Bleary-eyed at three in the morning, I submitted the personal essay I’d spent months crafting. When I woke up, an email was awaiting me with the subject THIS ESSAY IS EVERYTHING!
“Ur writing is srsly #OnFleek!” wrote the editor. “I need 2 tweak a little and then we can publish it on the site. Nothing cray-cray — just some bling 4 more eyeballs/shares/RTs.”
Publish? I shakily set down my cup of coffee, my body buzzing with adrenaline and caffeine.
The essay was titled “The November of Her Years: My Mother’s Final Thanksgiving at Her Brother’s House.”
“Love the stuff about ur mom… it gives me ~ all ~ of the feels,” my editor later wrote via Instant Messenger (“my editor” — just thinking about her like that gave me goosebumps). “Quick fact-check: what does ur uncle do 4 CA$$$H?”
“Tim’s a retired nurse, but he’s gotten into computers and now does volunteer work with hospitals up in Maine to improve their databases and keep down costs — the state has hit a rough financial patch.”
“BROGRAMMER ahahahahaha… ur next-level HILARIOUS… u do u,” she wrote. “You mentioned ur mom and uncle were ✝.”
“Yes, they were lapsed Catholics, but they found some comfort in religion at the end of my mother’s life.”
“So Tim didn’t invite any1 Jewish to the dinner smh?”
“Anyone Jewish? Technically speaking, no — we were keeping it to just our immediate family, because Mom was so sick. But he wasn’t intentionally trying to—”
“Lolwut!” she wrote. “It’ll be up super-1st thing tomorrow.”
“Wait — don’t you want to give me a chance to look over your edits?”
“Kthxbai!” came on-screen before she logged off.
The next morning the essay was the lead feature on the site. The headline was “I Can’t, I Just Can’t: My Coder Uncle, Who’s THE WORST, Had an Epic Anti-Semitic Meltdown at Thanksgiving.” Here was the beginning:
“I’m chowing down on
stuffing gravyturkey (om nom nom) while trying to tune out my Silicon Valley creeptastic uncle as he victim-blames the economy on the Jews.”
“That moment when you’re at my family’s literally insane Thanksgiving. HOLIDAY FAIL.”
“Thanks for running the piece,” I emailed my editor. “However, I notice you attributed various remarks to my uncle that weren’t in the original essay and removed all the references to my mother and her passing away the next week.”
“U mad?” she wrote. “Tbh, those parts of the essay were kinda ¯\(ツ)/¯, because death.”
Then the comments section began filling up.
“Wow… just wow,” was the first. “Essaysplaining clickbait by a caged-poultry-eating Zionist.”
“Great job, you technophobe who clearly has a bias against parents’ male siblings,” said another that went on for three paragraphs before concluding, “No words.”
Interview requests and violent emails flooded my inbox. I was fired from my job without severance for violating a morality clause. My landlord evicted me.
“The piece won teh Interwebz!” my editor wrote on IM. “Since we own all the media rights in perpetuity, we optioned the movie, video game, and action-figure (!!!) adaptations 2 Michael Bay. WHAT. IS. EVEN. HAPPENING?!?!”
“My family has disowned me,” I told her. “My uncle filed a libel lawsuit against me.”
“I’m getting death threats.”
“#HatersGonnaHate amirite?” she replied.
“I don’t think you understand,” I typed. “I’m very scared for my safety and my life is in tatters.”
There was a long pause before she wrote again.
“But dat Michael Bay tho.”
Fast-forward to six months later. After numerous emails to my editor, then someone in accounting named Shelly, then someone in HR named Dennis, then Shelly again, I finally receive a check in the mail. It’s for $50 and is accompanied by a handwritten Post-it.
“Oh hai! It’d be totes amazeballs 2 publish u again,” my editor had scribbled. “I can haz more essays?”
I crumple it up, but before I throw it out, I realize I need the money desperately, and, perhaps more important, that although I’m battered and scarred, distrustful of people and cynical about the art of memoir in the digital-media landscape, not to mention living in a different city under a new name at a YMCA, the traumatic experience has forged me, for better or worse, into the person I now am.
Reader, I sent her a dozen pitches.