2015: An Exhumation

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This is the time of year when many of my friends and colleagues step back to take inventory of the year about to pass, and to plan for the future. In previous years, I’ve joined in. This year–I don’t know.

2015, laid end to end, feels like an extended autopsy.


This summer, I stopped writing.

It wasn’t the only thing that happened this summer; nor even the defining thing. I went to Alaska. I moved across town, and into a household shaped very differently from the one in which I’d spent the last decade. I knitted more than a dozen hats and climbed a mountain. Slowly and painfully, I continued to come out as trans.


(I am writing about this in the past tense. In my head, the last six moths feel like an ongoing loop, the same calendar page over and over and over, a montage where an animator got lazy. July overwrites August overwrites September, and by October, I am unraveled, tangled into a hopeless knot of myself.

I am reconstructing, slowly: retracing my steps, trying to figure out what broke, and where. Trying to feel out the shape of what remains.

There is no manual for this.)


Maybe it goes back further: I spent the spring sitting on my hands while my best friend was shredded in the press and my community thrashed and consumed itself like an ouroboros in its death throes. I remember my certainty that I knew exactly what someone needed to say; nearly as solid as my certainty that I couldn’t be the one to say it.

(This is the year of chasing my tail and gnawing at my wrists and pacing my cage.)

(This is the year of all the lines and codes by which I live and work colliding and tangling.)

(Why did I stop writing?)


This is where it starts in my head: In early July, while I was in Anchorage, most of the comics industry was in San Diego at Comic Con International, where my former boss sexually assaulted a writer in front of multiple witnesses at an industry party.

And this much is public knowledge: When my former boss and the publisher that employ him were named, I had to drop a long-term investigative story on serial abuse and harassment in the comics industry that I’d been pursuing with a small group of fellow journalists, I walked away from more than two years of groundwork and what could have been a career-making story (and hopefully still will be for someone); because I am the spouse of a current employee of the same publisher, which constitutes an unsurpassable conflict of interest.

(Of course, I also can’t talk about this in the places and contexts where I’m not speaking as a journalist, because if my spouse’s employer decides that what I write makes him a liability, we lose our home and our health insurance.

That’s the power of the press, baby.)

Those of us working on that big story were all freelancers, mostly self-taught. We had been pursuing our investigation painstakingly, dotting every I and crossing ever T, assembling sources, pooling data.

We did this with no venue promised, and no financial or editorial support. We had approached publications, and learned that the comics press was too beholden to publishers to consider the piece, while larger mainstream venues considered it too niche. We kept going anyway, for hundreds of hours, because we believed in the story, because we knew if we found someone high enough up who was willing to–

–but of course I’m not working on that anymore.


(This is the year of gambling that my absence is of more value than my presence.)

(It’s remarkable how quickly you learn to take that on faith.)

(It’s remarkable how easy it is to just not be there.)


I stopped sleeping.

(Why did I stop writing?)


But I didn’t stop writing, not entirely. I wrote a large number of e-mails and letters between July and December of 2015; some sent, others not. I wrote grocery lists and podcast episodes and copy.

In September and October, I wrote and revised and wrote and re-wrote what felt like the same handful of letters:

I’m going to be coming out somewhat more publicly in early November, but I wanted to drop a line to family and close friends first.

I wrote and re-wrote a 1500-word FAQ to go with them:

Are you serious? Yes.

Are you sure? Yes.


Still: I didn’t publish. I didn’t even pitch.

“When you spend your career playing what basically comes down to Internet Hate Machine Roulette, you lose confidence in your ability to gauge what might or might not trigger an apocalypse,” I wrote in an e-mail to my oldest friend. “The scale and direction of backlash tends to be both disproportionate and violently random. And I think the vigilance and obsession and paranoia that environment engenders has bled a lot further into my personal life than I generally like to admit.”

(Is this why I stopped writing? Yes, and no.)

There is a kind of baseball magic that you learn when you do what I do: of doing your best to anticipate responses while acknowledging that you will never really be able to predict them. Considering every possible interpretation of every turn of phrase. Asking with every sentence: “Is this the hill I want to fight and die on?” And somewhere along the way, it went from precaution to need; habit to obsession. Somewhere, it worked its fingers deep into my skull and gripped.

Somewhere, caution became secrecy, and secrets became security blankets. Everything became need-to-know, even and especially with the people I was closest to; my thoughts sealed airtight until I could release them as perfectly honed thesis statements; until each was worthy of a theoretical last stand.

Until I was sure, beyond any shadow of doubt or vulnerability.


(The ways in which I interact with words are not–statistically–the ways that you do. What I need from words is not–again, statistically–what you need from them.)

(Remember: I’m not telling you everything.)

(This is the year of things I couldn’t and still can’t bring myself to write about.)


I had been questioning my gender identity for my whole life, but I started to question it actively, consciously, around the same time I began to work on a new essay, a much-delayed follow-up to a very personal piece I had published in 2014.

(This is the year of pulling the rug out from under myself, and being surprised when I fall.)

The essay was about gender, and pop culture, and how the specific onus to emotional labor and surrogacy as a measure of value of fictional women reflects and reinforces the same in real life. It was about how I, a woman, a feminist who wrote ardently about gender and representation, looked at the list of my most precious paper mirrors and found almost exclusively men. About looking for fictional women with the coding that I was hungry for, and not finding them.

Until I found one; and suddenly, the question became not why there weren’t women, but why I still identified more closely and immediately and intuitively with the men.

I still haven’t finished that essay.


(Why did I stop writing?)

(This is the year when nothing felt like enough.)


I don’t know where I’m going with this. If this were fiction, here is where I would emerge, scarred but tempered, resurgent, better than before.

This isn’t fiction.

(I stopped writing that, too.)


Now, I suppose, I pick up the pieces.

Now, I gamble that my presence is worth more than my absence, as I write myself back into the world.

Now, slowly, I start to rebuild relationships; see if my agent and any of my editors are still around; see if any of them are still interested. See if I have anything worth saying. See if anyone even wants to hear it.

Write anyway.

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5 Comments

  1. I found this touching. As someone with a history of depression and depression that question of presence/absence is one I ask often. Keep writing, the internet at least is better with you on it.

    Keep writing Jay,

    Reply

  2. Love you Jay! I enjoy, value, and learn from your perspective every time I read something of yours. Your written voice is calculated yet candid and, in an internet age where everyone is open to doxxing or outrage, brave. Cheers to a great 2016
    :)

    Reply

  3. I don’t know how exactly to put this without coming across trite – or just a little weird, maybe – but I sincerely find you inspirational.

    I’ve been listening to your X-Men podcast for about the past nine months now, and have come to look forward to it each week as something akin to a conversation with friends– your observations and expressed values resonate deeply with me, even through the lens of, well, comic books.

    When I learned you’d come out as trans, I was jubilant– I am, as well, and finding that a person whose work and words I have come to respect shared some part of that struggle of identity with me was an enormous affirmation.

    In a lot of this, too, I hear my own fears and doubts and apprehensions echoed.

    Obviously I don’t know you, but the intelligence and authenticity you’ve shared with the world at large has brightened my day on more than one occasion, so I suppose I just wanted to say thank you. For whatever one stranger’s opinion is worth, I very much want to hear what you have to say next– please keep writing anyway.

    Reply

  4. Jay, we all criticize ourselves. And, even when life interrupts and causes lapses in our writing, we know we’ll get back to it eventually. Just know when you do write the audience is there. I find with my own sporadic writings that the burden of not writing and wondering why can sometimes be even worse than the fear of no one reading. At least for me. As a critical writer, however I fit into that category, you are an inspiration to me in how to do it right.

    Reply

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