Eventually, You Write Your Own Story

I have loved Jennifer Weiner since her first book, Good in Bed, was released in 2001. That book, and the ones that followed (13 and counting) resonated with me so deeply it was as if they had secret messages encoded in them. And not just because, like Jen, I’m a chubby Jewish girl with hair that has less volume than I’d like, but because from the first I could read between the lines of her comedy, which felt so much like my own joking exterior, and recognize the particular shape of her pain:

The abusive father she estranged herself from, not because she wanted to but because she had to. The complicated childhood. The devastating breakup. The never-ending battle with her body. The particular humiliation and bravado that comes from being a smart, funny, talented, ambitious, hyper-verbal, sometimes mean, sexually precocious, attractive but not necessarily beautiful, fat girl.

Fat girl. Saying those words out loud isn’t scary anymore, because while I’m still fatter than I want to be, I’m also now happily married and a mother and successful in my career and loved and healthy. I know how my story turns out. But I was 32 when Good in Bed landed in my hands, still devastated by the end of my first marriage, caught in a self-destructive swirl, and so plagued by self-loathing I avoided looking at myself at all costs, refusing to meet my own eyes in the mirror, avoiding my image in store windows, ignoring my grief, the hollow center of myself.

I had never read anything like Good in Bed. Here was a character that felt so familiar she made me cry, someone who got her happy ending without having to lose half her body weight, someone who got to stay fat and still have a life worth envying. It was nothing short of a revelation.

And Jen kept the stories coming, usually just in time for summer, books featuring women characters with longings and insecurities, thighs that rubbed together and authentic problems, always delivered with heart and humor, with a blistering insight into a secret hurt that felt personal.

In a lot of ways, I grew up — the real kind of growing up, the kind you do as an adult, when there’s nothing left but to die or change — with a Jennifer Weiner book in my hands.

I identified with her, probably over-identified with her. I’ve never met her in person, but we’re connected on social media, and I once posted on Facebook that she was my imaginary back-up best friend, in the event something happens to my actual real-life best friend, and she responded to me saying we had a deal, she’d be there for me if I needed her. I was so excited by this that I printed the post out and hung it over my desk at work.

I’ve bought everything she’s published, sometimes in multiple formats, sometimes to give away as gifts. So of course I bought her new book of essays, Hungry Heart, in which she exposes her personal life and shares stories I had already guessed at about her childhood, her father, the end of her first marriage, her writing life. I stopped reading during an early chapter about her being socially ostracized in elementary school to tweet that there would always be a seat for her at my lunch table (and then refreshed Twitter over and over to see if she’d reply, which she didn’t, but she did like my tweet).

And then, in a chapter about her early career, she hit me with this:

I needed to find a J-O-B, one where I’d be paid to write, where I was, per Professor McPhee’s advice, writing every day. The two fields that came to mind were advertising and journalism. I rejected advertising immediately. No way was I going to be a shill in corporate America, using my talent to sell debt-ridden citizens useless crap! Besides, I was convinced, for absolutely no reason rooted in reality, that I’d end up working on the tampon campaign, and that my professional life would be spent finding synonyms for the word “absorbent.”

I’ve worked in advertising since 2007. I’m a creative director, which is a significant achievement for anyone in my industry, but particularly for women (though we’re working to change that). I didn’t study advertising in school, or go to portfolio school — everything I’ve accomplished in the past 9 years is the result of hard work, significant mentorship, the help of generous, excellent bosses and colleagues, and my own steely determination to succeed. I’m proud of a lot of what I’ve worked on, and there’s nothing I’m ashamed of. I am an enthusiastic supporter of young women (and dudes) in adland, and have mentored several of them up the ladder — frequently from being assistants to becoming copywriters (remember to hire me when I’m old, you guys). It’s not perfect, and I don’t romanticize it, but advertising has provided me with innumerable creative challenges, the opportunity to meet and work with some of the smartest people you’ll find anywhere, and a fascinating look at how business works. It’s taught me discipline, time management, empathy. It’s made me a better thinker, a better writer, more resilient. And the money is great.

So I’d like to tell you that my immediate response was, “Fuck you, Jennifer Weiner. You couldn’t hack my job for a single day. And also, maybe you’ve heard of Always’s #LikeAGirl. Or Dove Real Beauty. Or seen the Expedia spot in which a father travels to his daughter’s wedding and welcomes her new wife into the family. Or the Secret commercial featuring a queer actress portraying a trans woman, speaking truth to power that there is no wrong way to be a woman. Or encountered the countless other purpose-driven campaigns that have influenced culture and captured people’s imaginations. And how dare you judge the way anyone makes a living.”

But the truth is, I set the book down and cried. Because I trusted her. I trusted her with my ugly truths and the things I feared. And she shamed me, for being the wrong kind of writer. For squandering my talent. For being a shill and a sell-out.

This is a voice I’m used to hearing.

It’s my father, telling me I’d be gorgeous if only I lost 10, 15, 20 pounds.

It’s my mother, telling me how proud she is of me but still asking why I blog instead of publishing in magazines.

It’s my ex-husband, telling me I’ve got talent but I’m no Norah Ephron.

It’s my ex-boyfriend, the one I let break my heart three times (because I never learn, until I do), telling me he always thought I’d be a college professor, and it’s so surprising I ended up in advertising because he honestly thought I was destined for great things.

It’s the former friend who declared all I ever had to do to get anything I wanted was bat my big brown eyes and smile.

It’s the voice that tells me, in no uncertain terms, that I am not good enough and never will be. That I’m weak. Untrustworthy. Sneaky. Lazy. Craven. That I’m ugly. That I’m fat.

There was a time in my life when having Jennifer Weiner tell me I suck was the sort of thing that would send me falling straight to the bottom of  what I call The Hole — that dark, dangerous, lonely place where the worst of my depression plays out — and I would cope by hurting myself. By sleeping with a stranger. By running a sharp blade over the soft inside of my thighs, not hard enough to cut, but enough to leave a mark. By Googling the ex-boyfriend who expected me to be the most popular Literature professor at a picturesque liberal arts college and torturing myself with a fantasy about how well his life was going. By stuffing myself until I felt sick. By refusing to sleep, obsessively watching TV as the small hours of the night became morning. By smoking like it was a job I’d been assigned.

In the years since Good in Bed was published, I’ve spent thousands of dollars and hours upon hours of time learning how to avoid The Hole, with therapists and psychiatrists, with personal trainers and nutritionists, with writing teachers and meditation teachers and the Dharma. I’ve learned how to talk back to that hateful voice, how to ignore it, how to silence it. I’ve learned that The Hole is a place I can climb out of on my own without damaging myself, that I’ve got boots and ropes and picks. That my legs are strong and my heart is pumping and my lungs are full of air.

And because sometimes life is kind, because sometimes we get what we want and it turns out to be exactly what we need, I also have have someone to catch me when I slip, someone who will slide down and sit with me in the muck, and climb back up with me when I’m ready.

I wiped my eyes, got off the couch, and went to find my husband, who was reading in the bedroom.

“Jennifer Weiner hurt my feelings,” I squeaked. Jonathan looked up from his book, pushed his Clark Kent glasses up on his nose, and with complete seriousness said, “That bitch.” I chuckled, still trembly, and crawled into the space he made for me on the bed. He listened as I explained the sucker punch of being called out as a hack, how it felt personal somehow, how it was the unexpected judgement and cruelty that had caught me so unguarded in a place where I thought it was safe to be vulnerable. He listened, and when I was done we lay there in silence for a while.

“Well, she can’t sit at YOUR lunch table anymore,” he said eventually. “But do you think she was talking to you, or to Jonathan Franzen?”

It’s a funny thing, empathy. The way it seeps into the cracks and restores you. Because of course, Jen’s longstanding feud with Franzen is bitterly insulting. Her ongoing defense of genre fiction by women as deserving of respect has earned her support, but also criticism. She was clearly devastated when Oprah didn’t choose Hungry Heart for her book club, and instead selected Glennon Doyle Melton’s memoir Love Warrior; and when Jen confessed that this rejection set off a “small, sad voice” in her head that had her comparing herself to Glennon — who is skinny and blonde and adorable — and finding herself lacking, I understood on the most fundamental level. I know what that voice sounds like, the one who calls you fat and tells you that the prizes are reserved for the cheerleaders, the popular girls, that no matter how hard you work, how hard you strive, you will always come up as less than. And maybe when Jen hears that voice she defends herself, in part, by contemptuously retorting, “Hey, at least I don’t work in ADVERTISING.”

And if that is the case, I get it. I do. But I also know there’s a way to shut that voice down without hurting anyone else. Without hurting yourself. That no matter how much you relate, in the end, no one is writing your story but you.

I did pick up Hungry Heart again, after a few days. I enjoyed it, although the spell is broken, and I read it the way I read anything else — with curiosity and interest, but not looking for clues to my own heart. And when I got to the part where Jen dissed Brooklyn (seriously, what is her problem with Brooklyn?) all I could do was roll my eyes, sip the coffee I’d just bought at Mazzola, admire the Halloween decorations all along Union Street, and laugh.