Slightly embarrassing…but more ‘silly.’ And I didn’t.
When Chita Rivera walked into the afterparty of the song and dance show celebrating her career, I had the impulse to clap but didn’t. She entered in awkward silence instead of to the ovation she deserved.
Self-mourning. But it’s not like I stood out.
At 19, I was fired from a strip club for not being pretty enough. I try to justify it in my head—I was also in a terrible outfit—rather than admit I wasn’t hot enough to show my naked body to a club so dodgy they didn’t even have a DJ, we had to take a cocktail shaker around for quarters for the jukebox.
My older half-brother lives in a secure building. Visitors must be announced. The last time I went, the concierge spoke to my brother’s boyfriend of more than a year, put the phone down, and said “I’m sorry, he says Rob doesn’t have a sister Allison.”
Maybe the boyfriend and Rob had been so newly in love they hadn’t talked much about their families. Maybe the boyfriend was confused, already knowing Anne and Amanda, and three sisters with A was too much to process, so the half-one was forgotten.
I left the building in a blur of tears. Writing about it brings me to tears now. I’ve never told my mother, or my other brother, or the half-sister still living. But I’m telling you, confident that it’s more interesting than a business trip to Kuwait (beige! traffic! mall!), a brief encounter with a legendary Broadway star, or yet another teen strip club experience.
Good memoir is not made from interesting lives. Sure, it helps to have traveled, or survived a tragic accident, or spiraled into addiction, or fucked someone famous. But most of us are limited in our time and budget. We treasure our remaining relatives, and writing about recovery is rarely worth the descent (have you seen the price of heroin?). What makes our lives meaningful is not brushes with fame or grand adventure, it is our willingness to write, in painstaking detail, our humiliations, our discoveries of our ignorance, our shames. To mortify ourselves.
Mortification is terrifying—the fear of being known, of revealing something that is intimate and powerful and true.
Don’t you want to read that? I do.
The root of “mortify” means to become dead—or “ded” if you wish, the implication that we are so overcome with cute or sarcasm or revelation that we are (literally, right?) felled—but to mortify ourselves is to face the death of the ego and trust that dignity will walk away unscathed.
The same way we choose symbolic death in the face of comedy, we can employ the power of choosing mortification rather than allowing humiliation to be thrust on us.
The root of successful mortification (I never thought I’d put those two words together) is humility—the admission that we are not unique. Even our fragments are common. The most specific and idiosyncratic stories I tell are the ones where someone comes up to me and says, “Oh my God, that happened to me, too!”
That time you held someone who needed love you couldn’t give them.
That time you realized the “someone” who should have done something was you.
That time you crawled back for one more or five more horrible emotional blows from the one who didn’t love you any more.
That time your family member said something that betrayed everything you ever thought they saw in you.
Humiliating. Potentially mortifying, too. But the details of those stories, the details particular to you, are what make them worth reading, what makes the reader say, “me, too!”
It’s not about being “interesting” or having “adventures.” It’s about telling what happened to us, as honestly as possible. Polishing our craft until we know we can deliver what happened in the best words we can. Not telling the reader how bad we felt, or how bad they should feel, but laying out what happened and waiting to see if they laugh or cry.
Not everyone can write their life. But everyone deserves to see their life written, and with the gift of being able to write comes the responsibility of doing so honestly and well. Write yours if you can, in glorious, mortifying detail.
I wet my pants in the elementary school library, torrentially. On the way back to first grade I taught myself to spell “bathroom” so I could tell why I was late without admitting the deed.
I told an inside joke on stage in a small room full of people I could see clearly. The joke came out racist. I spent the rest of the show knowing I’d need to apologize personally to the black family in the front row.
I made a pass at a colleague I knew was after my friend. He turned me down. I called his hotel room ten minutes later and he turned me down again.
I was mortified.
OK, so the mall in Kuwait is actually pretty interesting, but writing about designer abayas over platform spike heels just wasn't my bag this week.