Got a secret
Can you keep it?
Swear this one you'll save
Better lock it, in your pocket
Taking this one to the grave
(The Pierces, Secret)
Today my friend asked for feedback on a draft. I told her what she already knew – that it was safe. That she had a great concept, but the piece was merely observational. That she needed to go to a darker place.
She said, “When I watch Project Runway, sometimes I just want to be the person who’s safe and gets to go to the dressing room. I don’t want to stand up there because my work was the best or the worst and listen to the judges. Can’t I just be in the middle?”
I said, “You can, but it won’t be satisfying any more. Because you know you can go further.”
That’s the problem with being brave. Or amazing. Or good. Average isn’t satisfying any more. You can tell when your work is not your best work. You can tell when you should have gone deeper. Thanks to Dunning-Kruger, people who are on the low end of competence overestimate their own abilities—they don’t know enough to compare. People with higher competencies judge themselves more harshly—they’ve been around, they’ve done the research, they know what good looks like and they know when they didn’t get there.
My friend Kim keeps a blog, Rainy Day Project. She took a look at all her years of lists, projects never accomplished, goals on the back burner, and she decided to start choosing one thing a month and doing it. Learning Japanese. Documenting her travels more. July was, “stretch every day” (there's video).
If a normal person saw Kim in action and read that goal, they’d think she was nuts. She can handstand on a pair of canes (blocks on rods designed for circus tricks) and bring her feet to her head. When she does the splits, she has to put her front leg up on a bench or a couch to get a stretch rather than sliding easily into a flat position without any improvement. But Kim doesn’t compare herself to normal people, she compares herself to contortionists and rhythmic gymnasts, men and women for whom an oversplit and a backbend with your chest on the floor and your feet by your ears is not unusual—it’s a minimum standard.
When you’re a non-fiction writer specializing in personal essays, there’s a minimum standard of revelation, of self-exposure. Guarded work isn’t interesting. It’s not necessarily the straight-up truth—as I’ve argued on this blog before, factual and truthful are not the same thing. This is me writing but it’s also the construction of me I’d like you to be interested in. “Authenticity” is relative. (There’s an excellent deconstruction of authenticity over at theferret, which in part inspired this entry.)
I’ve written about rape, mental illness, the line between public and private, whether I’m genuinely nice or just building a persona (and I’m sure some people would argue I’m persona all the way down). So what am I still guarding?
I spent September in the UK with my best friend. Our lives have taken different but parallel paths. I’m an MFA, she’s an MBA. I’m devoutly childfree, she has 13-year-old twins. We’re not always in touch. But when we meet, it’s as though we’ve never been away, we take up where we left off, nothing is off limits. We sit on her lounge floor and eat take-away, we watch art movies, we talk about our sex lives, we bitch about our jobs. In the mornings, she goes to work and I go to a pub and write. In the evenings, we put the kids to bed, catch up and reminisce. She says to me, “I knew right from the start that I wanted to be your friend. When you read that story in front of creative writing class."
She’s told me that before. And every time, it stabs me and I smile and say nothing.
Because I plagiarized that story.
I can’t remember whether I was short on time or didn’t feel right about what I’d written or was just lazy the week that the “fairy tales” assignment was handed out, but I didn’t read my story, I read Tanith Lee’s. As I recall, it was a version of Cinderella, a creepy bloodfest, very dark. The kind of words I could write now, if I wrote dark horror.
I’d done it once before—I won an award in 5th grade for a copied story. I haven’t done it since. I’m religious about quotations, attributions for even half a sentence. Plagiarizing feels like putting my hand in an unflushed toilet, even the thought is viscerally disgusting.
I thought about sending a card to PostSecret. SHE BECAME MY BEST FRIEND BECAUSE SHE LOVED MY STORY. IT WAS PLAGIARIZED. But that’s the middle. That’s safe anonymity. That’s sitting in the dressing room, knowing your work wasn’t good enough to be praised or a big enough risk to be damned. Who am I to tell someone else, go there, if I can’t do it, too?
Got a secret