It has been a WEEK. I have learned over the past few years that I have to make real effort to appreciate good things and the good things this week are things I do not want to forget so I’m taking a minute to preserve the moment and take a little victory lap.
Basically all year I’ve been wanting to up my writing game off the blog. It’s been very tough because time is at a premium. Sometimes I have a lot of paid writing gigs that are important to pay the rent but that don’t help me grow as a writer, and the time I spend on those leaves me without the time to feel through a larger piece.
I spent several weeks reworking the essay I read as my Listen To Your Mother piece for this past year, and I felt really good about how I tore it down and built it up again. It was a great learning experience and more editing than I’ve ever done on anything I’ve written.
A lot of the pieces I’ve been proud of this year were quick, without much planning, like this one and this one. I hit the 1 year mark at Book Riot this summer and I’ve learned a lot during that time. It’s amazing to have a platform with significant visibility that’s also kind and welcoming. I have had incredible support and a safe space to grow and write and experiment and it’s helped a lot.
My output hasn’t been the quantity I hoped for, but I was proud of a lot of my work and feeling like I trusted myself more. Plus there was the blog, still here when I needed it, still a place where I could overshare to my heart’s content.
But I knew for months and months that there were more big pieces inside of me, more things I wanted to write, more essays searching for the right narrative, the right approach. I let a few of them tumble around, waiting for inspiration.
The best night ever, when I saw Hamilton back in November, I was back at my hotel, sitting at the bar, drinking a glass of wine, scrolling through Twitter, trying to get my brain to slow down from the crazy adrenaline rush. And that was when I saw the news about the LDS Church’s new policy on children with parents in same-sex relationships. I had to stop. I had to turn off Twitter, get off my phone, and just stop. I was already emotionally frazzled, albeit in a good way, and not ready to deal with something that, at first glance, looked like it would wound me deeply.
Right after that came Book Riot Live, which kept me busy and surrounded by friends and I kept not dealing with it, using my impressive denial skills. But when I came back home, it was unavoidable. It was all over my Facebook feed, which surprised me. I am a member of a few Facebook groups of progressive Mormons and former-Mormons, so I see a lot of church news, but this time it was coming from people on their personal walls outside these groups. I was struck by their courage. There is a strong cultural pressure to go with the status quo in Mormonism, and when the status quo is a policy with the stamp of approval of church leadership, it moves beyond pressure.
So I decided I would write a thing. I hadn’t actually planned to write one of my big essays about Mormonism, but religion has been an undeniable and strong presence in my writing this year. I pitched The Toast first. I read it every day, I know how thoughtful their readers are, and I know they’ve had pieces written by and about Mormons before. I hoped they would take it, but I wasn’t sure. They took it, and quickly.
So there I was, staring down my keyboard, realizing that now I had to write the thing. That was terrifying.
I started out by procrastinating and deciding to focus on research. Sometimes procrastinating is totally the right choice, and this was one of those times. I put out a call for Mormon feminists willing to be interviewed via email. Several people responded, and I put together a list of questions that explored some background and let them share their thoughts and reactions. It was the best thing I could have done. I needed a little relief from the fear of writing, and I filled it by reading the powerful thoughts and feelings of a group of brave people, some of whom had to use pseudonyms. It helped me figure out the breadth of opinions and responses, which helped guide the piece.
I wrote. Then threw it out. Then wrote. Then reworked it. Then wrote some more. By Thanksgiving I thought I was possibly done. But I was a bit stuck again. I wanted to get feedback but I wasn’t ready to show it to anyone. And then when I gathered the courage, I didn’t know who to show it to. I re-read it, re-read it, re-read it. And finally I realized that my biggest problem may be length. It was very long. Shocking, I know, I’m constantly longwinded. I knew I may need to cut it before submitting. I didn’t know how much to cut, so I emailed The Toast, linked to the google doc with the current draft, and then they surprised me by saying they liked the length and were fine with it.
A friend kindly gave me a quick copy edit. I sent the piece to everyone whose quotes I’d used to confirm that they were okay with the language. And all of a sudden it was done. It was scheduled and now I’d replaced the fear of writing the thing to the fear of sharing the thing.
This is when I should have reminded myself one of my first rules of writing: the scarier it is to post, the better. But instead I just stayed silently terrified, especially because I’d decided that it would be cowardly of me to write the piece and not share it on Facebook since Facebook is what prompted it in the first place. Sharing things on Twitter is different. On Twitter I talk about much more and I do it without fear. On Facebook I’m guarded, and part of that is because I have many friendships with members of the church, both family and friends. Sharing it there would potentially rock the boat quite hard. Especially since the piece casually yet bluntly tosses my sexuality out into the open. (I came out on Twitter earlier this year, and realized quickly that it’s NICE to be out places, but that only does so much to make it less scary. One of the first things I knew about this piece is that this was part of it. And that was absolutely part of the fear, I won’t lie.)
On Monday, the piece went up. My guts were shredded. I worked from home that day, knowing it might be a little emotionally acute. That was a good decision. Because I basically cried all day. And that’s not an exaggeration. The next day the skin under my eyes was creepy-smooth and looked raw, I had to pile on the concealer. They were not sad tears. But every time someone would leave a comment on the piece, every time someone would share their own story, every time someone sent me a private message saying they felt the same way but couldn’t say so publicly, well, the tears would start again.
I wanted to write a piece that acknowledged who I was and where I came from, but that spoke to a larger community’s experiences. And apparently I did that, because the response has been basically overwhelming.
oh man this piece about queer/atheist former Mormons killed me today https://t.co/w5M46dflRO
— Mallory Ortberg (@mallelis) December 7, 2015
WHAT. I am dead now. And you can put “Killed Mallory Ortberg” on my tombstone.
A bajillion of my Book Riot friends shared it with much fanfare and pride. Even the OFFICIAL account, which was completely unnecessary and bowled me over.
— Book Riot (@BookRiot) December 7, 2015
Nicole Cliffe linked it AGAIN on Tuesday’s Links, my daily must-read post.
Today it made the links in Ann Friedman’s newsletter, which I was alerted to within a few minutes of it going out.
All of those things would have been enough. But there was more. I posted the piece on Facebook. The comments, the weep-inducing comments, they reminded me of the time I spent feeling so lonely, so screwed up, so lost. It’s been a long time since then, many many years, but those feelings have only slightly dulled over time. Those wounds are just barely below the surface. And my journey was one where I only had to deal with myself, not with any particular policy like the new one. I honestly can’t fathom how much harder so many people have it right now.
The comments came not just from Mormons and former-Mormons, but from people of all faiths. I’d done the thing I wanted to do, I’d spoken to a kind of feeling that goes bigger and deeper than just the one story I was telling. One said, “I came down here to say ‘hello, are you me?’ but it seems we are legion.” I want to take each of those comments, each of the messages, each of the tweets, and put them in a scrapbook and keep it next to my bed. I wish I could give them to my younger, so-much-lonelier self. I think about her often and how I have no idea how she made so many good decisions about her future with no help and no structure around her.
I write this today not for all of you, but for myself. Because I want to come back to this post when I am feeling down or defeated or frustrated with writing and remember how great it is when it’s good. This is my version of a scrapbook, after all. And it reminds me of how writing is sometimes serendipitous, that you can let something roll around and grow for years before it finds the right time to get on the page.
Right as I finished the essay, I started on the novel I promised myself I had to begin before the end of the year. And it’s already hard to find the time and mental energy for it, so it’ll be a very long slog before I can write something that’s 100,000 words. Not to mention rewriting, editing, etc. etc. etc.
But this week I’ve worked hard to stop, to appreciate that I did a thing I’m proud of, to use it to gather my courage for the next step and the next.