This week, a short essay of mine was published, and at the same moment I posted an announcement on social media, WordPress chose one of my blog posts as an editor’s pick. The first thing, the essay, I knew about, but the editor’s pick was a complete surprise. In the post, I wrote, “the reality of my inbox is crickets,” but yesterday, the reality of my inbox was a freshly hatched nest of baby birds.
When I first launched this blog on WordPress to document my travels in Asia, finding my voice as a writer (a voice I find painful to go back and re-read), I read the editor’s picks and liked the posts and thought to myself, someday. I found new blogs to follow, and those whose posts were chosen and received hundreds of likes seemed to feel compelled to write a follow-up post, a reflection on the humble beginnings of said blog, complete with gratitude, in an arguably deservedly self-congratulatory tone.
For years, I hoped to be chosen. Only when I forgot about it did it materialize, and instead of telling you about how great it feels to receive a wellspring of positivity from strangers around the globe, how grateful I am (and I swear I am), I want to tell you how it hurts.
Like this: my second thought, after some disbelief, was, there’s still work to do. As in: an editing deadline to meet, a book proposal to write, books to read and write. While I guess that line of thinking keeps me humble, it also keeps me from pausing long enough to enjoy the moment—to revel in the fact that I put a piece of writing out into the world that resonated with people. That’s what I wanted, didn’t I?
Like this: it hurts because I wanted it, and I thought that exterior validation through the form of publication was what I needed to prove my self-worth, and now that it’s here, it has arrived, I see my self-worth is far too dependent on the words and actions of others. I thought publication and attention and accolades would validate me as a person, as a writer. I thought it would elevate my self-worth. But instead of reveling in these small and necessary accomplishments, events that are very reaffirming for me as a writer and oft-reluctant blogger, the issues I thought would be solved with publication were only magnified. As I wrote this morning, I cried—sobbed—to the point of gasping for air, blowing my nose so hard it bled.
Despite—or because—of everything, I did not feel seen or heard—at precisely the moment when I thought I would.
I’d be lying if I said this was all about having one post receive a mere blip of attention in the vast span and scope of the internet. (“I am not a special snowflake,” whispered Roxane Gay.) It’s never about one thing. That’s the problem with writing, blogging, with narrative—done poorly, it loses all sense of nuance.
“More often [true moral complexity] is found by wading into the swamp, getting intimate with discomfort, and developing an appetite for nuance,” Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty. Quoting Barthes, aiming to “live according to nuance,” Nelson adds that “By definition, there is no master sketch for what such a thing might look like. It can only be an experiment.”
How much of an appetite can a blog have for nuance, how much room for discomfort, for wading? How far off track do I have to get before I tell you: someone very close to me did something that made me feel not seen and not heard—unseen and unheard. Invisible. They did not acknowledge my existence, rendered me a nonentity. The intention was not malicious, there was an apology, and that, combined with the flood of attention to a single blog post, should have been enough to tell me that I am seen, heard.
Nuance is harboring intense gratitude and severe self-loathing at the same time. That knee-jerk reaction, there’s still work to do, is dedication and ambition and the depths of low self-worth, at the root of which is the feeling of not being good enough. (“No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself. That’s the terrible efficiency of gas lighting,” writes Claire Vaye Watkins in her essay “On Pandering.”)
So here, now that I have your attention, let’s open up that wound. Let’s blow past the surface-level gratitude, the titles and lines on a CV, and let’s explore the question of what it means to be seen and heard in a culture and society where every movement is tracked, every meal, interaction, conversation, and event can be shared widely and immediately. What does it mean to feel seen and heard? What does it mean to feel connected? What does it mean to feel good enough? And what if I defined it for myself, rather than blindly ascribing to societal conditioning? What if (and how) do I divorce my self-worth from the thoughts and opinions of others? If external validation feels empty, how can I make myself feel seen and heard?
“Such a project generally gets a bad rap in our culture: nuance is all well and good for the ivory tower, people say, but in the ‘real’ world, what position are you going to take? Whose side are you on? Where will you land at the end of the day, or at the end of days?” (The Art of Cruelty)
Head still throbbing and nose full of snot, I slipped into the most ridiculous lavender-colored knee-high socks, laced-up my sneakers, and went for a run—for maybe the second time in six months. I ran not through the streets of my neighborhood, not over the sidewalks, but through the abandoned alleys. Footsteps landed on cracks and potholes and clumps of deadwet leaves, on paths that were largely neglected. I did not run on the streets where I could be seen, did not run on the sidewalk where I might be heard, but tread lightly past the empty backyards, asking myself with each taptaptap on broken pavement what it would be like to see and hear only for my self. A mile later, clearer-headed, catching my breath, I passed a winter camellia in bloom—pale salmon petals with a gold stamen. I could tell you that I had a mini-epiphany, walking past the tree and its flowers, but that would be a lie. I did not land on any answers in the alleys, did not land on anything except my own two feet. So maybe that’s it, that’s the point, or the solution, or part of the solution: to land on one’s own two feet.