When I started putting the words on the page, I didn’t know what it was. An exercise in letting go. A reflection of memories. A way to make myself understand what it was, what I had been through. I never thought of the consequences, of letting anyone else read what I had written.
What I found though is that it changes how people view you.
“Are you recording this?”
And levels the layers of trust you established – and quite frankly destroyed – early on.
It makes you always a suspect.
Never on parole.
But it’s also freeing: A fresh start; a reboot; a clean slate.
When The New Yorker bought my first essay – when the call – an actual call, not text – came through, I thought it was a joke. The editor there – a Mr. Melby-Kent – was new to the editorial team and thought a phone call was complete “kitsch” and that I had enough pizazz that, even as an unknown, it – he – could make it work.
And I said yes before I even knew what I was getting into.
What goes into making a memoir? First, experiences. Then the guts to share them. The ability to ignore your mother’s phone calls, frantic texts, voicemails that scream at you about sharing family secrets, and, quite frankly, the ability to eventually live alone.
Exhausted and drawn out without any more experiences to share.
You make them up instead. You invent ideas, dreams and goals that you never intend to fulfill, turning them into anecdotes that people can relate to: meeting someone during a hike on a barely used mountain path – someone you date until you realize they’re already married; buying your first car only to have it stall out as soon as you hit 75 on the freeway; sharing the fall-out of your family dysfunction like it’s an after-school special.
It pays the bills.
It’s our bi-monthly meeting and Melby-Kent is after answers. That first essay snowballed into five, then ten, then a book deal and now my miserable existence of watching reruns of “Schitt’s Creek” and going to bed by 8 p.m. every night.
Melby-Kent has settled in for the long haul. He convinced me I needed a manager and, well, now I guess it’s him.
I have nothing to cobble together anymore, but I don’t tell him this. Instead, I pick at a cuticle, wincing as it tears and use the inside of my pocket to staunch the blood.
“Jordache jeans.” You hear words. They’re in your voice. “Like the ones Brooke Shields hawks?”
“Yeah?” Caterpillar eyebrows hover above his gold wire rims.
“Yeah.” We nod together like there’s something to this statement.
The editors want more than you can give. That’s the first lesson. After you learn that, well, you start to understand how much to save for the next phone call, the next meeting…the next chapter. I was ready to confess I was a fraud after the last meeting had me sweating so much I had to convince everyone that I was pre-menopausal even though I’m only 32.
The Jordache jeans story sells.
My wallet fattens like my fridge: only the fridge is full of debit-card-purchased single-serve freezer meals because aside from the occasional journalist who wants to take me out for dinner because my publicist tells them to, I dine alone.
But then I get an epiphany…something that happens in the wee hours when the blankets tangle and attack, the cocoonlike monster of in-between-sleep and its-too-early-to-get-up and it dawns on me that everyone already thinks I’m already a genius so why not let them continue?
And I blast Bad Religion’s “Stranger Than Fiction” because there couldn’t be a better soundtrack for the shitshow wordstorm I’m about to unleash and write my Opus One.
Billy Mumphrey’s downfall was unbridled enthusiasm, but what about my own? I can write my own ending…and craft it like a professional. It’s not like I can’t write. I just can’t write anything that’s truthful anymore.
That vault is empty.
So I churn out a slew of words that in any other parallel universe could be real.
Except they aren’t.
Until they’re published.
My alarm pings me awake to the serenade of “When I’m 64” by the Beatles and I make a mental note at the coincidence that my newfound self also enjoys waking to the song, particularly during the lyric: Doing the garden, digging the weeds / Who could ask for more?
And I look at the aloe plant that’s seen better days where it sits next to the plastic cactus. It’s perked up overnight and I think the plastic cactus has a flower that wasn’t there before.
In the shower, the water warms, the suds sud and in the fridge I find the makings of a real breakfast: eggs, bacon, blueberries and orange juice; a change from my slice of semi-toasted-peanut-butter-bread and instant coffee.
Outside, the mailman greets me, “Howsa Jenn!” and the birds whistle and everything is technicolor alive and I also walk past the car that I think is mine now and realize the door I left is painted tangerine, which is a color I’ve always admired, but never tried.
Melby-Kent is in his office when I arrive, fleshy cheeks and wire rim glasses and the faint realization that he knew me…once.
It’s been two weeks and my aloe plant has doubled in size as has the smile on my face at the realization that I’m living the Field of Dreams side of the state of life: if you write it, it will happen, and in the golden hours of a Saturday afternoon, my phone rings.
Asking me if I’m coming to dinner.
As if I never stopped.