A few months ago, while still living in PA, I submitted a little travel essay to the Philadelphia Inquirer: a fun, upbeat little piece about our vacation to Jamaica. If the paper runs your piece, they pay you 25 bucks. That’s two bottles of Pinot Grigio, and not even the ones on special.
After a few weeks of not hearing anything, I assumed they
thought it was crap didn’t like it. I was a little disappointed at first, but then forgot about it completely.
So I was pretty stunned when two weeks ago I received an email from an op-ed editor at the Inquirer saying something like: “Dear Jessica: The travel editor forwarded your piece to me. I think it is excellent and plan to run it on Friday.”
Wow. This was a first! I was pumped. The girls and I put on some One Direction and danced on the front porch. I could already taste the Pinot Grigio.
I gave the editor the green light and waited for his final edits. On Wednesday, while making Phoebe’s lunch, I quickly checked email on my phone and saw his message in the inbox. “Cool, this is exciting, L-Dog!” I said out loud to my half-comatose chocolate lab, who responded by opening one eye, sort of.
I began skimming the final piece, but barely made it through the first sentence before my heart plummeted to the bottom of my stomach. I went back and re-read the first sentence. And then again. And then again. I wasn’t sure if I was going to puke or pass out.
The essay I was reading was indeed mine, but not the one about Jamaica: the fun, light-hearted, ya-mon-let’s-have-another-Red Stripe-at-the-pool bar essay. No, this was a dark and disturbing essay I wrote years ago as an assignment for an online writing class about my month-long stint in a treatment center for eating disorders.
I am not sure how long I stood in the kitchen saying, “What is this? What is this?” It was long enough for Phoebe to wander in and start playing our new game:
“What is this?”
“What is this?”
“MY BEWWY BUTTON!”
I vaguely remember giving Phoebe lunch and parking her in front of the dumb box as my monkey mind swung from branch to branch in search of an explanation: Did my computer have some crazy virus? Were there more embarrassing ABC Afterschool Special-esque essays of mine floating around in cyberspace? For some reason it took me a while to consider that perhaps I had attached the wrong document. Which of course is exactly what happened.
I could not believe it. Between college and grad school, I have attached many a Word document, and always the correct one. To make such a rookie mistake -to an EDITOR -was bad. Really, really bad. My feeble attempts at yoga breathing did little to fight off the alternating waves of panic and nausea.
After sending Phil
eleven a few S.O.S text messages (“CALL ME NOW!” THE KIDS ARE FINE BUT YOU NEED TO CALL ME!” “OMG I AM A F*&#ING IDIOT!” HOLY $%*#!) but with no response, I was left to my own devices. Before I put my head in the oven, I decided to actually read the entire piece and see if it was in fact “that bad.”
Was it something I would have willingly submitted to a newspaper? Uhh, no. But it could have been worse. And I had to admit it it was a bit curious that THIS essay – on a topic I only this one time had ever written about – made it’s way to an editor’s desk…an editor that actually wanted to publish it.
I contacted him and admitted to my mistake, but that I was ok to go ahead with running the article anyway. He was unbelievably cool and understanding, and said straight out: “You don’t have to do this, you know. Are you sure you want to do this?”
I thought of Tina Fey’s 2nd Rule of Improvisation: “Start with yes and see where it takes you.”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
And with that, the panic lifted, the nausea subsided, and I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Maybe the story we least want to tell is exactly the one that needs to be told. Which is annoying, but also kind of liberating.
According to George Dawes Green, founder of the storytelling radio program The Moth: “Stories are what make us human….and the absolute criteria for a great story is vulnerability. If we could go back and have the choice of listening to Homer recite the Iliad or tell some personal story about his damn mother-in-law, I think we would choose the mother-in-law.”
But with vulnerability comes fear: the fear of becoming The Philadelphia Poster Girl for Post-Anorexia Living. I feared that this one period of my life would become some cheesy yet defining coming-of-age story entitled “Jessie vs. The Lasagna: How I Learned to Eat Like a Grown-Up.”
But the non-fear part of my brain knows this is not true…that no one story alone defines me. The storyteller in me knows that each story is just a chapter in a larger story – a story that is still being written. And maybe each time we say “yes” to something that scares the shit out of us….the story just gets a bit more interesting.