When I flew home last week, my mom reported how many views my TED talk had received and asked me if anyone recognized me on the plane. Ha. When I got back to town and told my chiropractor I had the worst seat on the plane (last row, middle seat–the one that doesn’t recline at all) he said: “Don’t these people know who you are?” Ha ha.
If jokes really are benign violations (this is my favorite theory of humor–a field I wish I’d known existed when I was in school), then I guess the violation is that famous people are sometimes entitled jerks and the thing that makes it benign is that I’m not actually very famous. But here’s the thing I’m struggling with, the part of the joke that doesn’t feel so benign these days: I’m not totally unknown anymore. No, no one has ever recognized me in an airport or on the sidewalk, but I get e-mails from strangers almost daily. Some even use the phrase “I’m a big fan.” (fan!) I now have a public persona that extends beyond my classroom and my friends. And I’ve spent the past month–and the past nine months before that–trying to come to terms with this persona, trying, in short, to figure out how to be just a little bit famous.
In all the years I spent writing without an audience, I developed an idea of who I would be as a writer. I imagined I would publish a book with a small press and it would be read by a few thousand people if I was lucky. In the wildest versions of this fantasy, I would go to conferences and sit on panels with other essayists. (Seriously–this is still a career dream, so if anyone wants an enthiusiastic panelist: call me!)
I imagined that I could keep my writing life and my personal life separate, that I could be honest and fairly unfiltered about the people I wrote about because no one who knew those people would ever read my books. None of this is shaping up to be true.
I got the call that I was going to be featured as the TED talk of the day the same week that my partner and I were trying to decide if we should stay together or split up. I told myself that, even if my relationship was a mess, at least this career thing was going well. But imagine this: 500,000 strangers watching you talk about your choice to love someone while you are at home with the dog watching comedy specials on Netflix to ward off the crying and wondering if it’s time to make a different choice.
I believe in personal agency but I also believe you get what you get from the world and you have to figure out how to live with it. To complain about the things that come with this newfound success would be disingenuous–I like getting e-mails from strangers. I like getting new Twitter followers. I even liked getting trolled (getting trolled is shitty–I do not endorse it–but it felt validating for someone to notice my work enough to loathe it).
But these markers of success also make me uncomfortable. Those e-mails from strangers are sometimes difficult to respond to. People confess the most intimate details of their heartaches to me. Some are moving and some are infuriating and some are just really hard to read. I am so touched that they bothered to write–that something I said or wrote made them feel like they could open up to me. And yet, I don’t know that I can or should give them advice. It’s true that I’ve been wanting to try writing an advice column but there is a difference between crafting a one-time open response Dear Sugar-style and inviting e-mail correspondence with folks who would probably benefit much more from talking with a real therapist.
And there’s this: my book is going to be published by the great folks at Simon and Schuster! Not to overstate it, but this is basically the best news of my life so far. I will have exactly what I said I wanted: “a real hardcover document with an ISBN and an imprint stamped on the spine.” I know this news should get its own blog post because I wrote about submitting the proposal back in July and several people wrote nice comments cheering me on. But I’ve spent the past four weeks trying to figure out how to write a blog post about it and totally failing. I am still kind of embarrassed by all this success.
The thing I’ve found the most useful for thinking all this though is this talk, from Elizabeth Gilbert:
For most of your life, you live out your existence here in the middle of the chain of human experience where everything is normal and reassuring and regular, but failure catapults you abruptly way out over here into the blinding darkness of disappointment. Success catapults you just as abruptly but just as far way out over here into the equally blinding glare of fame and recognition and praise. And one of these fates is objectively seen by the world as bad, and the other one is objectively seen by the world as good, but your subconscious is completely incapable of discerning the difference between bad and good. The only thing that it is capable of feeling is the absolute value of this emotional equation, the exact distance that you have been flung from yourself. And there’s a real equal danger in both cases of getting lost out there in the hinterlands of the psyche.
My success doesn’t compare to Gilbert’s but I do feel flung. I have spent the past few weeks in “the hinterlands of the psyche.” I feel the same way I felt when I was seventeen and I got a perfect score on my math SATs. At seventeen, all I wanted was for the boy I loved to see that I was special and love me back. And then I got some confirmation that I was special after all–I was in the 99th percentile of math test takers! But that boy never loved me (though for what it’s worth, he pretended to, occasionally, when he was drunk). When she heard about the test my calculus teacher pulled me aside and said, “I just want you to know I expect nothing less from you in this class.” She was robbing me of my right to be bad at something–it infuriated me. The problem with the score was that it just didn’t represent who I thought I was: smart but not that smart, verbal but not mathematical. I tried writing an essay about how uncomfortable that one number made me feel–I didn’t realize it then but I was trying to get at the great disappointments and illusions that so often accompany success. But the the adult who read my essay told me I sounded a bit arrogant–that no one who read it would sympathize with me. I was so embarrassed.
Seventeen years later I am better equipped to do this. We both still made the choice to love each other–my handsome boyfriend and me–but I still get all tangled up in the relationship between success and love. I still worry–unreasonably–that success will somehow make me less lovable. But I’m practicing getting over that. I go to my new office every day, a coworking space in my neighborhood, and I write. It’s my very own dream life. I make friends in the kitchen and we talk about what we do and I practice saying the thing I’ve always wanted to say: I’m a writer. And it’s cool. It’s thrilling.