In the last few years I’ve written dozens of reviews, posts, and essays. Some of them are innocuous (like this write-up on a marshmallow cookbook). I’ve been political and pop cultured. Sometimes I’m bizarre and personal and ugly.
Last week, sitting at Rubio’s Mexican Café on my lunch hour, writing a weekly post for Food Riot, I wasn’t trying to be any of the above. I was just trying to be funny.
The Food Riot position is a new one for me, a freelance gig I landed last month. Food writing is my original niche, back when I started my first column for a small-town newspaper (“Simply Delicious”). It was a thankless assignment and I didn’t get paid a single dime, but I was thrilled at the time to have something, anything, to own on cover letters.
For the most part in this new Food Riot experience, my content has been light and irreverent. I started a reoccurring series called Nailed It/Failed It, where I attempt the suspiciously perfect recipes on Pinterest. I wrote about finally saying yes to guacamole at Chipotle. And last week, after stuffing a handful of plastic utensils from Rubio’s into my purse, I thought I’d write about my adult-onset restaurant kleptomania. I have a bad habit of stealing stuff from restaurants, starting with one fateful canister of Red Robin french fry seasoning. From there it morphed into pint glass pilfering and mustard grabs, until I was finally caught in a spoon steal. It was a self-depreciating, bad habit fess-up. The kind of thing I’ve always loved to read and often try to write. I didn’t think twice; to me, it’s the kind of story that’s as natural as typing itself.
I wrapped the article a couple days later. I was at home, and against all norms in my typical writing process, I turned the laptop over to Matt to read over before I submitted it to the editors. He chuckled. I figured it was golden.
“Confessions of a Restaurant Kleptomaniac” went live yesterday. The piece received about the same level of response my work usually does. My mom, I’m sure, read it on lunch. A couple of my dearest friends Liked, shared, or re-Tweeted it. The couple of actual comments it garnered were from people I knew and kindly positive. The consensus was “LOL!” I said thanks. I moved on.
This morning, as I stood in line at Starbucks, I heard my email go off. A comment notification from the day-old article, beginning with the sentence, “you’re more than just an asshole. You’re a THIEF.”
“Seriously?” I muttered, pressing delete. Go read some Sedaris, for god’s sake.
By the time I got to work with my coffee, there was another email, this time from my Food Riot editor. “Your post’s been picked up by Fark!” she informed me. “The traffic is great, but the comments are nasty. We’ll take care of it, but you might want to stay away.”
I felt my heart drop down to my toes. Somehow this didn’t feel like a compliment. A quick Wikipedia search cleared up any doubts on whether this would be a positive experience or not. Just don’t look at the comments, I told myself.
Then a few friends noticed.
Oh my god. Are you okay?
How are you doing?
Yeeesh. I’m so sorry.
What the hell?! Even my husband called me, an exchange we normally reserve for house-burning-down occurrences. “Hey honey, how are you holding up?”
“How many comments are there?” I wanted to know. “Like, ten?”
“There were a hundred on the first page that I read through,” he said. “Then I couldn’t take it anymore.”
You remind yourself of the truth. Everyone reminds you. You start to feel dumb for even thinking about the tempest, surely in one of those teapots. They don’t get the joke! They’re idiots! Trolls! Anonymous asshats! Who gives a shit what they think? You’re fabulous.
But then, what’s so terrible that so many people are coming out of the woodwork to offer condolences?I’ve had a couple of pieces unexpectedly catch fire. Cheryl Strayed re-posted my first Barrelhouse column, the one about stalking her down at the Wilsonville Costco. The traffic temporarily crashed the site, but it was all the cheerleading variety–“yay Cheryl! Yay you!” Two of my PDXX Collective posts, one on Beyonce and another on identity on writing, were Freshly Press features that suddenly sparked thousands of pageviews. Although there were a couple of snarky comments, there was nothing truly vindictive, nothing I couldn’t handle reading.
Sitting at my desk today, the question of what was going on gnawing away at my sanity, I could hear my mom’s voice as clearly as if she were standing behind my chair. “I just don’t understand why you do this,” she would say. It’s what she said when I jumped on stage to do high school theater, and played the violin in the talent show, and went to that one single open mic Barnes & Noble night to do stand-up, and when I started sending out tiny fractions of my life for publication consideration. Why put yourself out there all the time where you’re subject to nonstop criticism and rejection? What is wrong with you?
All these years since, and I haven’t come up with a better answer than because I have to. If I didn’t tell the truth, toss it around, play with it, own it, share it, I would lose my mind. I write personal essays because it helps me make sense of who and where and when I am. If I do my job well, maybe it can help make someone else’s circumstance make sense. My favorite, most beloved writers were able to do that for me. The most brave, raw, unrepentant writing saves my life.
These favorite writers of mine, they’re not crowd-pleasers. They’re revered and respected, sure. But that doesn’t mean they don’t garner the occasional off-the-wall, point-missed-by-a-mile, total bullshit response. They’re not afraid to look ugly and real in their writing, and there are consequences to that level of fierceness. It’s not attractive. It’s not expected. It makes them human, which to the idiocracy, makes them hateful.
I’ll never know why this particular article, out of nearly three years of consistent writing and publishing, churned up such a shit storm. I can take it as another stroke of bad luck in what hasn’t been a stellar few weeks, as a mandate to sit down, shut up, and be nice. Or I can keep typing, keep trying, stay sane. After a day of feeling rotten, I know the antidote to my virus. That tiny piece of me makes you angry? Well hold on to your smelling salts, bitches. I haven’t even begun to get hideous.