“A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.” – Faulkner
If she were to speak her mind plainly, she would tell you that you have no more experience than she has, and that she’s angry with you for daring to point out any differences, especially those that don’t work out in her favor. With a mix of disgust and delight, she’d belittle you for any vulnerability you’ve dared to write about — she’d damn your experiences, your thoughts, and you as a person. With her chest puffed out, she’d tell you that she doesn’t think you’re particularly deserving or talented and that any positive reinforcement you’ve received for your work or your being is wholly unwarranted—the result of some underhanded trick or nefarious stroke of luck.
She is your detractor. She reads your work although she claims it has no value. She pounces on your words and picks apart your thoughts until she finds an argument—something she can glom onto that proves you are worthless and just plain wrong.
Just who do you think you are? She won’t say this out loud, of course. She’ll couch her words in seeming passion, using her best college diction, but still it’s clear that she thinks you need to be knocked down a peg or two because you’re simply not good enough, worthy enough, or enough like her to matter.
If you were standing on the same street she probably would not recognize you, yet you know that she’s a slender woman, no larger than a size 6, who favors wearing an oval-shaped abalone barrette on the left side of her dyed blonde head. Her roots show her natural color to be a deep shade of chestnut, and she’s got a blue squiggly vein on her forehead that likely bulges when she’s upset. You know that her pale green eyes are watery and streaked with red. You wonder if she has allergies. You saw a picture of her once. She was wearing white Nikes with a pink checkmark and a pair of faded Land’s End jeans. Her Race for the Cure t-shirt was from 2007. Her wedding ring had an emerald cut diamond that appeared to have lost its sparkle. The ring dangled loosely near her middle knuckle — as if she’d lost weight and hadn’t the time to get it resized, or didn’t trust that the weight would stay off.
Your mother was a size 18 once. As a child, you watched her stand over a blue Formica countertop and reach into the cupboard for the foil wrapped square of Ayds candy that was supposed to help her lose weight, or the pink box of Correctol meant to purge that day’s fare of salad and fruit. When she was done, she’d pour herself a cup of black coffee and sit at the breakfast counter with a pack of Kool cigarettes and an orange, seashell-shaped ashtray. The steam from coffee mingled with the smoke that rose up towards the nicotine-stained popcorn ceiling.
Even though the smoke made you cough, you knew even at six years old that one day you were going to have your own cup of coffee to drink and your own cigarette to light. Your mother looked so calm during this ritual and you wanted to know what it felt like to draw that soothing smoke deep into your body; to bring that hot, chipped mug of black liquid to your lips.
You liked your mother to stay with her ritual as long as possible. From your place at the dining room table you could see her shoulders relax and her face loosen. She would stare off into space, seemingly content, and perhaps even dreaming. In those moments, you felt your own need for vigilance fade. You did not need to so carefully watch for the thinning of the lips or the widening of the eyes or the balling of the fists, yet every minute or two you would glance up to make sure nothing had changed. You realized, even then, that you were more connected to your mother’s face than you had ever been to a teddy bear or blanket, but it was an uncomfortable connection. There were invisible wires that crossed and divided. Love was fear and a desire for something you couldn’t name. Trust was cut, innocence was frayed, yet there were tiny sparks that flared up in your heart that made you want to curl up in her lap and bury your dark head into the pale of her neck. You loved her, you were afraid of her, she was your world.
You watched her casually, settling into your drawing of a purple mountain and a bright yellow sun, deciding to make it a gift to her, some sort of consolation for being the kind of daughter that made her feel angry, trapped, and marred by stretch marks.
Your father walked into the room. His light blue jeans fell below his belly and his white t-shirt was thin, showing the patch of dark hair on his chest. His thick glasses were speckled with sawdust.
“Damn paneling’s not going up easy,” he said. “I don’t know why you had to choose that grain.”
Your mother’s reverie was shaken. She set her coffee cup down too hard, but your father didn’t seem to notice. You quietly folded your picture up and took it to your room, knowing it would not be a good day to give presents.
Voices raised as you leaned into your hollow bedroom door, paying close attention so that you knew when it was safe to come out of your room and head for the front door and the sanctuary of outside. When the sunlight faded and it was time to come in for dinner, you knew whether it was best to be silent or to act like nothing out of the ordinary happened that day.
Your childhood watchfulness never left you. As an adult, it’s a mixed gift and you’re not sure that if you had a choice, you’d want to notice even half of what you do.
You will be the first to notice that love is fading: The first to notice the shift in your lover’s eyes or the restlessness in their arms when they hold you.
When an acquaintance answers the phone, you will hear the unhappiness in his voice. No, he will tell you, I am fine. A week later you will find out that he’s going through a divorce.
You will notice when someone is lying to you. Some sort of mask falls over their face and their eyes turn blank or look away.
When someone writes to you, you’ll notice both the empty spaces and the ones that overflow.
You’ll see the violence waiting in the boy who leans against the gas station wall, and the boredom of the grandmother invited to Sunday brunch. You’ll take note of curved spines, scuffed shoes, hesitant voices, half-told stories, posturing, and everything opposite, not because you want to — not because there’s a need to know the details of strangers — but because you have no way to unlearn your allegiance to detail.
Some people will call you intuitive, but there’s really no such thing. There are only thousands and thousands of vivid, detailed experiences—a surfeit of once-conscientious observations that now multiply almost effortlessly, burrowing into a analytical second nature that has nothing to do with biology, and almost everything to do with that little girl who stood guard at the gate of her mother’s moods.
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
Your detractor studied Edgar Allen Poe in college and a copy of The Raven can be found among the other classics on her bookshelf, but she resents you dipping into the spring of your own experience to tell a story that only you could tell. How dare you talk about what it feels like to be kicked in the gut by your mother, or to have a cock shoved in your mouth at ten years old. It’s an unfair advantage to have first-hand knowledge like that — it gives you a story you shouldn’t have — and who wants to read garbage like that anyway, especially since you did not emerge unscathed and famous, but dirtied and absolutely unapologetic for being so.
Although your detractor can’t fully explain why — and would deny it if asked — she feels hostile toward you. She would like to see you hurt in some significant way — humiliated at the foot of some public alter, shamed into silence, broken by critics. Until then, her watery eyes stay fixated on you and she stiffens her shoulders against your work as if they are pinned to a steel spine. You, she speaks silently. Are. Not. Deserving. Not of your memories, your observations, or your stories. Yet she continues to read your work and to search for opportunities to tear you apart or assail your words.
She doesn’t know the color of specks in your eyes, but she would tell you that such observations are meaningless. She has no need of them because in the end all eyes are the same. They have to be the same because the world is black and white. Those who have are deserving; those who have not are not. It’s just that simple. Good mothers happen to good daughters. Fairness happens to those who are just. Security is granted on the basis of merit, and those who struggle simply aren’t worthy.
So who do you think you are?
She waits in the wings for an answer or some sign that you are crumbling. She has a slight tic under her left eye. She’s wearing a pair of diamond studs in her small ears. There are four lines on her neck and a spate of freckles underneath a layer of mineral powder. The half-moons on her fingernails are pronounced under a French manicure that looks to be about two weeks old. She makes a habit of bleaching her teeth, but the cap on one of her front teeth is graying. There’s something endearing about that, but you know it’s a flaw she hates and that she’d be mortified you noticed. If you told her that this one thing, this slight imperfection, made her seem more human to you — more like someone you’d like to try to understand — she wouldn’t believe you. She would think you were being facetious.
And you. Dirty, naked, and out of step. Refusing to cover yourself — refusing to feel shame. How dare you notice what was not meant to be seen. The world is a blinders-on march, not a free-for-all dance. You are supposed to put one foot in front of the other and move in sync, with precision, with a defined purpose. And if you falter or get pushed out of line, you are not to be proud of that — you are not to write of the world from a different vantage point — you are to own up to your failure and stand in admiration at those who dutifully stayed the course, gathering up myopathy and discontent along with their yearly bonuses.
You don’t know me, your detractor seethes, yet she fears, more than anything, that you do. She fears that you have taken a peek under the shell and found the vulnerable, trembling parts she has tried so hard to hide. That we are all vulnerable and trembling in some way does not appease her. She sees no beauty in a raw sketch — it’s ugly until it’s covered in paint, sealed behind glass, and hung in a gilded frame.
You see this in her: Disgust, fear, and a need to drag an eraser over your spirit and make you her antagonist. Her passion for loathing is so profound that you wonder if perhaps, had circumstances been different, she may have crawled up the mountain with you and screamed.
In this life, though, she is a compliant prodigy of the march — a meek promoter of thin disguises, well-worn paths, safe distances and common sensibilities. It has left her feeling small even if secure — like a caged pet of some sort, or a woman whose voice has been silenced by a parade of other people’s footsteps.
She is afraid to raise her own voice, so she belittles yours. Her conformity bores her—she fears it makes her dull—so she attacks others for their differing experiences.
She wants you to feel smaller than she feels, because no matter how many times you’ve felt that way you haven’t felt it from a place of submission. You haven’t had your spirit diminished by nothing but a steady plodding-along and a life built around keep-the-peace compromises.
She wants you to know that the pain of her acquiescence is as deeply felt as any rape, and more noble because it was voluntary. She was stoic. Unlike you, she didn’t cry about it — she marched on with her head held high.
She wants you to write about that — about how she chose the rightest and most self-sacrificing path — but it’s not your story and her convictions are not your own.
See me, she cries, but see me as shining above you. Give me the empathy that I have spared you. Show me a heroine that’s no different than myself — but take out the trembling parts. I want to be stronger than you, prouder than you, and worthier than you could ever be.
Your detractor reads. She waits for you to misspell a word, anger somebody important, get your come-uppance. She waits for you to quit, give up, fall back in line.
She’s in pain. She wants you to feel it, and you do, but it’s not your own.
You turn the page and write another story.