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I listened to your book on Audible. It changed me. Which sounds dramatic. But it felt pretty fucking good to feel that understood. I listened while I drove and while I ran and every moment I got. You have a fan for life here, whether this reaches you or not.
In the questions you addressed, I didn’t hear anything about growing up in a religious community where you feel like the biggest fucking outsider when you stop being one of them.
I’m 24. I grew up the heart of Utah, where almost everyone is Mormon. I went to BYU. I got married young — that’s what Mormons do. We had a baby. He lived for nearly a week before he passed away due to complications. Then I got divorced, because it turns out getting married so young within a community that prides itself on its patriarchy really is the recipe of disaster that it sounds like it is.
So after realizing my worth as a woman is more than just my ability to give birth, I found a career in commercial photography and I love it and am totally invested in it. I’m still living in Utah, 15 minutes from my parents’ house, because I’m the photographer for an awesome company here. But I hope to move some day, as I’m sure I’ll outgrow the job I’m at now.
This is a stupid question and seems painfully obvious, but I feel so conflicted. After my son died, I used to blog a lot. It connected me with other moms who had similar experiences, and life didn’t feel so void of meaning.
After getting divorced, I left the church and had a huge falling out with my family over it, and I stopped blogging. I felt too exposed and was worried about other people’s judgments. Around that same time, I attended a healing retreat for women who have lost infants. While I was there, I made all these cool friends who understood my pain, their lives didn’t revolve around Mormonism, and their egos weren’t totally engulfed in how right they were about what God is thinking. I realized I had been using religion to numb the shit out of my feelings, and I remembered the value of vulnerability. For the first time, I felt seen for who I was and not for the fluffed-up Mormon I used to be. Life felt less lonely after I met these friends. But they are all married and much older, with kids. They are your age, but I relate to them a lot more than I do my single friends who are also mostly Mormon. But I do feel inadequate compared to these older friends a lot, since they are more experienced and have careers and kids who are alive and whatnot. Now I just feel like a fucking outsider. It’s not that I don’t have happy moments and that life feels totally hopeless, it just does a lot lately. I frequently wonder what the point of anything is.
I’ve lost myself. Photography is great, it’s a practice of being present and it gives me the chance to be creative, but I miss writing for an audience. I want to blog again. Not thinking that people will give a shit what I have to say, but I just want to say it anyway. Does that sound stupid? I know I risk a lot of backlash from a predominantly Mormon community. I’m not going to write a lot of negativity about the church, because that’s not what’s in my heart. But what is in my heart doesn’t align with the beliefs of most of the people surrounding me. And I’m finally at a point where I don’t give a fuck, but still a little afraid.
Is that enough not to do it? Do I just continue to take pictures and write in my journal, and not listen to this thing inside me that feels like it’s begging to come out?
Blogging is such a tough thing to explain to people who don’t get it. Why in the world would you want to pour your most private thoughts and emotions onto pages that anyone in the world can read? It looks almost rude to them, like taking your pants off in the middle of the street. And you’re not even getting paid for it? And there are only three or four people watching, and two of them are snickering behind their hands?
But for someone who’s spent her entire life feeling out of place, feeling like what’s inside of her is shameful and embarrassing and should never, ever come out — even in conversations with her friends, even in talks with her family — writing stuff that’s deeply personal and pushing it out into the world feels like breathing in deeply for the first time. It’s not just a thing you do for recognition or to build some kind of a reputation. It’s a way of feeling right with the world, feeling seen and heard and connecting to people who understand exactly where you’re coming from.
That’s not a small thing. Showing the outside world who you really are can be the central challenge of your whole life, one that sometimes takes decades to even face. And for you it’s particularly formidable, because you know the people around you are likely to judge your authentic self harshly. In the Mormon community, simply claiming space for yourself as an independent woman is sometimes seen as selfish and odd and wildly out of step with how everyone else is living.
I’m not an expert on the particulars of leaving the Mormon church (and kicking Catholicism to the curb is so common it’s practically its own sacrament). I can imagine that it’s pretty traumatic to be rejected just for showing up and stating who you are. It must also be scary to think that if you stray too far from what the community considers acceptable, you’ll cause more problems or face more rejection. I’ll also bet that there’s still a lot of warmth and support in that community that it feels intense to live without. (Whereas missing the “warmth” of Catholicism is roughly like missing the soothing embrace of a wire monkey.) It’s tough to leave your home under ideal circumstances; when leaving looks like a giant rejection of what your family holds dear, that adds a lot of trauma to the picture. And if you don’t have a new community to take the place of your old one, how are you supposed to move forward without feeling lonely and isolated?
The older moms who’ve known loss were a good start. But now you want more. Eventually, you want to step away from a world that doesn’t fit you and find one that does. Returning to blogging is a way of staying where you are (for now) while also reaching out to the wider world for acceptance and understanding and connection. You want some way of showing who you really are. You want to have a voice again. You want to stop hiding.
It’s easy for someone who felt relatively at peace with their surroundings as a child to say to a former misfit, “Wow, is your whole life just one unbroken therapy session? Does your identity really matter to anyone else that much? Why don’t you just shut the fuck up and make yourself of service to some greater cause?” But some of us really can’t do shit until we figure out how to show our authentic selves to the world. I don’t personally think it’s wrong to claim a little extra time and space to figure out how to stop pretending and stop hiding. Sometimes a major trauma like the loss of a baby is the catalyst. Other times you just wake up one morning and realize that you can’t do anything good with your life until you stop trying to please everyone else and conform to their expectations of you. And once you realize that hiding is making you miserable, you’ll do anything to be out in the open, even if that feels like taking your pants off in traffic over and over again.
When I was 31 years old, I dumped the older boyfriend I’d been living with, but my new apartment wasn’t ready yet, so I stayed in the same house with him but started sleeping on a futon in the office. We were talking but mostly just exchanging polite words to avoid trouble. I was a freelance writer, but I only had a handful of assignments every year. I’d started my blog a few months earlier–suddenly, though, it became something different, a way to stay sane. I’d wake up at five in the morning and write furiously and post it. I’d go out for coffee and post something else. I’d stay up late writing even more. I’d written a cartoon for the first five years of my career, so I was comfortable with aggressive cynicism and dumb jokes, but I wanted to bring more of myself to my writing, I just didn’t know that yet.
When I started blogging, I didn’t share many of my secrets. I’m not sure I wrote about my breakup at all. I referred to the death of my father years earlier as “certain traumatic events.” Instead of extolling the lessons of his death, I wrote about reading The Sheltering Sky on a train from North Carolina to Philadelphia that year, and how a southern guy in the dining car said to me, “Now there’s a natural redhead!” and I replied, “I just dyed it this morning, actually.” (The moral: “Never, in your dalliances with friendly southern men, do you bring up the truth. Bringing facts into an exchange like this one is sort of like bringing a roll of toilet paper on a date to Inspiration Point because, ‘who knows, one of us might need to take a crap in the woods or something.’”)
Reading my blog from January 2002 is like watching me find my sea legs as a writer. I was mostly looking for punchlines, and tended to sidestep vulnerability whenever it came up. But my emotions were clearly driving the whole process, so I was forced to find new ways of expressing the turmoil I was experiencing. Which, by the way, is like a master class in nonfiction writing: Every day, figure out how to take raw emotions and translate them into some form that’s interesting to other people — including people who truly don’t give a shit.
So this is the point I want to make to you, and to all writers who struggle with how much of themselves to reveal, and whether or not they should really be taking their pants off in public anymore: You are the decider. You control how much you expose. One of the biggest flaws with blogging and social media and first-person writing in general these days is the common misconception that you must lay the entire truth bare on the page. I mean, look, lay it bare if that’s what you love to write and what you love to read the very most. But personally, I think we’ve lost sight of how important it is — for our souls, even — to stay partially hidden at times. You can show your ass by wearing ass pants. You don’t have to just moon people out of your car window.
At the time I wrote “certain traumatic events” as code for “my dad died,” that’s what felt right to me. I wanted to write about my experiences in ways that dovetailed with feminist ideals, emotional digressions, and jokes about taking a crap in the woods. I wanted to write conversationally. And after being in a close relationship with someone who insisted I act “nice” and “polite” and essentially drippy and invisible just to keep him from losing his fucking doughnuts every few minutes, I was reclaiming my right to be as much of an arrogant asshole as was necessary to feel alive. I needed swaggery jokes more than I needed vulnerable confessions at that point. My biggest fear then was that I wouldn’t be entertaining enough. I wanted to entertain.
Some great writing came out of that fear. And the need to entertain is never far from my core values, even now. Why read an advice column, in particular, that doesn’t entertain you? Sure, it’s good to throw out some new ideas or put an important epiphany into words that actually make you FEEL THE CHANGE IN YOUR HEART. But I still believe in that person who blogged 14 years ago, who would read the words “feel the change in your heart” and maybe vomit on her shoes a little.
(Side note: I also love the sorts of letters I got back then. Go read those letters! Those are fucking real, guys!)
But back to you, Silent: Yes, yes, yes, you should blog. You say yourself you have “this thing inside me that feels like it’s begging to come out.” Let it out. It’s great that you have close older friends now. Don’t lose them. But part of you wants to find people your age who can relate, who feel connected to your experiences. Blogging will help with that. I had bunch of new friends back when I started my blog who were smart, interesting people, and some of those people decided they wanted to know me better partly because they read my blog every day. I know that sounds pathetic, but you know what? It’s hard to get to know new people or trust that they’ll like the real you, particularly when the real you is a punchy, moody, nonsensical asshole half of the time.
People who’ve been silenced for too long are sometimes the ones with the most to say, Silent. You have this aggressive, straightforward self that’s just begging to throw over your fluffed-up Mormon exterior. That’s the kind of person who loves writing and becomes a writer for life. Of course you should start blogging again.
Will you alienate some people? Yes, yes, a million times yes. You want to do that, though, in your heart. Don’t you? As long as you polish your work a little, as long as you edit out some of the wordy and mundane stuff enough and push yourself to reach a little past where you’ve been before, as long as you read a post and you say, “This is ready. I feel proud of this,” before you hit “publish,” as long as your work feels less like pulling down your pants in traffic and more like building a sculpture in the town square and leaving it there for at least a few lonely people to enjoy, then do it. Write in a happy, unbroken frenzy of words, and then go back and polish it. Edit your work. Editing is a way of being sure about what you want to show the world. Creating work that you’re proud of is a way of answering the doubts in your head. If the work is good, you won’t have nearly as many doubts about sharing it.
But you should still take risks as the words are pouring out. Make jokes. Be bold. Be weird. Be angry. Don’t forget that you get to decide how to reveal whatever you reveal. You can be coy. You can keep some things in the shadows if you feel like it. But you can also find paths into your most authentic self. Get loose. Get ugly. You have this very complex self inside of you, this untamed glorious clever nasty monster that has nothing at all to do with your Mormon exterior. Let your monster dance and growl and laugh and pick a fight. This is your life, Silent. This is your moment. Everything you’ve ever wanted starts right here.
Of course, that’s not how it felt for me at five in the morning, when I’d prop myself up on that lumpy futon and start typing on my laptop, tapping out my anger and my loneliness and my giddy delight at finally being free and living out in the open. It often felt silly. It often felt horribly embarrassing, that I would spend so much of my time writing for such a tiny audience. Sometimes, even when my words made me chuckle, a voice inside my head would say, “You’re kind of a joke. I bet a lot of people think that.”
I would say “Silence that voice!” but that voice never goes away completely. That’s okay. We’re all a joke to someone, somewhere. But I’m like you. I don’t want to be a polite, fluffed-up person. I want to be pointy elbows and salty tears and sharp claws. These are the sounds I make. This is how I breathe. This is where my happiness starts.
Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
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