The Unfathomable Psychological Terror of Writing What You Know
As the season of Grants, Fellowships, Incubators, and Workshops have faded into the horizon, I found myself inexplicably unable to get up from my couch, despite having done no more strenuous work other than filling out applications at my computer for days. Essay after essay, personal statement after personal statement.
THIS IS ME. I’M QUIRKY, FUN, SMART, RELATABLE, DEAR GOD, PLEASE LIKE ME.
Everything I included had been proofread, workshopped with other writers, passed through the filter of appropriate and fun.
Smooth-edged and dishwasher safe.
And what struck me to the couch for a week was the overwhelming dread that if these people ever did call or email me back, I would have to continue to be that version of me all of the time for them. Grant Proposal Kay™ seems like a woman who separates her clothes—hell, who owns actual pants instead of a never-ending plethora of faux jeans that are secretly leggings, and never pees in the shower. She probably is a morning person, which the rest of me knows is the worst type of person because they tell everyone about it instead of quietly just doing mornings and let the rest of us wait until their cat sticks a paw in their mouth and demands food at 9 a.m., like a normal person.
I considered writing a personal essay on the hot mess of a human being that I actually am, and that I possess stories like puking in the bushes of a Rite Aid in a strip mall in Irvine at 3 a.m. and still stay awake thinking about the girl I pushed down a slide at a water park when I was 12 who was taking too long, or come to think of it, all the biting I did as a kid. So much biting. But even then in a short amount of words, I become adorably relatable—I mean Zombies bite, and we love them? David Copperfield is a famous story about a kid who bites. I’m in good company. And the idea that I would have to continuously be “that super crazy person” felt just as exhausting as an early-morning version of me, if not worse.
Even as I write this now, I know I’m picking stories about myself that are funny or self-deprecating to make you like me. Because when people say, “Write what you know,” what I know is how to entertain people and give them what they want. You are reading this article and want to be fulfilled in some way, through emotional or intelligent information that will make your time worthwhile. And I do earnestly want to give it to you—that’s my joy, see you on the other side of this page, and leave out little morsels to pick up when you feel like it.
And I know, just like in my essays, what to leave out—the things that aren’t fun to read. When people ask to write what you know, the subtext is “write what you know, but also what won’t make me feel uncomfortable.” When essays ask you “what’s a struggle you overcame?” Writing “Becoming obsessed with the fact that if I got pregnant I might suffer a hormonal balance and kill myself and my baby so I got a tubal ligation at 22” is just plain TMI. Instead, I choose the safer choice of being a kid of divorce who still struggled with anything more than the cheapest thing on the menu because my parents fought over me being a financial burden.
Kid trauma is always safe. Relatable.
One of my current passion projects covers mental illness under the veil of an alien invasion, so that’s a cool metaphor, I should put that in my apps, right? I have depression, which is a pretty socially acceptable thing to be mentally ill of. Depression is more than acceptable at least in name. And I know it is, because when I fill out my paperwork, and it asks if I have any disabilities, I don’t write in “depression.” I’m a writer in a world teetering on climate collapse during an era of late-stage capitalism. Of course I’m depressed. We all are.
But I also have a mental illness with a terrifying name: High Functioning Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Which, if you don’t know what that is, is often represented in film by highly emotionally unstable villains like Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, or Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. I’ve never boiled a rabbit (I cried one time when I tried to put a nightcrawler on a fishing hook). What I can say is my BPD is managed, with meds and therapy, and a circle of loved ones that inspire me every day to be the best person I can be, and those diagnosed with BPD are much more statistically likely to be victims than … well, hot scary murder ladies. But it’s a stigmatized illness and, like its sister disorder, Bipolar, is associated with being, well, crazy pants. BPD is sorely in need of an image overhaul. How can I convince you that I’m a worthwhile candidate when opening up will make you think that about me? So, when my paperwork asks if I have any disabilities, I don’t write “High Functioning Borderline Personality Disorder” either.
I don’t mark any of these things because I won’t look “disabled” and how can these programs celebrating diversity show everyone they are doing that if we don’t look the part? I know it’s not just me who struggles with this. We don’t feel we are “disabled” enough to check that box. I have a friend who was diagnosed and has been dealing with Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) most of her life as well, but feels it’s wrong to mark that she’s disabled because she is able to walk … for now. There might be a day when she can’t, but because she doesn’t feel sick enough to pass the label, she doesn’t.
So, I hold back on these things because I know better. That mental illness is treated as a disability at all is a huge risk, and worse, could make the reader's opinion of me tip in the wrong direction. It could make me seem scary and unstable (even though I’m not), thus, not a good candidate. But being a predictable vanilla bean is boring. And I constantly have to be some in-between to avoid eyes glazing over or filling someone with unfathomable psychological terror.
I’m also part of the LGBT community, but I just don’t seem to be the right part of the community. I have had this hammered into my head throughout my life and sometimes (though I’m getting better about it, and saying it anyway) I feel an instant fear as it leaves my lips. The term bisexual just became a common thing in the 80s about the time I was born. I didn’t know any bisexuals growing up, and I felt very much like an outsider everywhere to everyone for a while. Even when I came out to a partner who was also bisexual in college, he downplayed it because it was easier to think of me as straight. This, from a fellow bisexual! Just when I got more comfortable using the term, because it’s how I identify, the term itself got gnawed on as being trans-phobic (though it is not) pitting pansexual and bisexual people against one another, and which can make both straight and gay communities feel hostile in their own ways.
Also, some people just still don’t believe we exist?! What if the person reading my application is one of them? And even if they do, how will these be expressed in a glossy magazine picture with my face and the other workshop attendees on it? I just look like a pretty standard white chick, and if I’m standing next to a partner who appears to be of the opposite sex, I’ll look heterosexual. If I am with a woman? I’d be called a lesbian. And I still would be neither! I would have to be simultaneously making out with a man and a woman to potentially be perceived as bisexual—while probably hitting that fun stereotype we bisexuals get as well, that we’re all just sluts.
The problem with all these essays is that these grants and fellowships want to know me, but they want to know the right version of me. The version of me who will make them look good—modern, with it, patrons of the arts. The version that’s best in their head, the version I’m left guessing at between application instructions. Should I come across as A-type and responsible? Or sloppy but oozing creativity? Should I speak formally or informally to make us feel closer, like friends already? Should I name drop or should I use three adjectives to describe the coffee I’m sipping?
Write What You Know. Use Your Voice. Is the only ointment given to ameliorate your anxiety.
And is exactly the source of the anxiety.
What version of me do you want? What part of what I know will you find palatable? If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this world is that who you are and who people want you to be aren’t the same thing. And let’s be honest, the perfect version of us these apps are looking for doesn’t exist. We grow exhausted attempting the best CliffsNotes performance of ourselves, knowing full well that it statistically won’t be nearly enough.
I know I don’t fit the right boxes, and maybe you, reading this, don’t feel you do either. You’re not alone. I can’t offer you a contest win, a place in a workshop, or a grant to make your dreams come true. But perhaps I can offer you company. And reassure that you are an artist, we are artists. And what we put down on paper or in each of our mediums is a fraction of us, a fraction in a moment, which is beautiful, but incomplete of who we are in total.
That’s why we keep doing this, because there’s so much more to discover and learn about ourselves, to change as we grow, to be someone new each day. And no 500-word essay on who you are as a writer will ever say enough about who you are.
*Feature photo by Brett Sayles (Pexels)