That’s a sentence from the book Toilet Bowl by Kate Zambreno. There was a time when this line would pop into my head often, when I was in the shower or waiting for the bus. I become obsessed with myself as a minor author in society. I visit my Goodreads page. It took me a while to figure out why this line spoke to me deeply, and why it made me laugh. It’s because it describes what the year 2011 was like for me.
About four years ago, I’d never done a reading before, never read my work to strangers. I lived in New York City for some years where readings were frequent, but I was more interested in writing in my journal and drinking at bars and self-destructing than attending a reading. I attended three readings in my early twenties: one in Northampton, Massachusetts with my mother, to see Sparrow from The Sun magazine, the other two less memorable.
Because I went to Europe instead of college after high school, I could not have a Facebook account, because that’s how Facebook was in 2004. In Europe, I used my friends’ passwords to get on Facebook and snoop around. When I did get a Facebook page, I didn’t use it much. My girl friends and I would mostly just mess with each other on it. When I was living in New York City my group of friends and I didn’t use it often. We were not exactly tech savvy. We constantly lost and broke our Nokia phones. I took writing classes though I didn’t even have a computer.
A few years later when I moved upstate, my life still was not Facebook-centric. There was no tagging and there was no like button. Months would go by without people posting on my wall. I did not obsessively check it. It wasn’t a lifestyle thing for me yet.
When my book of essays was accepted for publication, my publisher wanted to announce it on Facebook on a Friday at three p.m. I was excited—the kind of excited that would be much more fun if you weren’t also filled with dread. It wasn’t a secret that I wrote, but it was not something I flaunted. Only my parents and good friends knew. My Facebook friends were not writers and most of them didn’t know I wrote. If I had a piece in an online literary journal I would not dream of linking it.
My publisher was on the west coast, so waiting for three o’clock felt eternal. I grocery shopped. I took a hike. I made my bed, which is something I do possibly twice a year. At three o’clock, I shut the door to my bedroom and sat at my desk.
Finally he called my cell phone and we went over the plan. He would share the news and I would share it from him on my page. Okay. Deep breath. He shared it on his side. I sat at my desk, terrified, just staring at the screen. My phone vibrated with a text. Share the link now! Anxiety to the max. I shared his link and timidly announced my book. Reactions trickled in. Friend requests. My Facebook friends slowly became less high school acquaintances and more writers. I came out of the writer closet, the closet where I was safe.
My Facebook feed changed rapidly over the next months. Suddenly, people at microphones were popping up everywhere I went. They held papers or books or beers in their hands. (Now they hold cell phones, which is a bummer.)
Because I did not have a photo of myself at a microphone, I felt bad about myself. These writers were above me. I was behind, inferior even. Was I even a writer? I didn’t have a photo of myself at a microphone, so how could I be? (I’m only half kidding.)
Before I was a writer I was a singer. It was my thing. It started in grade school when I was always given the solos in plays and choir. I started taking voice lessons at ten and continued until I was twenty. I went to my hour long voice lesson each Wednesday after school. I had many different teachers. One had me lie on the floor and breathe with a dictionary on my stomach. One started a traveling company and we’d go to New York City and perform showcases. One was a famous Opera singer in Italy. I sang Italian Arias at recitals in front of people. I got lead roles in plays. I was always the strongest in choir. Went on auditions. I went to All-County. I went to NYSSMA. (New York State School Music Association.) I was used to being at a microphone, in that regard. When I was a singer, I was the singer. My mom used to say that to my dad: She likes to be front and center. She doesn’t like to be back-up. While getting drunk with my mother at a vineyard this summer, she surprised me by telling me her dream for me was for me to be a backup singer for someone like Rufus Wainwright. That was her fantasy for my life. When my mother struggled with my writing, my content, the whole lifestyle it brought, and I was upset by it, my father, always on my side, raised his voice, exclaimed, She raised you to be a writer! No one ever said I was raised to be a singer.
My obsession with writing is not dissimilar to my singing obsession. My family took to calling a rock in the garden my “Singing Rock.” It was where I sat for hours, singing my stream of consciousness. In my way, I was wordy. If I heard a song once, I knew it forever. Verbatim. Often friends will recount an event to me and I will tell them “No. That’s not what we said. This is what we said.” I will give it back to them the verbatim. “You are right,” they will say, “That is what we said.” Riding in the car was the other place I sang. My dad used to laugh at the way I would sing the backup part at the same time as the main part. I sang along with the noise the car makes that reminds you to put your seatbelt on. I sang along to guitar solos. “I didn’t know you could play guitar,” my dad would say. At the dinner table, when I was cold, I would make noise. My brother would ask me to stop. My mom and I once kept a joint journal and wrote things we were grateful to each other for (hippies) and I remember once she wrote “The way you sang on the entire ride to Boston and back. When we parked in the driveway, you said, That was fun! This was when I still sang around people, before I created some sort of personal conflict about it and started singing alone in cars. Only alone.
The first reading I did was at Pianos in New York City. I was terrified and had been practicing for months, the way I would a musical performance. I’d take hikes alone and read my essay out loud until I knew it by heart. I could have recited the essay if the paper had been taken away from me. I invited my parents to this reading because for some reason I had the fear it would be the only reading I ever did, ever in my life, (though I would go on to do dozens, sometimes never practicing, showing up late). Before I left for the city, my father came into my room. I was sitting at my desk. I was almost about to cry, I was that scared. I’ll be okay, right Dad? I asked him. This is the kind of thing you’re really good at it, he said.
Someone took photos at the reading. The next day I had photos of myself at the microphone. I was proud. I had joined the club. In the photos, my hands are stiff at my sides. My mouth is open. I was too dressed up, in a pair of my friend’s black heels one wears to a wedding or the prom. They were too small for me but I thought they were sexy so I wore them anyway. What does one wear to read? I have worn so many different things. In the photos, I have a red dress on that I bought from Nordstrom Rack. My essay is on the music stand.
I posted the photos to Facebook. My father walked into my room and looked over my shoulder. I looked up at him and said, Dad, look at this. I look like I’m singing. He looked over my shoulder. Oh yeah, he said, you do—I didn’t even think of that. The “that” that he was talking about was that I used to get up in front of people all the time and walk onto the stage. I’m a real writer now, I thought, because I have a photo at a microphone. I have joined the team. This is how it begins.
Inspired by all of the reading series I started to go to, I began to host my own in the loft where my father and I lived. One night, drinking box wine, I was in a conversation with someone about writing. My dad was next to me on the couch in a conversation with someone else. There was a lull and my dad turns to me, hears me talking. He then turns to the person next to him and gestures to me. Writing. Now that’s a hole you don’t want to fall into, he said.
When I tell people I used to sing (that’s how I usually word it) they ask me why. I think stopped singing when singing began to feel competitive. I’ve always loathed competition. It scares me off, probably because my brother was into it. If he couldn’t cream you at something, he’d go study up on it until he could and then emerge from his room like some sort of monster and challenge you to the game you had no chance of winning. He liked chess and Monopoly, two games you cannot pay me to play, (well, unless the sum of money is quite large). I despise games—I despised anything in which there was only one way, one right way to do it.
There are right ways to sing. There is terminology for things you can do wrong. There are right and wrong ways to breathe. The reason I love writing is because there is not a right way. I get to do it the way I want to do it when I want to do it without someone breathing down my neck. Singing is extroverted. Writing is introverted.
My least favorite thing was at family parties or social gatherings when someone would ask me to sing. Nothing made me shut down faster. With writing, it’s true that people can say, you’re a writer? Write me something! Read me something! But most often they don’t. They ask you what you write and they ask you if you’ve been published. But people are quick to ask you to sing for them. I was scared of singing infinitely more than I am scared of writing. And how does one used to sing? Don’t I still sing even though I don’t get up in front of people? Don’t I still sing even though I don’t pay a voice teacher? Do I sing in the shower, do I sing along with the radio? Sure. The most writing I ever did with the most joy was when I wasn’t enrolled in any class and wasn’t publishing anything. I was having fun.
Do you have to choose just one passion? Writing canceled out singing. I tell people a narrative I’ve created, I tell them the same lie (Is it a lie? I’m not sure) that I tell myself. I tell them I moved to New York City and couldn’t afford voice lessons. When I was twenty in New York City, I could not figure out what creative expression called my name. I tried drawing, painting, singing, I went to dance classes, yoga, but it ended up being writing. Sometimes it feels like I traded one thing for the other. Sometimes I don’t know if we get to choose.
I’ve always loved snooping, and I feel that reading your book reviews is a socially acceptable way to see what people are saying about you. It throws you when for years you’re alone at the desk with the door closed drinking chicory coffee and only your dad sees. Then there is a book image attached to your name and people can find pockets of the internet and write what they wish about you. You are on Amazon. You have a Goodreads page. And you? You have to take it. It’s mind blowing, really. It’s trippy. It sends you on a trip.
People were fast to throw adjectives my way. After a while I noticed all the adjectives were the same, so I skimmed reviews. Nothing new to see here. Attention fucks with the soul if you are not practice in handling attention, which I was not.
When I worked at a bookstore I was able to look up when my book last sold. I could see people looking at it in the store. One day my book was in the stack that a man was buying. What do you do? Say something? Not say something? You can’t win either way. I said, I actually wrote this and he was like, Cool.
Give me a writer that hasn’t Googled themselves and I will give you a quarter. What I liked about Zambreno’s sentence was the statement of it. She did not apologize. Googling yourself is like a joke, but it’s actually not because it’s true. Without Facebook you need something to check. I turned to Goodreads. If one day my book had 49 reviews and a month later, 50, I’d scroll through to find it. Then I would “like” it, which is definitely creepy to the reviewer. I do visit my Goodreads page. I visit it all the time. The reviews came in fast. Three of the reviewers, I had sex with. Another one rented me a room in her house. One is my dad’s friend in Iceland. Sometimes I will forget about Goodreads. A month or two will go by and then I will remember, panicked. Oh my god, what if there’s graffiti.
She can quit cold turkey! my mother brags to people when I deactivate Facebook. It’s the only thing I can quit cold turkey. Facebook makes you more vulnerable, more annoyed, and attention, even when it’s good, can be a motherfucker. Like I said, I was writing with the door closed. Stephen King says to write drafts with the door closed. Then open it for the edits. When I opened my door, I opened it wide. The door came off the hinges. I was naked. I said yes to everything. I compulsively met my readers for coffee. When strangers emailed me about my book, I would engage with them and meet them at bars. For a year, I did this. I made some fantastic friends, but I can’t help but feel that I took it too far.
You can stop being singer but I don’t know that writing works the same way. Reminders that I write, even when I haven’t been writing, trickle in. Last week I received a $2.25 check for a piece of online writing. This is not a joke. $2.25. The next day Inside Edition contacted me. Was I available to do an interview about my heroin addiction?
I become obsessed with myself as a minor author in society. I visit my Goodreads page. Sometimes I’d go long stretches without Googling myself of visiting my Goodreads page. Then, when I’d remember about Goodreads, I’d panic. Oh no! What if there were bad things being said about me and I wasn’t in the know? I would always think Chloe Caldwell sucks was going to come up in the search engine. Chloe Caldwell’s writing is shit. It’s the same feeling as when you carve your name into a table and when you go back it says “smells” underneath it. That has never happened to me (that I’ve seen) but the point is that it could.
Facebook, singing, readings, writing, they are all microphones, giving you a choice of the level you want to speak into them. I am still figuring it out, as I always will be. Until then: I visit my Goodreads page and I sing in the car.