A perk of living in one of the largest cities in the world is that a lot of other people are there too: people I idolize; people I would never meet in the little Midwest city where I grew up. I was ecstatic to discover an author I had obsessed over for years was making a stop in New York City when I was living there at age 23. I adored this writer because he was weird, had weird ideas, and seemed like he would have had trouble fitting in. In other words, I adored this writer because he was like me.
I arrived at the event hours early to ensure a seat. I was met with a crowd so large that I was pushed up against the bookcases furthest from the presenter’s platform. It was okay though. I would still hear what he had to say. I would still get to walk in front of him and say what I wanted to say (what did I want to say?).
He opened with a reading from his newest book. (I had already read it). Then the moderator began taking questions from the crowd. The writer’s answers were… not what I expected. I have this nervous habit of presenting myself as over confident. If I’m new to a crowd or unsure of the vibe, I come out guns blazing and I’ve never even held a gun. I’m sure I’ve put many a person off by this unfortunate personality trait but I have yet to master how to stop it from happening. I tried convincing myself that this was what was happening with this treasured writer – because we were the same after all. But with each question, his answers got cockier. He was completely dismissive of the generous crowd that was gathered to support and love on him. I got sick. I couldn’t believe that I had put so much of myself into his numerous books, feeling like someone finally understood things I thought no one could get. I felt dirty. Manipulated. I felt angry.
The rage slowly built inside as I considered waiting the hours in line to confront the imposter. Then I realized he wasn’t worth it and I left. Years later, the writer was sued for what I’m going to call the “James Frey” approach to his memoir writing. James Frey wrote “A Million Little Pieces,” and marketed it as a memoir. The book was even on Oprah’s Book Club list. It was also adapted into a movie. James Frey lied. Most of it wasn’t real. The book was only “inspired” by his life, he says.
I attended a few events for other writers following that major disappointment (don’t meet your heroes, though!). Every time I went in hesitant and most definitely did not ask any question I really wanted to know the answer to. The fear of being so wrong about someone I thought I knew but was so much a stranger was too much to bear.
Speaking of bears – I recently went to a writer’s event for Kate Baer. Kate was promoting her third book of poetry, And Yet. Her first two books (What Kind of Woman, I Hope This Finds You Well) imprinted something on my heart that I wasn’t sure was possible – permission to exist. She is a woman. A mother. A wife. A friend. A writer. I, too, am all these things. Kate was showing me how I wanted to exist was possible. She was raising her kids hands on and also having a thriving writing career all while being extremely vulnerable.
Flashback to that horrible event from my early 20’s. I considered not going because I didn’t want to ruin yet another relationship with words. I faced my fear of the possibility she was a horrible person preying on the emotions of women. On mothers. I went anyway. I arrived early enough to a small theater. I took a seat in a half filled row, making eye contact with strangers who gifted me with knowing smiles. As we awaited Kate, many of us flipped through the new book. I had already read it and listened to the audio version. My biggest need was knowing she was real. I needed confirmation that she was indeed like me and was making things happen with pure intention.
Kate arrived on stage donning a bright pink power suit and a contagious smile. Her gratitude spilled from her eyes as she scanned the small crowd of women in the audience returning the gesture. The moderator was another female author from the area. I could feel her nerves. She squirmed and opened with a question about being a “Mommy Blogger” and Kate shifted in her seat, took a breath, and answered. This term to a writer is like saying she’s “just” a mom to a woman whose sole responsibility is to take care of her children and home. She handled it with grace and comedic relief. She explored the idea that blogging about motherhood was what you did as a writer who didn’t have access to other resources in her position. She just wanted to write and be read. And why is it automatically disqualifying when you are a writer AND a mother and have the audacity to write what you know?
A wave of hot relief came over my body. Kate delivered more affirming answers. She validated my feelings, made me laugh, and grew my heart. I had so many questions to ask but despite her great efforts to prove to me she was all I had dreamed she would be, the fear remained that the answers to my questions would be the ones that made the curtain fall. Thankfully, the women in the theater slowly found their voices and all of the questions I would want to ask were asked and my heart did not deflate.
As the other women rose, complimented and thanked Kate, asked their question, then sat back down, I discovered a familiar observation. I was the only Black person. The women filling the seats had mostly arrived in whispered groups. I paid them little attention then. My attention now slid from Kate’s answers to frantically scanning the room for another woman of color. There were LaCroix cans, Hydro Flasks, coffee cups, wine glasses, chunky scarves, blonde hair, and commuter heels but no brown skin. Wait! I found one! She was working the event.
Shame and guilt evicted my collective joy. I took some deep breaths and assured myself that despite being the only person of color in the audience, that did not discount my feelings towards Kate’s work. I assured myself that the women around me were not showing me any signs of hate but quite the opposite. I solidified my position and declared that I belonged there. Self doubt lingered under the confidence but I was determined to not let it win.
As I waited in line to have my books signed, I overheard a duo behind me discussing the same fear I possessed when entering the event. Very much unlike me, I swung around and added “She’s so great, right?!” They welcomed my comment, ignoring my eavesdropping. We chatted about Kate’s loveliness and why I was also so nervous about meeting her. The conversation came to a natural end and I took my eavesdropping elsewhere. (Us writers love a good eavesdrop).
My quest for a good story fell flat and I noticed my turn with Kate was quickly approaching. I had met other authors before in similar situations. I never knew what to say. Is it obnoxious to declare how much you love their work? Is it awkward to just get your books signed, say “Thank you” and then walk away? Do I tell her I’m a writer too? I ruminated on the right thing to say. The moment before I walked up the steps to her I decided to share my fear of the event. I vomited the words like a tween girl meeting her favorite boy band member (how embarrassing). She listened with intention and genuineness. She asked about me (like the great writer she is) and my cup was full. I forgot that I was the only person of color there. I forgot that imposter syndrome was burning inside me moments before. I remembered that good people exist. That good things can happen. That I am already good.
I’m not fixed but the Kate Baer event gave me space to explore who I am and who I want to be. It gave me permission to have my skin and my heart visible to the world and have it be received with loving kindness. I’m proud of myself for facing my fear of invalidation. And I also learned that not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes they wear bright pink power suits.