Am I Writing About My Life, Or Selling Myself Out?

Narcissistic, self-indulgent, worthless, cruel: criticisms leveled against social media influencers and young women who write about themselves sound a lot alike.

A few months ago, my girlfriend and I were getting on the subway in Manhattan’s Union Square when we were approached by a stranger.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said, intercepting us before we made our way down the subway stairs. “This is kinda weird, but I think I just read an article about you guys?”

“Uh,” I said. “Yeah, you’re right, you probably did.” I’d recently published a personal essay here on BuzzFeed News about my week on a lesbian cruise, where my now-girlfriend Lynette and I had met.

“Wow,” she said. “Well, I’m really glad you two ended up together!”

I’d been divulging intimate details of my personal life on the internet for years, to sporadically viral results, but this was the first time that someone had actually recognized me for my writing out in the wilds of real life — and it wouldn’t be the last. That same week, entire friend groups at Dyke March told Lynette and me how much my article had meant to them. A few nights later, outside the West Village’s lesbian bar Cubbyhole, a drunk girl yelled “You’re Lynette!” when we passed by; inside, a straight guy who’d just taken his newly out gay friend to Cubby, having learned about it from my essay, bought us a round of undrinkable $3 margaritas. Anywhere we went, it seemed, we were greeted by someone who knew far more about us than we did about them.

I thought this burst of attention was more or less a fluke of timing. The article came out just before World Pride, which meant that there was an influx of people in the city more likely to have read a lesbian love story on BuzzFeed than your average New Yorker. It was flattering, of course, and appreciated; what writer doesn’t want their work to reach others? I did feel a little uncomfortable when someone tweeted at me that they’d just seen Lynette and me in a Duane Reade. But this would all die down, I thought. The internet moves on. Virality never lasts.

And then, a couple months later and a few thousand miles away, Lynette and I were standing outside a comedy club in Edinburgh when we were clocked yet again.

Readers tend to remember Lynette’s name rather than mine, which makes sense; she’s the story’s starring character, while you’d only know I was behind the first-person narration from my byline. And yet, on that drizzly, late summer evening in Scotland, a woman around my age knew exactly who I was.

“Aren’t you Shannon?” she asked me.

Aren’t I?

Before I got paid to write about myself on the internet, I did plenty of it for free. As a teenager, I wrote long, tortured diary entries about my various emo-boy crushes and posted them to the notes section of MySpace or Facebook. Once, a concerned parent of one of my friends sent an anonymous letter to my mother to let her know I was describing myself online as a “shameless exhibitionist.”

By the time I got to college, I’d somewhat tempered the exhibiting impulse, having stripped my MySpace profile down to its bare bones. I left up a permanent away message, of sorts, that said something like, “Too busy OUT and ABOUT and LIVING MY LIFE.”

I never had my own blog — I was expending all of my writing energy on papers for my classes — but I devoured other people’s, and one in particular. Before she started Autostraddle, Riese Bernard wrote her way through the mid-aughts on her Blogspot, Autowin, about life as a twentysomething bisexual in New York City. I was just beginning to come into an awareness of my own lesbianism and treasured this intimate catalog of queer missteps and revelations.

This would all die down, I thought. The internet moves on. Virality never lasts. 

After my college writing professor crushed my hopes and dreams when she told me I wasn’t ready for an MFA in fiction writing (she was right), I warily considered turning to myself as a subject again. I knew that some of my favorite websites, like the Hairpin, the Toast, and Jezebel, accepted personal essay submissions from people without any previous experience in publishing. So, while I was plodding my way through an underpaid media fellowship, I started freelancing on the side.

If only my earliest experiences of writing for small but fiercely dedicated internet audiences were at all indicative of what was to come. It was an era, at least in certain corners of the internet, when commenters were supportive and engaging and funny and smart, in conversation and communion with one another. Today’s archetypal commenter on an online article, meanwhile, is a master of bad-faith criticism and denigration who’s only read the headline.

I became a full-time writer and editor at BuzzFeed in 2015, the same year that Laura Bennett wrote about the “first-person industrial complex” for Slate. The major downside to my earliest internet writing experiences — I was contributing to small sites with small budgets, which meant I didn’t get paid very much, if at all — was also, paradoxically, what made that time so satisfying. When you’re writing for little indie publishers, you probably won’t make enough cash to live on from your writing alone, but on the plus side, you aren’t beholden to any capitalist overlords. You might not be able to afford a bedframe for the twin mattress on the floor of your Brooklyn apartment, but you can afford to be unsure, even ambivalent, to present yourself in ways that aren’t always pretty or good. You can express an opinion without having to distill it into one clear, righteous, easily digestible take.

Within the machinations of the first-person industrial complex, however, personal writing had a big moment of profitability — just not for the writers. Sites with investor funding and much bigger reach than my beloved blogs could pay peanuts for young writers’ traumatic or salacious personal narratives and expect big pageview rewards. This was what Bennett referred to as “the new first-person economy,” which “incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure, the hot take’s more intimate sibling.”

In 2013, Facebook started promoting links from “quality publishers” to its users, and by the following year, the social media behemoth was responsible for driving anywhere from a quarter to two-thirds of total traffic to most major publishers’ sites. Beloved indie sites, like the Hairpin and the Toast, could no longer compete; many of them shuttered for good. As an editor for BuzzFeed’s LGBTQ section, publishing other writers’ personal essays as well as some of my own, I helped feed the beast.

In 2016, when I wrote about being raped, I felt torturously conflicted about that essay’s nearly half a million views. Professionally, it was a big success — virality! views! — and personally, I was heartened by the many dozens of emails I received from readers who were moved by my story, sometimes because they too had experienced something like it. (Those emails made up for all the comments and tweets, mostly from men, telling me that if I hadn’t been drinking that night then the rape never would have happened.) Still, I worried that I’d debased myself somehow, having offered up my trauma on an algorithmic platter. I was asking the same questions then that I’m still asking now: What am I really doing this for? And does any of it matter?

In 2017, Jia Tolentino, writing for the New Yorker, declared the end of the personal essay boom. Just a couple years earlier, places like Salon, xoJane, Thought Catalog, and BuzzFeed trafficked heavily in personal writing, but any site that hadn’t since been shuttered was no longer publishing it at nearly the same rate. At my office, BuzzFeed’s personal essay–focused Ideas section had folded, to be reborn and refashioned in 2016 as the wider-ranging BuzzFeed Reader.

Tolentino acknowledged that internet-only and legacy publications alike still publish plenty of memoir, but today’s viral essay is slightly less likely to be a tampon cautionary tale or a lesson in tone-deaf racism or a horrifying account of incest. Perhaps it’s a good thing if, as Tolentino put it, young writers have since been disabused of the notion that “the best thing they have to offer is the worst thing that ever happened to them.”

Writing in the first person has always been met with accusations of self-indulgence and solipsism; in the age of Donald Trump, focusing on one’s self above any and all other topics of potential importance might seem even more navel-gazey than usual. If personal writing on the internet at the end of the Obama years was mostly tragic or scandalous, post–2016 election it tends to elucidate topical, systemic injustices, or else offer some sort of service-y, aspirational alternative to the hellscape we’re currently living in. Now, if writers are going to excavate their personal traumas for an increasingly distrustful audience, it had better serve some sort of higher purpose.

If writers are going to excavate their personal traumas for an increasingly distrustful audience, it had better serve some sort of higher purpose. 

Post-election, I’ve written more about my experiences with sexual assault, but only within the broader political or cultural frame that seems to be required these days: during the Kavanaugh hearings or after the fall of Weinstein. Part of me feels sort of gross and opportunistic for writing these kinds of pieces. But another part of me feels validated — soothed, even — by placing my own small, pedestrian pains in the context of greater social ills; connecting with other people who get it, who will see me and feel seen in return. At its best, #MeToo has demonstrated the extraordinary collective power of personal storytelling. But I’m just one of countless women calculating those stories’ innumerable costs, and wondering: Was it all worth it?

Crucially, though, personal writing today isn’t all doom and gloom. Lifestyle writing, whether “quit lit” or sex tips in Cosmo, has always been popular, but over the past few years in particular, it’s blossomed in tandem with the disconcerting rise of “wellness” culture. So many of us, myself included, are desperate to figure out how to feel good — and whether or not it’s even possible to indulge in most of life’s pleasures without doing so at others’ expense. Everyone I know is obsessed with reading about other people’s daily habits and skincare routines. On some level, we’re all Fleabag, whiskey-drunk and crying in the Hot Priest’s confessional: “I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them.” What are we supposed to do? Who are we supposed to be?

Perhaps it's no wonder, then, that in the wake of the "first-person industrial complex" we've seen the rise of an even more complicated and ethically murky digital economy of self-exposure and service content. We're looking for answers; we're looking for relatable (or even better, aspirational) role models who are willing to open their lives up to us for inspection, and social media has spawned an endless supply of them. If the personal essay boom is over, then we are now living in the age of the influencer.

“Thanks to tweets, comment threads, Instagram captions, Facebook confessionals, newsletters, self-publishing and the internet’s insatiable thirst for first-person essays,” Katherine Rosman recently wrote in the New York Times, “everyone is now a writer (or a ‘content creator’).”

The great democratizing force of the web gave anybody with an internet connection the power to share their thoughts with the world, without having to seek permission from the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. For most people, that’s meant the relatively low-stakes production of day-in-the life content, made only for consumption by friends and family on social media. For others, sharing that content on longer-form blogging platforms brought them bigger audiences and, in some cases, access to more traditional — and lucrative — revenue streams, from books to ad buys to speaking tours: writers who shared their perspectives on Christianity, motherhood, and self-help (Glennon Doyle, Rachel Hollis), fashion (Man Repeller), food (Smitten Kitchen), drugs (Cat Marnell), and general lifestyle (Cup of Jo).

But it was Instagram and YouTube that, for a new generation of “content creators” and “influencers,” truly collapsed whatever line might have still existed between selfhood and commodifiable product. There’s less and less of a concrete distinction between celebrities who trade on or monetize their personal brands — some more successfully than othersand the girl you went to high school with who’s hawking essential oils for an MLM. Even those of us who aren’t selling literal products are still packaging our lifestyles for public consumption and aspiration. Who among us isn’t at least quietly trying to prove to our friends, with carefully selected vacation photos, that we’re actually living our Best Life?

“Capitalism has no land left to cultivate but the self,” Jia Tolentino writes in “The I in Internet,” a chapter of her bestselling new book, Trick Mirror. “Everything is being cannibalized — not just goods and labor, but personality and relationships and attention. The next step is complete identification with the online marketplace, physical and spiritual inseparability from the internet: a nightmare that is already banging down the door.”

It’s not easy, or pleasant, to think about the fact that by carefully cultivating our online personas over the past decade-plus, we’ve not only been selling others the idea of ourselves, but providing Facebook & co. with everything they need to sell a bunch of crap right back to us. What’s far easier — and a lot more fun — is delighting in the missteps or humiliations of influencers who’ve made their self-monetization so explicit.

In some ways, influencers are just like any celebrities whom the public loves to hate. But as my colleague Lauren Strapagiel recently wrote in the wake of Tana Mongeau and Jake Paul’s suspicious (and sponsored) engagement, “we're [now] questioning what we see on social media, and seeing influencers for what they are — brands selling a product.”

The influencer backlash today isn’t dissimilar to pushback from a few years ago against the proliferation of a certain kind of outrageous first-person narrative, which eventually led to the collapse of the personal essay industrial complex: Readers started getting suspicious.

Were these stories about assault and sex and drug use and privilege and pain meant to convey some sort of deeper meaning, to touch us in some important way? Or were they just disingenuous clickbait, meant to rile us up for an afternoon, ultimately leaving us all even more cynical and dead inside than we were to begin with?

The day after I first read Natalie Beach’s essay on the Cut about her former friend Caroline Calloway — you know the one — I had to leave work early.

Like everyone else I knew in the media world, including Caroline, I’d eagerly awaited Natalie’s piece. Caroline is a young woman who amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram for writing long, personal captions about her apparently dreamy life at the University of Cambridge and later in New York. She earned even more media attention, including from BuzzFeed, earlier this year, when “creativity workshops” she’d planned for her followers went disastrously awry, earning her the title of a one-woman Fyre Festival.

In her essay, Natalie revealed some unsavory details about Caroline’s career — namely that Natalie had helped write Caroline’s Instagram captions in the early days, as well as parts of her memoir proposal, and that Caroline had bought many of her followers. To hear people talk about the essay in the week after it was published, you might have assumed it was merely a jealousy-driven takedown of a chronic oversharer and run-of-the-mill social media scammer: Natalie vs. Caroline; one privileged, opportunistic white girl vs. another.

Who, in the end, is the one true scammer: the writer or the influencer? 

But I thought the piece was as much about female friendship, writerly ambitions, and Natalie’s own flaws and failures as it was about why the real Caroline, like all of us, isn’t exactly who she seems to be on Instagram. At a time when selling the self is one of the most straightforward ways to achieve mainstream success, Natalie made the mistake of thinking she could piggyback on Caroline’s beauty and charms by helping to write Caroline’s book instead of her own.

The uncomfortable irony here, of course, is that Natalie’s story about Caroline is what did sell, or at least seems very likely to. After it went viral, the essay was eagerly passed around Hollywood. As with any viral success, however, naysayers have abounded. Inevitably, some people questioned whether Natalie was entitled to write about Caroline’s private life: her anxiety, her depression, her addiction. Caitlin Flanagan in the Atlantic called Natalie a “poisonous diarist” whose piece amounted to a “revenge essay.” Someone I follow tweeted that Natalie was the real emotional grifter here; why come for a girl who’s just minding her own business and drawing boobs for a living? Who, in the end, is the one true scammer: the writer or the influencer?

Natalie herself doesn’t seem to think she’s the hero in this story. “I by no means am feeling like I’m the true victim of the internet right now,” she told the New York Times. “I’ve gotten a few emails that have been polite but pretty firm about their feelings that I was wrong for talking explicitly about Caroline’s struggles with mental health. I guess my feeling about that is that there’s a part of me that agrees with them. That’s why I was so divided about whether or not to write this in the first place.”

The most poignant moment of Natalie’s essay, for me, was when she addressed the question that led everyone to read her piece in the first place. “If it was just money and fame she was after, all she had to do was be quiet and let me do the work,” she writes. “But she had to be the one to tell her own life story, even if she couldn’t. Caroline was caught between who she was and who she believed herself to be, which in the end may have been the most relatable thing about her. This is why, when people ask me if Caroline is a scammer, I try to explain that if she is, her first mark is always herself.”

The day after the essay was published, I had to tear myself away from my computer and go home. The whole debacle had hit me with a disturbing force, sending me into a depression spiral about my own personal writing for the internet; about “cancel culture” and what counts as “punching down”; about schadenfreude; about how we’re all constantly scamming ourselves and each other; about friendship and addiction and what’s even the point of all of this, anyway. My friend, the writer JP Brammer, DM’d me soon afterward, summing up exactly how I felt: “I'm in turns upset at people who dismiss all personal writing as navel gazing and upset at myself for gazing at my navel.”

When we emailed about it afterward, JP added, “If I get too in my own head about that stuff, which is what I tend to do, it paralyzes me. Is my writing too self-centered? ... Do I have experiences worth relaying, or do I only think I do out of some solipsistic delusion? … Does factoring in readers (or Twitter) too heavily make my writing worse, or does it make it better? Who cares, in the end, about my writing? Why am I alive? Why am I a person at all?”

“I'm in turns upset at people who dismiss all personal writing as navel gazing and upset at myself for gazing at my navel.”  

JP and I are both writers whose careers wouldn’t be possible without the internet. So is Tolentino (before the New Yorker, she wrote and edited for the Hairpin and Jezebel), and she captured my general feeling about *waves hands* all this in Trick Mirror: “I don’t know what to do with the fact that I myself continue to benefit from all this: that my career is possible in large part because of the way the internet collapses identity, opinion, and action — and that I, as a writer whose work is mostly critical and often written in first person, have some inherent stake in justifying the dubious practice of spending all day trying to figure out what you think,” she writes.

Like Tolentino, I’m grateful for so much of what the internet has wrought when it comes to personal writing: that its democratizing force has meant writers previously shut out of the industry have been given platforms for their work, and that they — and I — are paid to do it. But, like Tolentino, I remain unconvinced “that professional opinion-havers in the age of the internet are, on the whole, a force for good.”

There’s never been a grand cultural consensus on whether personal writing in general — in the age of the internet and beyond it — is a worthwhile, or ethical, human endeavor. In 2010, the “controversy-courting” writers Meghan Daum and Emily Gould, stars of the blogging era, talked to New York magazine about all the vitriol they’ve faced. Gould, a couple years before, had published a New York Times Magazine cover story called “Exposed,” about the virality and notoriety she’d gained for her first-person blogging at Gawker in the mid-aughts. Inevitably, the conversation revolved around the fact that they’re both women and what that has meant for the way readers engage with their work.

“If a woman writes about herself, she’s a narcissist,” Gould told the New York reporter, Curtis Sittenfeld. “If a man does the same, he’s describing the human condition. But people seem to evaluate your work based on how much they relate to it, so it’s like, well, who’s the narcissist?”

Daum, whose controversiality stemmed in part from her column at the Los Angeles Times, said, “In my own writing, I tend to be very honest, and my goal is to identify something people think but are afraid to say. That’s not the general cultural expectation of women.”

Nearly 10 years later, the internet is practically unrecognizable, and yet we’re all still debating these questions, as we probably always will. Caroline Calloway, for her part, has insisted that people love to hate her because she’s another young white woman creating content for social media, and “Our culture fucking loves to hate them.”

“I make things people want on purpose, and yet I get asked again and again, ‘Why do you think people love reading your stuff?’” she told BuzzFeed News. “And it’s like, fuck you! The stuff I make has value, and that value is not there by accident.” Which, fair enough. (But what about when Caroline posts unflattering pictures of Natalie and other women writers she’s beefing with to her 800,000 followers, alongside photos of herself looking traditionally beautiful? Not sure what the “value” is there.)

On the subject of whether it’s ever okay to write about someone else without their permission in your own personal writing, Gould told me recently, over email, that “this is a perennial question at every reading and in every nonfiction class and I'm sorry that there is no answer. Or, there are as many answers as there are writers. I think that the desire to protect one's life and relationships from being harmed by one's writing is something that every writer bumps up against eventually.” But, she said, when it comes to judging a writer for her supposed moral or ethical failures — in addition to, or instead of, a piece’s artistic merits — “I will limit myself to saying that seems to happen a LOT more to women for some reason!!”

“I've accepted that this sort of writing — maybe all writing? — is more than a bit ruthless.”

Daum was much more wary about blaming backlashes against personal writing on misogyny. “Look,” she told me, “there’s no denying that a woman writer who pisses off readers is not going to draw exactly the same cross section of antipathy as a male writer who pisses off readers. ... But I have noticed, especially in the last several years, a tendency on the part of some women writers to view criticism through the lens of gender when in fact it might just be plain old criticism.” Daum’s forthcoming book, The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars, grapples more broadly with what she sees as a younger generation of feminists’ unfortunate impulses to blame all their problems on the patriarchy.

Michelle Tea, a prolific author of both fiction and memoir, including the groundbreaking, form-busting Black Wave, said that when she’s first drafting a piece, she doesn’t think about the various real-world consequences. “I just tell the story in its fullest form … I've accepted that this sort of writing — maybe all writing? — is more than a bit ruthless. I try to limit the bloodshed but certainly if I think something is very compelling and furthers the story I'm working to tell, I'll tell it.”

Tea does see a gendered lens to some criticisms of personal writing. “It's a genre dominated by women, and our culture has strict opinions about how women should be, and other women internalize that shit, too. So our opinions about the behavior of female narrators are not formed in a vacuum.”

Trisha Low, whose excellent book-length essay Socialist Realism was just released, said she has “a somewhat controversial opinion about this, which is that I do not believe that personal writing has an obligation to be ethical.” In fact, lots of her favorite personal writing by authors like Dodie Bellamy, Marie Calloway, and Kathy Acker “is successful precisely because it can be acerbic or punitive towards the people in the writer's life who are depicted, often men or authority figures who have wronged them. I think that sometimes part of personal writing is that it can be an outlet for revenge, not in the name of the truth or anything as dignified or honorable as that — but out of the simple fact that what has typically been devalued and invalidated, the angry or emotional woman, can be her own weapon in the telling of her story.”

Ultimately, said Low, it may be a question of adjusting your expectations. “If you're going to make personal writing you have to be willing to take on people's judgments and projections, and that's not always pleasant.”

Whether a piece of art (or “content”) is popular has never been an accurate marker of whether or not it’s actually any good. I have a feeling that a lot of millennials and Gen Z’ers have actually inherited from our Gen X forebears a certain suspicion of any art that’s too popular — mainstream appeal can imply a sort of basicness, a lack of depth. But the machinations of social media virality have only further scrambled the way we value each other’s creative output, perhaps because, more than ever before, that output is necessarily a capitalist product from the jump. Books are products too, of course, but we still afford them more legitimacy and authenticity than we do social media posts or online articles, which are immediately subjected to the whims of algorithms, either dead on arrival or reaching hundreds of thousands of people within minutes.

“I’m skeptical of the influencer epidemic and the popularity of my writing puts me at risk of becoming influential.”

In a recent New York magazine cover story, Tavi Gevinson reckoned with her own uncomfortable relationship with Instagram, which grew up alongside her, and her self-image as a brand — and the impossibility of fully untangling that brand from her art. “I think I am a writer and an actor and an artist,” she writes. “But I haven’t believed the purity of my own intentions ever since I became my own salesperson, too." In order to get her work, including her magazine for teen girls, Rookie, to the biggest possible audience, she had to sell her own image — literally. For a year, she did sponcon for a luxury building in Brooklyn, posing for selfies in the lobby mirrors.

Natasha Stagg's forthcoming essay collection, Sleeveless, wrestles with a lot of these same questions. Stagg, a copywriter in the fashion world as well as an essayist and novelist, captures the ambivalence so many of us millennials in the business of culture writing feel about our work and its reliance upon our own self-branding. “Every day,” she writes, “I must gauge my own ideas of individuality, persona, and authenticity, while I internally negotiate the monetization of my generation, my identity, my space, myself. I critique fashion and I also work for fashion brands. I write about the processes of promotion and I also write ad copy. I’m skeptical of the influencer epidemic and the popularity of my writing puts me at risk of becoming influential.”

I, too, am skeptical of the influencer epidemic, and my own place within it. I’d like to think that what I do is art with a capital A; that it matters; that I’m not “just” your average young white woman influencer. My world, the media world, is trying to cling onto these distinctions, too, even as they become less and less clear. A recent job posting for a Fashion News Editor job at the New York Times advises that “Applications from people who work as brand consultants or in any form of advertising, including ‘influence,’ or who have any kind of ties to the industry, will be discarded.” Only real writers and editors need apply.

But as Choire Sicha and Jonah Engel Bromwich write, in their summary of the Caroline Calloway drama for the Styles section, Natalie’s essay — in her role as both a writer and a character — demonstrates “the lack of distance between the influencers and the rest of us. Many of us are creating stories for public consumption. Many of us are entitled to believe we have more noble reasons (we likely don’t).”

Futile as it might be, we’re all trying to cling to these distinctions — to maintain our humanity, our selfhood, our creative drives, as things separate and apart from the capitalist internet project. In her review of Trick Mirror for Book Forum, Jacqueline Rose writes, “Tolentino’s already considerable, and merited, success as a writer comes with a price. She will have to struggle — and I personally like to think she will succeed — not to become her own consumable good.”

I worried about becoming my own consumable good more than ever before in the wake of my lesbian cruise essay, while meeting with producers in Hollywood about a possible movie adaptation and talking to my literary agent about the memoir I hope to write someday. I was glad that the piece was so well read and that it inspired many dozens of people who emailed me about it to take more chances in their own lives. But I was also wary of the fact that the essay was so successful precisely because it was aspirational, and because it followed the formula we accept and celebrate most often from women writers: Woman has trouble believing in herself; woman finds self-acceptance and contentment through someone else’s love.

The last thing I wanted was to turn Lynette and me into some sort of lesbian influencer couple, selling us as a desirable product — not least because that puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on a new relationship. I’d much rather people check up on me to read my latest article, not to learn whether or not I’m still with my girlfriend. But as someone who mines her own life for content — who always has and probably always will — I know that’s a ridiculous thing to wish for.

It’s horrible to admit it, but part of the reason I wrote about my experience of falling in love with someone on a cruise, and leaving a long-term partner in the process, was because I was trying to convince myself — as well as all the strangers who’d read about it — that, in the end, I’d done the right thing. Some writers have gloriously thick skins, or the whole reason why they write is to offend and get a reaction out of people. I wish I could say I had a stronger sense of self, but the truth is, for the most part, I just want to be liked. To be assured that I am good: if not a good person, then at the very least a good writer. Why write anything at all — in a throwaway tweet, in an online article, in a book, wherever — unless you want someone to appreciate what it is you have to say?

“Life will always be more complicated than our depictions of it, even when some of us strive most of all for truth.”

One of the many reasons I admire Michelle Tea is that she seems to have a much healthier attitude toward this stuff than I do. “I always looked to male personal narrative writers to see what they were able to get away with and be celebrated for, to give me permission to live the widest life I could both live and document,” she told me. “I wasn't trying to be 'good.' Memoir felt like a place where that could be okay. I'm thinking of Hunter S. Thompson here, Bukowski, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Wojnarowicz, Jean Genet. All these white guys and their adventures. I looked to Eileen Myles for this as well, and Laurie Weeks, but there weren't/aren't a lot of women/non-binary writers living in writing in this kind of space, largely because of how hostile, if not outright dangerous, it is to exist in these ways.”

Tea isn’t implying that not caring at all what people think is necessarily the answer here. (While we should have permission to write like famous male writers, we shouldn’t feel permission to live exactly like them, either.) As with pretty much everything in life, the answer lies somewhere frustratingly in between: complete paralysis in anticipation of even moderate criticism at one end, Jonathan Chait at the other.

What’s frustrating about the ways we’re so quick to judge writers’ characters is that one essay, one book — even an entire life’s work — can never really tell us who a person is. As a reader, I’m guilty of this judgment, too. And as a writer, I continue to struggle with what Trisha Low calls “a paradox of life writing,” which is that “people assume they know you, that your work is an unfiltered look at your whole person and opinion ... But all writing, perhaps especially about life, is a lie. Life will always be more complicated than our depictions of it, even when some of us strive most of all for truth.”

For me, one of the hardest things about being a writer, and also just generally being a human, is learning how to separate the good-faith criticism from the bad — when to take someone’s sharp words to heart and when to just say “Fuck ‘em.” It’s especially hard in the social media age, when we’re all flattened into avatars of ourselves, when the loudest and cruelest and wildest stuff — or, alternatively, the tamest and least offensive and most stupidly basic — always rises most readily to the surface. It’s hard to know, amid an endless onslaught of information and anger and noise, what and who we should value, and why.

I have no good reason to think that my voice, yet another crying out in the void, actually matters. And yet I still want, maybe naively, for the writing to be enough. ●

Topics in this article

Skip to footer