Over the past few years, I’ve gotten really bad at receiving compliments and accolades. It’s not because I’m modest; It’s because I’m self-deprecating. I indulge in negative self-talk and awkwardness when it comes to noticing good things about myself. Then I went through a series of three very different events that all taught me the same lesson—everything has both good and bad parts, both strengths and weaknesses, including me. And you can’t focus only on the bad if you want to live a comfortable life.
That Cash Money: Winning a Writing Contest
A couple weeks before all of this, I had gotten an email from Omaha Public Libraries (OPL) telling me that I was a finalist in a contest I had entered during the summer. The email invited me to The Pageturners Lounge to discover if I had won.
I took this opportunity to drive home to Omaha and spend time with my mom and dog. I
was trying not to get my hopes up, trying to tell myself I was driving home just to have a fun night, but it was all lies. I had been receiving rejections from literary magazines for a while, so I really wanted something positive to come from my writing. Even so, I kept telling myself not to get my hopes up, because I didn’t really believe it could happen.
After a homemade dinner and a few snuggles with Reggie, my mom and I drove to downtown Omaha while jamming out to the Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 soundtrack (which I highly recommend singing along to in the characters’ voices). My mom noticed I was in a weird and overly excitable mood, but she just laughed and sang along anyway.
The Pageturners Lounge was basically a bar for booklovers. We promptly got roped into the literary pub quiz, which is exactly what it sounds like. Despite me being an English major and my mom studying to be an English teacher, we could answer only five questions total (well, six, if you count saying the correct answer under your breath but
not writing it down). The questions were obscure and difficult, often allowing us only to answer half or none of it at all. But we joked about it and promised that if we ever did a pub quiz again, we would brush up on our trivia. Team #3: The Sleuths will be victorious!
After two interminable rounds, a representative from OPL took the microphone and proceeded to talk about the contest and the foundation that had put it on. I had peed when we got there, but I already had to go again because I was so nervous.
Then I heard my name. And a judge began describing my short story to everyone in the bar. And someone else came over to hand me an envelope containing a check for $500. I was gobsmacked; my mouth literally fell open. I couldn’t believe that I had won, because I had been inundated with rejections and negativity (from myself) as of late. I didn’t even let myself get excited about winning, because I wasn’t sure how. I wasn’t sure how to acknowledge that I deserved the money and the prize; I wasn’t sure how to acknowledge my talent, even though someone else had.
I let myself smile and cling to the envelope. I thanked the OPL representative. And then we left, and I sang even more enthusiastically on the ride home. That’s the best I could do at the time, and that’s okay. The more I acknowledge my strengths, the more I will be proud of myself and what I can do.
Fatness and Not Forgiving: A Reading of Hunger by Roxane Gay
The next day, I took off work for an author visit to my campus, changing my night of copy editing into a night of reading and friends. I had only read one book by Roxane Gay, and I only read it because I won it for free in a raffle, but it ended up sticking with me. Her memoir Hunger challenged my views of fat people, pointing out the problematic views I have had in the past, and also made me more aware of the complexities that every person embodies—which is the best kind of book.
So I waited to get into her book reading for over an hour, standing and sitting with friends from my last class. Gay was funny and strong and opinionated and honest.
Before reading a few chapters out of her memoir Hunger, Gay discussed why she decided to write it. She said the thing she least wanted to write about was fatness, but she knew from experience that the most terrifying intellectual pursuits are often the most rewarding and stimulating.
Then she read three separate chapters from her book—one about hating exercise, one about a chef she loves, and one about the ring-leader of the group who had gang-raped her as a young girl. While she read, I noticed that I was laughing at lines that I had read very seriously on my own. She read her own work a lot funnier than I had, which made me think differently of the memoir. Maybe it should be taken both lightly and seriously; maybe there’s not only sadness when it comes to difficult topics, but also laughter.
But the most informative part of the evening was her Q&A. There are two pieces of advice she gave, to writers and to people in general, that stuck with me—and probably will stick with me for a long time. The first is that we should feel free not to forgive people; it’s not our job to forgive, it’s their job not to do things that require forgiveness. The second is that writers should “be relentless” and take themselves seriously as writers. She said writing can be a thankless job or hobby but won’t feel that way if you enjoy it.
Gay reminded me that I should allow myself both sadness and happiness in one space, because we all contain contradictory identities that somehow all make sense. We need to allow space for everything, the weaknesses and the strengths, without sugarcoating or denying them. Gay’s sincere honesty is a rare gift, one not often found even in the most eloquent of writers. And I will cherish that gift, because it came at a time that I still felt like I needed to apologize for certain aspects of my existence.
Unapologetic Jamming: The Fall Out Boy M A N I A Tour
After all of this, I still had one more thing to look forward to: going to a Fall Out Boy concert. Pop punk is my favorite genre of music, so I was PUMPED. And Machine Gun Kelly (whose music is a guilty pleasure of mine) was one of the openers. AMAZING! Concerts are one of the few places I let myself be free—I sing and scream as loud as I want, I dance and head bang, and I make funny faces at my friends. I put my phone away and I let myself live in the moment. Don’t underestimate living in the moment—it’s a very rare phenomenon for someone with extreme anxiety.
We were in the nosebleeds, which was a little disappointing, but when Machine Gun Kelly (MGK) came on, I was the only one of my friends who stood up and sang. Then an employee of the venue came around and offered us tickets MUCH closer to the stage. The only bad part—he offered them during MGK’s set. So I took my ticket and ran, leaving my friends in the dust. I ran down the stairs, into people, around people, and finally into our super close (but not on the ground) seats. I stood and sang and jammed to MGK’s entire set on my own, unable to scrounge up any feelings of guilt or shame from something I enjoyed. Usually, I think people will find what I like stupid or strange, but at concerts, all of that goes out the window. I’m not
going to let my innate embarrassment of everything I enjoy ruin a fun time.
Then Fall Out Boy arrived on the stage, and I completely lost all sense of embarrassment (again). My friend Bekah and I sang so loud (even mimicking some of the guitar riffs) and danced and jumped and put our middle fingers up. (Okay, I’m the only one who put a middle finger up, but only because they asked me to!) Every song became my favorite song in the moment that it was playing. I had another chance to dispel my embarrassment, because I really like FOB’s new music. A lot of OG fans hate or strongly dislike it, but it’s so fun to jam to. Sure, the old stuff made eighth-grade me very happy, but all of it was awesome. It was just so cool to see a band I’ve liked for a long time in concert.
I exerted so much energy that I almost had an asthma attack, and I was coughing all day the next day, but it was so worth it. What’s a little cough when you get to see two bands you love perform in the same night?
This post is not to brag about my good fortune or my money or my privilege. It is merely to let myself know that I am allowed to enjoy things, that I am allowed to be proud of myself, that I don’t have to apologize for existing. I almost always focus on what I perceive as my weaknesses, and this week was the start of me adding my strengths into the mix. I am a good writer, I love reading diverse books, and I like new FOB and white boy rap.
I am learning how to accept myself, both the good and the bad. And if I have to win money and go to concerts just to learn that, well then I guess I’ll just have to deal with it.