I told them not to read it. “This one isn’t for you,” I said. But of course they did anyway. The book came out in March, and they came to visit in May. As I drove to the airport and waited for their plane to touch down, unease gave way to dread. And the moment I spotted them walking past the security checkpoint, I could see it in their expressions.
“You read it,” I said.
“I learned some things,” my father answered.
And my mother, tearfully, asked, “Why didn’t you tell us?”
All my life I’ve kept things from my parents. Any time a teacher sent a note home about my misbehaving in school, I flushed it down the toilet. When I got arrested for smoking pot during college, rather than ask them to help pay for a lawyer, I got a job as a telemarketer, hoarded cash, and lived on ramen for a semester. And when, in 2004, my fiancée and I split up a month before our wedding, I told them only that we’d realized we weren’t a good match, that the decision was better for everyone. I didn’t tell them that she’d left me for someone else, or that the someone else happened to perform as a drag king, or that the shock and bewilderment had left me depressed and nearly suicidal, or that I’d spent two drunken years facing all the ugliest truths about myself in order to reckon with my identity.
Instead, I wrote about those things and published a memoir.
“You’re so brave,” people told me after The Next Scott Nadelson came out, revealing two years’ worth of humiliation to the handful of people who read my books. In reply I’d smile and thank them and say that writing and publishing the book had been a difficult process, but that it had been worth it; it had taught me so many things about myself, and even if many of those things were painful to admit, I was better off for having done so. Honesty is purifying, I said.
But that was mostly bullshit. Writing and publishing a book about that period of my life hadn’t been all that difficult, not compared to living it. In fact, while writing the book I’d often found myself cackling out loud at the hapless, heartbroken fool stumbling from one disaster to another. Thank god I’m not him anymore, I’d think, and record another humiliating episode.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t find writing easy. I sweat over my sentences, scrap most of them, replace them with new ones, and scrap most of those, too. I question the worth of every word I type, fret over rejection and bad reviews, and for weeks on end convince myself I’ll never write anything decent again. With every new story or essay, I spend a ridiculous amount of time agonizing and despairing and talking myself into going on. Even this blog post I’ve already abandoned and restarted three times, making myself continue only because I owe it to my loyal publisher, who’s lost untold amounts of money on me since publishing my first book a dozen years ago.
In other words, I’m like just about every other writer I know, with more bad writing days than good ones, and plenty of complaints. Still, writing isn’t nearly as challenging as being a good friend or a good spouse or a good son. It doesn’t even come close, I’ve learned since my daughter was born six years ago, to being as difficult as parenting. And of course there’s a whole lot less at stake.
What I’m trying to say is this: being brave on paper is far easier than being brave in actual life. All those hours sitting alone in a dark room, clicking away on sentences that exposed the truths I’d never had the courage to speak out loud, were hours I avoided navigating the dangerous world of human interaction that consistently flummoxes me and fills me with shame.
After asking himself how long it’s been since expressing love to a brother, the speaker in my favorite Philip Levine poem says, “You’ve never done something so simple, so obvious, not because you’re too young or too dumb, not because you’re jealous or even mean … no, just because you don’t know what work is.”
Yes, I worked hard on that book, as I’m working hard on this blog post. But was it harder work than speaking honestly to my parents about what was happening in my life?
Writing, on its own, isn’t bravery. But it doesn’t have to be avoidance behavior, either, or so at least I’m telling myself now. Maybe, instead, it’s preparatory work, practice for living. It allows me to try out a version of myself I can’t quite manage in ordinary life. It lets me play-act the truth-teller who isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, who welcomes intimacy and connection as his lifeblood. It helps me to invent a Scott Nadelson who doesn’t exist outside of this dark room with clicking computer keys, one who can don a costume of courage and take pride in stripping away delusion in favor of honesty. And then maybe the next Scott Nadelson, the one who will walk out of this room into sunlight, the one who will drive across town to teach a class, the one who will pick up his daughter from school and spend the evening with his spouse and talk to his parents on the phone, the one who needs the courage to speak truthfully about who he is and what he thinks and feels, maybe one day he’ll be ready to work for it.