no longer want to shy away from the idea that I can write well, that I have a fire for telling stories, or that I’ve always intrinsically been this evil thing. I’m a writer with a drive for recognition and validation. Of course now that I’ve figured out what I don’t want to be, the next challenge will be figuring out what I do want. It’s a challenge that feels familiar, like a wonderfully complex conflict ripening into the next chapter of a life story.