Before getting into the weeds here, there's a David Foster Wallace quote buried deep in one of his books, "The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” It's a good quote. It also isn't the quote that I was looking for to start this. But it'll do.
I've tried, over the last couple of years, to take myself out of my writing. This results in not a lot of writing. Much of my writing before May 2nd, 2014, was predicated on what I thought about the world. That day, the equation was flipped, and for a few days I got to see what the world thought about me. Or, rather, a version of me that I had been readily presenting to the world.
Five years ago I was working for a magazine, was pitched an article to write by an editor there. I wrote the article, went to bed, and woke up to several dozen emails, a handful of phone calls from concerned friends, and hundreds of Twitter messages from people wishing me dead. One person said they wanted to pull my balls off, light them on fire, and shove them in my mouth. I remember that one well because it involves a staggering amount of planning.
The article was on Jennifer Lawrence. My editor — let's be candid here, he was a jerk — pitched me to write an article on her trip to the Oscars while drunk. I mean, good for her. I wrote the article, he titled it "A Letter to Jennifer Lawrence on her drunkenness", and published it. It got written about in the Huffington Post, Newsweek, Brooklyn Magazine, and more. You live by the sword and you'll eventually die from it. Most of my professional output for the years previously had been spent writing article after article designed to get clicks. I'm a good writer when I want to be, but there was a side of myself that was decidedly more Tony Clifton than Edward R. Murrow.
I really wanted the editor at Esquire to like me. So bad. He'd talked about giving me the Style Editor position, "if I can prove that I can get my numbers up." So I was happily available to write the most inane articles on subjects that only tangentially would do well. I spent two days calling people at the Pistachio Council of America to ask about their commercials (the question "why are the commercials so weird?" combined with the pull-quote "because it's advertising? idk" punted the thesis so far down the field that it took a Herculean feat to retrieve it). I was more than happy to jump through as many hoops as possibile for this man, for this organization. Just a couple of weeks before I'd pitched an article on massage parlors, likening the experience of being massaged by underpaid foreign workers as "magnificent, and if I imagined it was Cameron Diaz it made it better". That's my own wording. Thank fuck the article didn't make it past the pitch stage.
Everything was put through a white, straight, male lens. I assumed, wrongly, that I had some magic because of my job title, and I became a version of myself that I wasn't proud of. I stopped making art. I made the performance about the venue. I became a sell-out. Perhaps the only part that I'm angry at now is the fact that I sold out for not very much!
I spent three out of the last five years being very angry at different people in New York. My editor at the time (a guy named Mike), old colleagues who somewhat rightfully ripped me a new one for going so misogynistic, the handful of well-meaning people who outright told me off for doing so. I was a victim, I told them, I was the one that was hurt in all of this. Me, me, me. I did what I was told and I paid the price for it. I lost a career, a vantage point, a perch, that I had worked hard to get to. Wah, wah, wah.
Truth be told, I benefited from a system that shat upon many. Esquire isn't the bastion of great writing that it was in the 20th century; it's a media company trying to make it in this brave new world of the internet.The fallout from my article I still liken to being in a Zapruder-esque "right place, right time" — I'm glad it happened, now. I met my now wife two weeks after it happened, and I can honestly say that if it hadn't happened, if I hadn't had my ass handed to me, then I probably would've been too egotistical to allow her into my heart.
It's still one of the biggest names on my resume. There's a side of me that still misses the cache of saying "I write for Esquire." But that same side of me also misses the ability to wear leather pants. I'd love to tell you that I handled my massive public shaming really well and learned my lesson on the spot. The reality is that it's taken a while for the lesson to sink in. Humility is an incredible medicine. But you have to want to let it take.
Very occasionally someone will do a deep-dive and want to talk to me about it. I tell them what I'm telling you: I needed to learn a lesson, learned it by falling on my ass in public, spent a couple years blaming the floorboards, and have since become a wholly better person for the experience. One day I'll probably have to explain it to my kid. It's a fantastic lesson, I feel, in knowing who you are and realizing when you're not being true to yourself.
I've sat down and tried to write about it so many times. On the times I wrote about it, three years ago, the thesis was "I wrote it because I was trying to make money." Right now I work at a grocery store part time to supplement money made through writing and photography, and to be frank I couldn't be happier with my output, as limited as it may be, because at least I'm not letting the money or the ego dictate what I do. Call me fucking crazy, but wearing that hairnet really helps dampen the ego. And that's a good thing. Sort of like regular exercise, I now feel worse when I go a few days without wearing one. Nobody gives a shit about your journalistic prowess when you're handing people salmon over a counter wearing a big, silly coat. One great change from them to now: I love the guys I work with. We share a lot. We're open. It's a socialist attitude: we all share the good, and the bad, and own our successes and failures.
It's a really healthy way of thinking, that.
I think most people have forgotten about my whole public-shaming thing now. The winds have changed where Facebook, Twitter, et al is not the public square that it used to be. I feel better that it's fading in the rear-view mirror, but I'm no longer angry about it. There's a Terry Pratchet quote: "It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No-one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things."
So, I blame myself for my own shortcomings. I'd be a fool not to.
Comedian Frankie Boyle has a great line about feminism being a lifeline for misogynists, about feminism being the only "ism" that humanity and indeed angry straight white dudes can benefit from. It, arguably, is the only forward-thinking "ism." I hesitate to subscribe to any "ism" outright (because then you become an "ist" and an "ist" doesn't allow for flexibility in thought, and, between you and I, I'd rather be happily proven wrong than angrily assume that I'm right at all times, and yeah, this is both a run-on sentence AND a veritable study in pedantic syntax). But you'd have to be a complete fucking idiot not to want women and men on the same level. I wholeheartedly believe in feminism. The alternative, being an angry male, hasn't shown much benefit over the last 50,000 years of civilization.
(My mom desperately wants me to write for a major magazine again just so she can tell her friends that her son does that for a living. It's weird that she's still asking about it, like, using sentences like "you had the world at your fingertips, the pulse of the youth at your beck and call!" — that's a word-for-word statement, by the way. That speaks more to her than it does for me, I guess, about worldviews and self-centeredness. I could give a shit about being successful if I'm not being a good person while doing so. I may have self-destructed my own follower count, but that’s led to a much happier and healthier life.)
Esquire, it would seem, is still harping on that “default white guy” business model — and that's ok! for them! — the editor that pitched me the J. Law thing got fired a few months later, ended up working for a financial magazine. And his editor, the guy at the top of the totem pole, Granger, was fired later, too, for dumbing down the brand with clickbait (that’s a harsh assessment for a guy who did a lot of good, but it holds true). So it all ends weirdly poetically. Methinks that a society that worships at the alter of growth and money will probably have its own tipping point later, too, but that's another blog post for another time.
I'm ok with it now. I stopped drinking almost entirely because I realized that I was a drinker with a writing problem during my most big-fucking-airquotes-here "successful" period. I'm confronting depression head-on rather than through a tarp of alcohol and ego-driven-hubris. I've become way more of a hippie. I have the most incredible wife in the world. I lost a lot of hanger-on people who didn't have my best interests and health at heart. I'm left with some fantastic friends who, their words, are proud(!) of the person I've become since.
Who could ask for anything more?