The human body is fundamentally goofy. Bags of heaving flesh that swing atop the torso. Flopping sex organs that jump and plump. Thighs that pucker. Skin that crepes. Hair that populates any plane or hole that isn’t actively razed like a problematic forest. The whole stinking mass just seems so undignified, which is why I have the urge to cover and protect it.
I used to be fairly unconcerned about the variances of anatomy, until one day in my junior high gym class when my peers realized I didn’t wear a bra. My mother had told me it wasn’t necessary when I inquired about procuring one. She asked, “Why do you need a pot when you don’t have any flowers?”
Her logic seemed fine enough, up until the day when a herd of tween girls were taunting my lack of lingerie. So, once I finally needed a bra, I became one of those locker-room turtles, who shrinks into her shirt in order to change. Other people somehow confidently strut around communal changing-spaces as if being naked is as unremarkable as eating a turkey sandwich.
The same goes for writing. There are artists who bare it all and those who cannot. As it turns out, being part of the latter category really harms your chances of advancement. The naysayers might proclaim the “death of the personal essay,” but the demand for spilled guts remains as urgent and desperate as ever.
In today’s writing market, the best thing for your career is a willingness to detail every flagellation of life – every graphically described illness, every horrifically awkward Tinder date. You must understand that I don’t blame editors, because they’ve always been in the business of getting as many pairs of eyes on the writing as possible. Nor am I mocking people who share their stories. Representations of the human experience are important and require incredible writing skill. Some writers mine their most personal moments and use them expertly and impressively, like they’re playing a game of Operation with the most delicate aches of their past. They will relate the story of a divorce or death, and make the hurt so fresh that readers can scarcely bear to read on.
But for writers like me, the urge to cover up extends far beyond the skin. The same type of person who has the psychological makeup to shrink away from mocking or derision tends to do so uniformly, hiding all private parts of life – physical or mental – that feel too disgraceful, weird, or gratuitous to put out into the world unadorned.
It’s a shame, too, because like all humans, there are parts of my life that are painful or notable and worthy of literary exploration. I have strained family relationships. I have experienced humiliating failures as a person and as a professional. I have endured health problems. I have fallen in and out of love. I have cheated. I have repented. I have taken the roads less traveled. I have fought The Man. Though I spend a good deal of my life either trying to think through or recover from these things, I’d rather take a spin at Russian Roulette than write prolifically about the carousel of dysfunction, death, and disorder that has whirled me around and around.
So, as a writer, I stick to palatable topics that might earn me nasty comments or endless Facebook arguments, but never make me vulnerable – thoughts on pop culture, or political and feminist rants. But anytime my fingers begin to type in earnest about my sexuality, faith, friendships, desires, passions, and fears, I cannot resist the urge to pull back like I’ve grazed a hot stove-eye.
The fundamental question, both in locker rooms and writing, is this: What is wrong with what’s underneath it all? The logical, intellectual answer is this: Nothing! There is nothing wrong with the tender parts of myself that dramatically depart from conventionality or feel so real that I experience them physically. There is nothing immoral about them. Not inherently anyway. But those parts of me – the barely there, struggling-to-stand-upright, moments-from-tears elements of my subconscious – would stand to be publicly shamed, and that’s where the real problem lies.
It’s a unique thing to be a writer, because you are exquisitely in tune with how people behave and react, which makes you able to write for the masses while simultaneously anticipating how merciless they can be in their evaluations about you as a writer, sister, friend, wife, mom, cousin, professional, citizen, and human. I’m not just talking about trolls and the hateful commenters who live to criticize and abuse from behind their computer screens. I’m talking about the chorus of voices who will inevitably judge your words, regardless of the strength of your argument, potency of your experience, or talent in writing. Because, to some people, it will be wrong. You will be wrong.
For a shrinking writer like me, this makes the profession one where every day I am forced to remove a metaphorical gym shirt and reveal a braless, bare chest. It means inviting bullies into my life when my brain tells me to protect myself from them at all costs. In essence, we – the writing never-nudes – exist to do the exact opposite of what feels right. But we have no other choice. In the ultimate irony, our brains turn out to be just as silly as our bodies; flaps and folds that are what they are and will inevitably be seen, no matter how clumsily we try to hide them from view.