Back in college, I had a rant about the gratuitous use of the first-person. I was talking about the use of the first-person in arts criticism, but still, it’s hard not to laugh at the 20 year old with her guns trained on the world, because she grew up to be the 37 year old who starts every third sentence with a personal pronoun. My opinions back then weren’t mine, anyway — they were borrowed from charismatic friends and professors and thick books I’d only skimmed. My friend Dave was far more prescient when he dubbed me a “closet confessionalist,” because whenever I got drunk, I would tell anyone anything. This turned out to be something of a business plan.
I’ve been writing online about my life for more than 10 years now — on this website, and on publications like Nerve and The Morning News and Salon. This week, I have a story in the New York Times magazine about former XO Jane contributor Cat Marnell, whose online confessions about drug use made her the subject of titillation and scorn on the Web, where titillation and scorn make for cheap and easy fuel. The piece becomes a meta-confessional about my own history of personal writing and addiction.
And so I decided to gather several of my personal essays in one place for your enjoyment and ridicule. A history of personal history. This is a collection full of minor triumphs and well-meaning mistakes and embarrassing repetition and several gratuitous references to “Xanadu,” which turns out to be a pretty decent snapshot of who I am.
Lush for Life: The morning after my first office holiday party, I woke up in a dog bed in someone else’s house. This was surprising to everyone involved, but perhaps most poignantly, the dog.
When I Stopped Going to Bars: For decades I defined myself as a drinker, spent weekends and evenings in the cozy confines of a nice, steady stupor, but now I confronted a problem bigger than the mere practical issue of where to meet. Indeed, it was the central crisis of my life: I did not know what to do with myself.
My Relapse Years: I would go into the closet, and sit there for a while, and pour the wine into a small juice glass I stored there for such occasions, enjoying the glug-glug of the liquid as it poured, enjoying the sharp fumes of the Cabernet — drinking it before I was even drinking it.
Hit on the Head: My inbox was a shame trail of gushy letters typed after midnight, impulsive notes dashed off in the afternoon. All of them had cutesy subject lines, like the titles of Raymond Carver stories, but they should have been labeled the same thing: “Do you love me again? Have you changed your mind yet?”
My Fake Online Boyfriend: It was the evening he canceled our first date that I began to suspect Todd was not a real person.
I Always Date Tom Waits: Before I ever loved Tom Waits, I loved guys who loved Tom Waits, and they had certain qualities in common. They all smoked cigarettes (often unfiltered). They loved booze (often whiskey). They drank coffee (black). They had flourishes of eccentricity: A fedora worn to the grocery store, a chain wallet, a deceptively casual method of cupping a flame as they lit a cigarette against the wind.
U Still Up?: For weeks after our late-night rendezvous, Scott would text me in the middle of the night. It didn’t matter if I never responded; I would still wake up at least twice a week to find some note from him, shot off at 3 a.m.
Crying in Restaurants, part one of a six-part series: Two hours before my first kiss, I cried in a Wendy’s booth across from a nineteen-year-old college dropout. We were heading to a party — whose party, I did not know — and I was slurry with Peach Schnapps, or Bacardi Rum, or whatever cough-syrup crap I was pouring into my Cokes that summer. I was thirteen. It was a confusing time.
Up in Smoke: I remember thinking, around dawn, I’m either going to marry this guy, or I’m never going to see him again. It really could only go one of two ways.
Where Are You Now?: We made out in the elevator. We made out in the lobby in front of the janitors. We made out for so long that when we got back to the reunion, everyone had left. The reunion was over.
REO Speedwagon Will Save Us: Each weekend, I listened to the Casey Kasem countdown and made charts of each song’s progress. Why? Because life before the Internet was dark and cruel, little girl, and people were forced to entertain themselves with sock puppets and the weekly fluctuations of Michael Sembello’s “Maniac.”
My Humiliating Email Disaster: It’s a humbling thing to put a tiny little pill of poison into the in box of everyone with whom you regularly correspond. Afterward you feel … embarrassed? Ashamed? Exposed? I was worse than uncool. I had been gullible.
Whitney Houston’s Lessons in Love: We made fun of “I Will Always Love You,” the No. 1 song that would not go away in 1992, the year we graduated. We wanted to stab that song with knives; we wanted to punish it somehow.
Starfucker: We walked to a downtown bar, where he leaned back on a leather couch and stared at the ceiling. ‘This fame thing is weird,’ he said, ‘I feel like nobody tells me the truth anymore.’ He ran his hands over the fabric. ‘Like what do people think of my band? Do they think we’re like, I don’t know, Matchbox 20?’ He cringed when he said the name. ‘No,’ I lied.
Heart of Glass: I don’t remember exactly when I started having sexual fantasies about Ira Glass, but I do remember when I realized I felt a little different about him.
My iPhone foreclosure: I would guesstimate that I learned 10 percent of the iPhone’s functions, maybe even less. It’s like I had a magic wand in my purse, and I was using it to scrape glass off the windshield.
Nobody Ever Calls Me Anymore: People talk about how tough earlier generations had it, and I for one have no clue how to plow a field. But I’d like to see a pioneer woman take a left-hand turn at a busy intersection while reading a suggestive text from the guy who is currently making her heart pound.
The Smart Blonde Manifesto: I watched from the sidelines as the drill team and the cheer squad flaunted their leggy genetic gifts in spandex unitards. Oooh, how I hated them. Oooh, how I wanted to be them. But I was all Irish frizz and troublesome curves, hearty peasant stock trying to pass among the landed gentry.
Surprised to See Me: Don’t get me wrong: I love compliments. But I feel a stab of mortification for the bloated, slightly sweaty woman who thought she had everyone fooled with Target hoodies and elastic waistbands.
Busting Out: I could save a baby from a burning building, I could cure cancer with glitter alone, and I would still be referred to as “Sarah, you know, the short one with the big tits.”
The Surprise Spanx Makeout: Hmm, which part of my body am I most insecure about? How about this part currently suffocated by beige elastic? I felt like I’d been caught wearing a toupee. In my pants.
When the Queso Dripped Like Honey: I traded after-school athletics for watching “Oprah” alone on the couch. Both my parents worked, and it was in these lonesome, unsupervised hours that the refrigerator called to me.
Every Woman Should Travel Alone: If you are lucky, you stop seeing the world as a series of things you do not have — a boyfriend, a baby, an adorable terrier – and you start noticing the things you do have. A healthy bank account, unburdened by mortgages or school loans. No romantic ties. Years to burn. That kind of freedom is like a command from the universe to get off your ass and do something amazing.
Nobody Says I Love You Anymore: Growing up, I did not like Dallas. To be fair, I did not like growing up, period, and I suspect that whatever city in which my adolescence unfolded would have taken the blame.
Here Is Everything I Learned in New York City: When I first came to New York, I was intimidated by delis, which is a little bit like being frightened of lawn sprinklers. But my heart would pound at the counter as I approached, feeling the impending pressure of a public decision.
The Key to a Successful Freelance Career: Since freelance writers tend to work alone, it’s easy to grow hungry for human contact during the day. It’s easy to pounce upon our partners as they arrive from a hard day’s work, toppling them with questions and requests: What happened outside today? Do you want to see the eggs I bought at the store?
Why I Shut Down My Blog: The blog was the perfect bluff for a self-conscious writer like me who yearned for the spotlight and then squinted in its glare. When I needed to pretend that people were reading, I could. When I needed to pretend that nobody was reading, I could.
To Tell You the Truth: The night I met Jayson Blair, we talked about liars. We were discussing a guy we both knew, a reporter who had changed his name after a series of early-career mistakes. ‘I just think he’s a liar,’ I said. Jayson defended him, enumerated his good qualities. The truth is, the guy’s all right, and I hardly knew him to begin with, but I was too emboldened by alcohol to back down. ‘Once a liar, always a liar.’
WHAT THE HELL, HERE IS SOME FICTION:
The Secret Journal of Levi Johnston: Coach always says make a list of priorities. He says, make a list otherwise this world makes you lose sight of what matters. So here is my list of priorities now: God, hockey, family, Bristol, my Honda off-road, and this baby. It’s that last part that’s killing me right now.
A Game of Skill, Strategy and Chance: ‘Pictionary, Scattergories, those are party games. What, is Connect Four a board game? Is Tic-Tac-Toe a board game?’ He rolls his eyes.
My Year of Living Oprah: “I know what you need,” Lisa told me one evening as I sat, depressed, staring once more at a blank screen. “I know what Oprah would want for you.” “Bacon cheese?” I asked hopefully.
Is He Cute or Is He British?: Though we speak the same language, Americans and Brits have famously different words to describe the same thing. When he says, “I could murder a taxi right now” he means only that he wants a taxi very badly. When he says, “I’m off to the pub with me mates for some tipple,” it means he’s going to pee the bed.
The Education of Elisabeth Eckleman (reader-interactive series): “Let me guess. You dated in high school, but you left him back home and you’re going to try to stay together because you both love each other so veddy veddy much.” What the hell? I thought ugly girls were required to be sweet.
I ALSO WRITE ABOUT MY CAT, WHO IS THE COOLEST:
Cat on a Leash: I know, I know, a cat leash is a ridiculous idea. Cats are too prickly, too willful to endure such pampered indignity. I might as well suggest my cat learn to make a delicious veal parmigiana, or play Bob Dylan songs on the harmonica.
When My Cat Finally Took the Leash: He sniffed the air like a cartoon animal standing underneath a pie that has just been set on the window sill — his snout pulsating madly, his whole body arcing upward.
Stories of the Incredible, Drooling Kitty Cat (origin story): My boyfriend’s kitty cat used to drool. Whenever you scratched his ears, which he loves, a little drop of saliva went splat on the ground. Drip, drip, drip, like a leaky faucet. I’ve always hated cats, but the drooling endeared me. It had a certain eccentric appeal.