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Gaze At My Navel
On abandoning apologies, disclaimers, and permission.
Hey, beloved readers. Today I am sharing a first-ever glimpse at an excerpt from the first draft of my memoir (did I mention that it’s a first draft, and it’s rough, so rough?? I mean, it doesn’t even know what it’s doing with its life, you guys. It may wind up on the cutting room floor. OK, I’ll stop now.). Ironically, it’s all about ditching disclaimers. See how I just did the opposite up there? Super meta, yes? I’m just going to leave this here, keep muttering preamble under my breath, and back slowly, slowly out of the room. Here I go.
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Gaze At My Navel
I have a disclaimer problem. Not a problem with disclaimers, per se, as in I object to their use, but rather, I am the problem. I can’t stop using them. I suspect it stems from my deeply embedded Scandinavian Lutheran Midwest Nice roots. Those fuckers run deep. I am a nice girl who hates being nice. I am approval-seeking while railing against the systems that cause girls to seek approval. I am apologetically unapologetic.
Since I can’t seem to make up my mind whether my top priority is making as many people feel comfortable as possible or doing what I want to do with my actual life, I am frequently paralyzed into inaction. But I have a handy tool to fix this problem!—the disclaimer.
It allows me to speak my mind and pursue my own agenda while preemptively reassuring other people that I also see their point of view and mean them no harm, and really, my point of view is sort of also their point of view, I mean, I’m really here to make sure every single person feels seen and approved of, pay no attention to this tiny little opinion of mine that is being shouted with apparent largeness. I can and will have it both/all ways; I’m a woman of the people!
The disclaimer is quite useful when talking, speaking, or writing about motherhood. It’s so easy to pull out the “Of course I love my kids more than anything!” card and wave it around right before I share my maternal ambivalence and reveal the shameful secret that I prefer my children in small doses.
When you are a woman who writes or speaks in a public forum, you are constantly faced with irresistible opportunities to issue disclaimers that paradoxically serve the larger purpose of diminishing your work. I know; who could resist! I nearly began this memoir with the tantalizing line: “The most embarrassing idea I ever had was to write this book.” Drawn as we are to public displays of others’ embarrassment, it certainly had the makings of a compelling hook, but alas, its true objective was to assure readers that I am well aware how ridiculous I am. How navel-gazing. How self-absorbed.
I wanted to stamp a warning right at the top that said, “Don’t worry, I know writing memoir is really self-involved, especially for hetero-cis-white middle class women who lacked any Capital T trauma in their lives. You don’t have to read it! Believe me, I get it. Like, I’m embarrassed just to have had the idea.”
Navel-gazing was my personal Achilles heel, and I had found that slapping on a tidy disclaimer had all the benefits of alleviating my discomfort while allowing me to continue down a path of soul-searching, excavation, and eventual public spewing forth of my discoveries, cloaked with just enough self-deprecation to illustrate that I didn’t take myself that seriously.
But the problem is, I love navel-gazing. And I love writing about my life. I also love listening to other people earnestly share their self-discoveries with me, and I love reading about other people’s lives. One of my favorite aspects of my career is to champion women sharing their stories and to curate their work, bringing it into the public eye. One might even say that a core value of mine is elevating women’s stories and reminding both the writers and the audience of the dynamic power of our words to bring people together and positively impact the world at large. So why would I preach this truth while not allowing myself the same ease and joy I encourage other writers to find? (Spoiler alert: because I have a lot of fucking issues.)
The next step in making peace with navel-gazing was embracing the fiery rage of indignation, ala “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” I deftly incorporated the “pocket rage” Elizabeth Beauvais wrote about in her 2017 Mutha Magazine piece, “Totally Fine, Also Rage”, into my personal life, frequently possessed by the niggling sensation that no man could ever understand the uphill battle of what it felt like to have to justify the value of telling your story, of simply existing as the truest, most joyful version of yourself.
I nearly drove off the road vigorously nodding along to every episode of Glennon Doyle’s “We Can Do Hard Things” podcast, sometimes audibly snorting with relief-disgust or muttering, “Mmmmhmmm” to nobody but my two confused rescue dogs in the backseat. I read Melissa Febos’ essay “In Praise of Navel Gazing,” proclaimed it my new Bible, and tattooed its essence into my very being. Everywhere I looked, there it was: “Why do women feel that their stories do not deserve to be told?”
I know in my bones that cis, hetero male writers do not wrestle with this in the same ways that the rest of us do. I don’t want to perpetuate this inequity, this travesty, and yet I find it’s harder than I think to shake it off and unabashedly share my words without squirming to tack on a disclaimer.
Essentially, I wrote all the negative reviews for this book in my head before I actually began writing the book. Navel gazing drivel, who cares, just another woman whining, poor little bored mother having a fake “crisis,” what is the point, now we can write books about nothing and expect people to read it, publishing her diary, too much, not enough, this writer must have gotten her feelings hurt by a football player who didn’t want her, special snowflake, too sensitive.
It took a minute, but eventually I deposited this commentary exactly where it belonged: in the fucking trash can (“The circular file,” as a more refined woman might put it). Because I didn’t really believe it. Months ago, my teenage daughter was recounting a conversation that had deeply hurt her feelings, a remark that felt unjust. This was before I’d made the short-lived but determined effort to stop offering advice and just listen, so I offered up this little gem: “Well, you can put that in your suitcase and carry it around with you, or you can throw it in the garbage. Is this a value you believe deeply in? No? Then trash it.”
I felt proud of my new favorite metaphor, but it took an embarrassingly long time before the hypocrisy of my own habits smacked me in the face. When addressing my own inner critic, whom I picture as a tiny white man living in a cupboard inside my psyche, I had no problem telling him to close the door and go back to Fox News and keep his stupid opinions to himself. But when it came to actual people? Damned if I wasn’t going to win them over! I would be the woman who finally presented them with the most dazzling analogy they’d ever heard, the one who inspired them to rub the cobwebs from their eyes, confess the myriad ways in which they had contributed to ignorance and cruelty, beg for forgiveness, and then give me the slow clap for my impeccable delivery. So you see, there was no reason for me to throw someone else’s trashy opinion in the bin, I would just convert them.
I was essentially saying that my daughters should do the more practical and appropriate work of allowing and promptly dismissing other people’s disapproving opinions and oppressive commentary, but this Midwest people pleaser was here to recruit! I would be the writer the whole family could agree on! Cool chick and gentle nurturer, eviscerating wordsmith and overnight oat preparer, feisty co-conspirator and patient teacher, dichotomous aspects would balance to make me not only palatable to all parties, but the most deeply validated and widely approved of female author of all time.
I believe this slowly dawning lightbulb moment was when I became angry, and when I finally made some changes. The healthiest pursuit would be to trash the disclaimers, the permission-seeking, the thinly veiled apologies disguised as self-deprecation. That was a tall order, but I could begin with one tiny step: it was time to accept that I would not be everyone’s cup of tea. I needed to stop thrusting mugs into their faces and demanding, “Drink my tea, motherfucker, and like it!”
Trying to play for all teams was the opposite of what I actually stood for. I would empty that toxic waste right out of my suitcase, and rather than trash it, maybe mix it into the cow shit that fertilized my garden. I could take that misogynistic, patriarchal, oppressive, mean-book-critic energy and use it to elevate the fertility of my soil, channel it to grow the crispest kale the world has ever seen. Or some other fucking awesome metaphor.
I would unflinchingly gaze at my navel, and mean it. I would stop being apologetically unapologetic as part of my on-brand charm; my duplicity was harming other women and contributing to the continued suppression of their voices. For every female writer who cringed while trying to justify writing about her childhood, her marriage, her motherhood, her therapy, there were thousands more who wouldn’t even have dreamed of talking about it, let alone writing about it. It was time for me to be all in: no apologies, no permission, no disclaimer required.
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