When I was in college, I was censured out of the school literary magazine.
It was a Christian school, much more conservative at the time than it is now. At least that’s what I hear; nowadays they host TED Talk events and pimp their teaching degrees on the radio, so allegedly times have changed. Anyway, I had submitted an excerpt from my creative thesis project, which was a memoir on coming-of-age in said college. I was high on Cheryl Strayed’s The Love of My Life and being honest and wild and free, so it was a little…raw. Sincere but, well, in need of some years of distance and an editor. But at the time, almost ten years ago, it was my best and it was my pride. I’d written an entire manuscript, and one of the best slivers was accepted into the school’s small journal.
It was, until the administration got wind of it.
The essay they pulled was set at Evergreen State College, where I went to drink and smoke and screw around. I was hosted by my high school friend, someone who hadn’t made the mistake of enrolling in a buttoned-up Christian school. At the time it seemed like groundbreaking, super tawdry stuff. Like I was the first 19-year-old who invented being stupid. But apparently, to the school admins, I was.
I remember there was a meeting I was brought into to discuss the piece. I don’t remember much discussion, mostly just being told by head of the Department of Humanities how deplorable my writing was. There was discussion of not publishing my thesis at all, of the possibility of a lawsuit (can God sue you for heresy?). I don’t remember all the details. It was a long time ago. I had one professor, my thesis adviser, who went to bat for me. Who argued against pulling any work from a journal. “They are censuring you,” she fumed to me afterward. “Isn’t that infuriating?”
It was, kind of. I remember being slightly infuriated. But mostly I remember being embarrassed. I didn’t want the head of Humanities thinking I was deplorable. I didn’t want people to be ashamed of the year I’d put into writing my thesis. Even if I’d had my clashes with my school, I wanted to be a graduate they were proud of, not an “unfortunate incident.”
That’s the curse of the people-pleaser. We can say that we don’t give a shit what anyone thinks, but we do. We can’t help it. We don’t want to hurt you. We want you to like us. We’re haunted by what we did or didn’t do to fall in and out of favor. We can read that “you can be the sweetest peach but someone hates peaches” quote ten thousand times, but you know, maybe if we were a little sweeter, a little riper, a little fuzzier, they’d come around.
For quite a few years after that, I did not write. It was pleasing to people, for the most part. When you’re not being creative, you’re not causing problems. Then some good things happened and some bad things happened and some strange things happened, and now I’m here and I’m a writer, and every so often something I write winds down a long journey into publication.
Today was one of those spectacular days. A piece I originally finished in October of 2013 was featured by Vol. 1 Brooklyn. It was one of those essays that had a bunch of close calls–it was a finalist in an anthology, then garnered a few of those personal rejection letters from journals that are supposed to be encouraging but are mostly heartbreaking. So today was gratifying, to say the least. I was happy that I hadn’t given up on the essay, but also proud to be representing my Great Aunt Eva, who was one of my least known but most favorite relatives. This one’s for you, Aunty E!
Then I had a phone call with another relative.
After some unrelated chat, they brought up my essay post on Facebook. “Yeah, can you do me a favor? I really wish you’d hide that story from the rest of the family.” I was confused. Did I say something wrong? Why wouldn’t anyone be stoked to see Aunt Eva represented? “I don’t know, they just might not see her the way you do. I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt or upset.”
I was so confused. I had published what I thought was a tribute to someone in our family, and now I was supposed to keep it under wraps? This was a happy celebration piece. What was I going to do when I had something contentious come out? What if I ever got a whole book into the world? I sat in my car, the back of my throat knotted with Harriet the Spy tears. I can’t censor my writing. I’m not going to always sound nice or pretty, but I will always be fair. I will always be truthful. I would never write to hurt anyone.
Here’s the honest truth. You can’t be censored, and you can’t make everyone happy. I know this. My family isn’t going to like what I do much more than the Director of Humanities will. These are facts. That doesn’t make them easy. It doesn’t mean I don’t fight them. It does not fill the hollowness when I claim that I don’t give a shit.
Maybe I shouldn’t have clicked “Hide” on my Facebook page, but I did. Maybe I should have put up more of a fight with the college lit magazine, but I didn’t. I am always going to struggle with expression and outside interpretation. This is just one in what is likely to be a long line of misunderstandings and scuffles.
They’re going to happen. If I’m going to be doing this whole thing, they’re going to happen. They just suck.