[Originally published March 10, 2010.]
I am a Personal Essay and I was born with a port wine stain and beaten by my mother. A brief affair with a second cousin produced my first and only developmentally disabled child. Years of painful infertility would lead me straight into menopause and the hysterectomy I almost didn’t survive.
I recently enrolled in a clinic led by the Article’s Director and Editor for a national women’s magazine. Technically, we were there to workshop and polish ourselves into submission. Secretly, though, we each hoped to out-devastate the other and nail ourselves a freelance contract.
I wasn’t there to learn. I’ve been published as many times as I’ve been brutally sodomized, but I need to stay at the top of my game. Everyone thinks they have a story these days, and as soon as they let women in the Middle East start talking, you’ll have to hold an editor hostage to get a response. Mark my words.
There were ten of us in the room. The Essay Without Arms worried me at first, but she had great bone structure and a wedding ring dangled from a chain on her neck, so I doubted her life has been all that hard.
Two male essays wandered in late. They were Homosexual Essays, a dime a dozen, and publishers aren’t buying their battle with low self esteem anymore. Even if their parents had kicked them out, I’d put money on a kind relative taking them in. It wasn’t as if they’d landed in state care, like I had, and been delivered straight into the wandering hands of recently paroled foster parents. Being gay is about as tragic as a stray cuticle, and I wasn’t born a Jehovah’s Witness yesterday.
I presented my essay first, and tried not to look smug as I returned to my seat. The Article’s Director let out a satisfied sigh and said, “I see someone’s done this before”. Yes, someone had. I’ve developed something of a reputation in the industry for taking meticulous notes on my suffering. It was a lesson learned the hard way after my year in sex slavery was rendered useless from the effects of crank on my long-term memory.
The third essay that read absolutely killed. She’d endured a series of miscarriages and narcoleptic seizures living in a work camp during her youth in communist China. Initially, I was worried, but then I thought, whatever, good for her. There are twelve months in the year, and if Refugee Camp walked away with January, the April swimwear issue would be the perfect platform for my struggles with Exercise Bulimia. I don’t mean to sound overly confident, but much of the unmitigated misfortune that has been my day-to-day life has taught me the importance of believing in myself.
Next up were two Divorce Essays, which came and went, forgettable at best. The Editor’s critique suggested as much. Alopecia followed. She had promise, but was still clearly struggling for a hook. Every essay who’s been through chemo or tried lesbianism ends up bald. Bald isn’t the story. Alopecia was heading in the right direction, loving herself, but she was getting there all wrong. I think she needed to focus on not having eyelashes or pubic hair. Now that’s interesting. That’s an essay.
The last kid was unpublished and new on the circuit. It was hard to figure out what we were up against with this one. He walked up to the podium unassisted, bearing no visible signs of physical or mental retardation. Maybe it was something systemic, or worse still, the latest wave of competition to hit the market: a slow to diagnose mental illness. I tried to relax. It was hard to build story arcs off problems cured by pills. Problems caused by pills, on the other hand, sold on query alone. Shit. Maybe he was an addict.
His essay was weird. I think he was about a Tuesday. Not the Tuesday of an amputation, just a regular any old Tuesday. He persisted on beginning sentences without the personal pronoun “I” and comparing one thing to another instead of just out and out saying what happened. I was trying to track his word count but lost myself momentarily as he described the veins in a cashier’s hands. It reminded me of my grandmother, her rough physical topography a testament to a life of hard work. We all leaned in during one of his especially long pauses, only to realize he wasn’t pausing, he was done.
The Refugee Essay applauded loudly, but quite honestly, I think her tepid grip on English and admitted narcolepsy barred her from being a qualified judge. The Gay Essays joined in too, but they’ll clap for anything with a penis and a Michelangelo jawline.
My ovations, on the other hand, are earned, and this essay never once told me how he felt about himself. Although, I have to admit, if I’d been him during that section where his father didn’t even open the gift, I’d have been devastated by the rejection. Not of the thing itself, but of what it represented. Like it wasn’t a gift so much as it was longing in the shape of a box, wrapped up in a bow.
Look, it wasn’t like this essay didn’t have potential. I think everyone in that room agreed he had a certain something. But talent takes time. Inoperable tumors just don’t sprout up overnight, and psychotic breaks are nothing if not slow to boil.
The Article’s Director didn’t bother to give him any feedback. One of the Divorce Essays tried to pipe in about the unsatisfying ending, but the Editor silenced her with the stop sign of her raised palm. Wordlessly, she stared at this essay with a sorrow that reminded me of the last look the man I believed to be my father gave me before heading to Vietnam, only later to return a person wholly different from the one who left. “You deserve something better than this” the Editor said, “Yet for rules I follow, but did not create, I can’t help you.”
I thought about this essay a lot over the next few days, like he was beside me, equal parts familiar and strange. But the thing about life is that you simply cannot settle for melancholy, even when it’s true. You are a not a tragedy, you are a personal essay. You must rise above and you must do it in the last paragraph with basic grammar and easily recognized words.
Anyway, come November I will be buying every copy of Marie Claire I can get my one good hand on! You’ll find me on page 124. If you haven’t looked death straight in the eye or been sued by a sister wife, you won’t see yourself in my story. But you will find solace in knowing your own problems are petty and banal. I have ascended victorious from the ashes of immeasurable self-doubt and pain. And I have not simply survived, I have flourished.
Available in print with
The Best of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency