Why I Write Narrative Essays

Hint: It’s not for the money.

My job consists of telling strangers things about myself that I struggle to say to my closets friends.

It can be a real mind fuck.

Sometimes I think about changing my approach, specifically to publishing on Medium. I wonder if I could bang out three to four 700-word articles a day, maximizing the conversion of read time into cash, especially during months — like December — when money is tight and raising four daughters blurs the of the line between ‘We’re doing okay’ and ‘Am I going to make rent?’

In fact, I started this very article with that idea in mind. I thought maybe I would try my hand at writing one of those “How to Make X Dollars in X Timeframe” articles. They’re a sure thing, compensation-wise, especially when you have cred as an established author.

The template (and the read time) is there for the taking.

And there are countless articles on Medium that broadcast hacks that will make you into a better, more successful, and wealthier writer and it seems that each one is more popular than the previous.

People love to fantasize about all the money those tips and tricks will pull in.

Like Michelle Monet, I don’t read those pieces because they all say various iterations of the same thing.

Write more.

They’re not wrong. It’s pretty much true that, as Malcolm Gladwell popularized in his book “Outliers”, 10,000 hours of practice can make you an expert in anything.

Then I realized that I’m not going to chase those dollars. I can’t, even though I confess that sometimes I wish I could.

Because, while it works for some people, it won’t work for me. Reverse engineering a higher payout is not why it write and it's not why I publish.

No one will read my work if I try to please the fat part of the bell curve.

So what gives? Why do I do it?

I ask myself that question all the damn time.

I was recently reminded of what is so important to me about writing when I took on a new writing student. A fresh, new college graduate with career aspirations as a storyteller (albeit in a different medium) approached me to ask me to workshop several autobiographical pieces for her grad school application and I happily acquiesced.

I’ve worked sporadically with a lot of aspiring writers and have recently been asked to teach a workshop, so this presented an opportunity to nail down exactly what it is I teach and how I get my students to write well and publish.

Throughout the process, I discovered three things:

  1. I know what good writing is and how to do it,
  2. I know how to make bad writing better, and
  3. I am in a constant struggle with myself to do the very things I teach — because I am still scared.

As my student and I drilled down into her stories, I found myself pushing her to do all the things I wrestle with myself.

Saying is one thing. Doing is another.

There’s a reason I only publish once per month, at best.

Publishing isn’t easy.

There’s a moment just before hitting publish when doubts about the piece cut to the front of the line of your rational thoughts like a second-grade bully, throwing elbows and slinging insults. And you get a sick feeling in your stomach as you’re cornered by a wall of negative emotions.

You doubt your premise and the accuracy of your details and even your intentions. So you read your piece again and again — scanning the grammar and the semantics — even though you know damn well that your ability to detect errors is now dulled by repetition and that there isn’t much left that Grammarly can do for you.

Your hesitation isn’t really about typos, anyway.

Dread sets in after you finally click the “Publish” button, when you’re sure that every text and call notification on your phone is from someone anonymously referenced in your story wanting to know:

“Was that about me?”

“Why would you say that?”

“How dare you?”

In the days to follow, you subject yourself to the response section where readers wax-unpoetic about what a shitty idea you had or what a terrible person you are and how you got the whole damn thing wrong… with maybe a few jabs thrown in about what an awful writer you are and how you should hang up your hat and spare everyone the indignity of reading another one of your pieces and go back to being an unfit Mother to your pathetic children.

Finally comes the quiet, when the acute feelings have passed and your piece now exists in the world beyond your reach. It’s alive and being read and (mis)interpreted and plagiarized and used to fuel arguments that you would never co-sign. You have no say over who is going to find it next and your strongest impulse is to pull it back into the safety of your unshared Gdocs because that’s where it can’t hurt you or anyone else.

But you can’t.

Because it's out there. Exposing and betraying you for the fraud you are.

The gig economy and Medium’s Partner Program (among other things) have eliminated the traditional barriers to entry for professional writing.

Making money by telling your story has never been more attainable and people see that opportunity and want to take advantage.

And despite being excited at the outset, as the process of writing their first story marches on and the words hit the screen, the once-excited writers-to-be progressively begin to pull back. That’s when the reality of hitting the “publish” button sets in and they become cognizant of consequences they didn’t think of before — like what happens when they expose the real people in their autobiographical stories.

The fears become an emotional snowball and they start cutting whole sections out of their work and overediting to the point of mundanity. Eventually, they convince themselves that their ex-husband will sue them for everything they’ve got or petition the courts to have their kids taken away if they post their piece. They are certain that hitting “publish” means they will lose their job or be unceremoniously disinvited from their best friend’s wedding.

More generally, they worry that their words are garbage and they’re not articulate enough or enlightened enough to share their ideas with the world.

These are legitimate fears.

Few people realize that the real barrier to entry in professional writing is this: Writers are subject to very personal, very public criticism and rejection.

Stephen King is “convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

But is it any wonder? Writers have been killed for publishing the wrong ideas or exposing the wrong people.

Sometimes, they still are.

As I found myself encouraging my student to push past her fears, go deeper into her most vulnerable and emotional places… to write herself naked, so to speak, I realized that I was talking more to myself than I was to her.

I’ve heard that when one teaches, two learn, so I’m documenting my lessons here, if not as advice to the aspiring writers I work with, then as reminders to myself — an already well-published, well-circulated writer.

Because I still find myself scared.

But I’m working on it.

And here’s what I have to offer…

Use a pseudonym.

I do. A.J. Kay is not my God-given name, although it’s not far from it. Neither is any of my other pseudonyms. Several readers have found my “real” social media profiles, and that’s okay. I am capable of setting and enforcing my personal boundaries when people I don’t know approach me. It’s not meant to be a firewall, anyway. It gives me the perception of just enough distance from my “real-life” connections to allow me the freedom to write more than I could otherwise.

There are other reasons to have a pseudonym, but this is a good one.

Write *your* story

Your story does not have to — nor will it — match anyone else’s version of any given topic or event. I guarantee you that my ex-husband has a very different telling of our marriage and subsequent divorce than the one I have espoused. And that’s okay. I don’t agree with his narrative and he likely wouldn’t agree with mine. I write about my experience, my feelings, my choices, and my reactions.

There is no one else who can speak to what I have been through or what I have learned.

Write to understand the ways that the experience shaped your brain, how you developed behaviors that helped you survive, how those coping mechanisms may no longer work for you, and how you are working to change them into ones that do.

Write for the tens of thousands of people who can start their own healing by reading what you’ve learned about yours. We all have truths and valid perspectives. We all have stories. Your story is not about how awful your mom was or what other people did wrong… it’s about you.

The people in your life will be affected and will react. They may contact you or they may not. Either way, pushing through this fear is an exercise in courage and allows both you, and anyone else, to take responsibility for your respective feelings.

Writing and publishing is one way you take responsibility for yours.

You do not have to be transparent…

You don’t have to talk about everything. In fact, you are under no obligation to disclose anything. We all have memories that live on only in our heads and will die right along with us when our hearts cease to beat.

That being said, it’s important to note that the most difficult things to say out loud are often those that most need to be said, both for your benefit and for your readers.

Those are the ones that will resonate — the ones that will make your life better.

I still haven’t reconciled all of my own fears. They’re stored in my darkest places, with bright yellow caution tape wrapped around them.

When you read my essays, you will find they are generally cohesive. They are all parts and pieces of the bigger picture of my life. And some of them fit together with a laser-cut precision.

But you don’t have to look that closely to find the negative space. There are entire chunks missing — blacked out hollows in my body of work. I’ve segregated Those-who-shall-not-be-named in my writing brain almost like how we corral and suppress memories that are too painful to remember.

There are people who have affected my life in such profound ways that I am literally a different human being for their influence. My story does not make sense without their inclusion and yet I haven’t found the courage to include them.

And even though I can publish specific, intimate details about sex and my body and take responsibility for my so many of my failures and re-live many of my personal tragedies, there still remain some people and events you won’t find — at least not whole — and not yet — published under my name.

You will only find shadows of the men who’ve shaped my romantic life, aside from my ex-husband and my current Lover. I haven’t talked about the ones who hurt me — or the ones I hurt. I haven’t gone into the depths of my sexual dysfunction which serially included my promiscuity as an adolescent, my exploitation of the power I discovered in my sexuality, how my attempts to wield that power led to being raped at 16, and how I later used BDSM to try to resolve that traumatic event from a position of control. I haven’t reconciled just how little and how much those men meant to me and why the Fallout Boy lyrics, “I’m just a notch in your bedpost and you’re just a line in a song” make my throat tighten and my eyes well up every single time I hear them.

You also won’t find much about my sister. The one person in the world, aside from my parents, present in my life from the outset. We wrestled for attention and control as children and fought for the right to hold a flimsy umbrella that was never really intended to keep both of us dry —it just had to look like it did. The decades-long war between us started even before we were born. It’s in our DNA. But she is so much a part of who I am that leaving her out is like painting a portrait and leaving out the eyes. And I can’t yet write about my relationship with her yet. I’m scared of losing her and I’m scared of the truth. And, for that reason, you won’t find her anywhere in my anthology, save for cursory mentions that allude and infer but never explore or explain.

And, piece by tiny piece, I have written snippets of the events that led to the faulty wiring of my little developing brain in childhood; wiring that on a good day flips my mental breaker and, on a bad one, burns the fucking house down. I’ve been working on prying those memories free of their restraints, one by one, because understanding what happened is the only way I can fix myself. But even those little anecdotes I have managed to share are just offshoots — tributaries winding away from the rapids. That river still rages in my head and I fear that if I write too much about it, I will drown. Or be electrocuted. Or both.

For my life to get better, I have to tackle these things eventually. But there is no rush. I will get there. I do not owe anyone transparency and neither do you.

I will decide when I owe it to myself.

Choose what to write and decide when you are ready to write it. You are in control. But whatever you write — if you are striving for your best and most resonant writing — must adhere to the next piece of advice.

…but you must be Honest.

Like Honest Honest. Intentional capital ‘H’.

The things you do choose to disclose need to be put through the honesty sieve several times before they really begin to resonate with others.

It’s commonly held that vomiting feelings onto paper qualifies as honesty and, unfortunately, that’s not true.

Why?

Because we constantly lie to ourselves to justify and excuse our own behavior. The stories we tell ourselves and the emotions we conjure allow us to avoid responsibility and sidestep uncomfortable admissions.

It doesn’t mean we are bad people. We are just people.

In narrative writing, it's easy to position ourselves as victims. It evokes sympathy and nurturing in others and, more importantly, victimhood doesn’t require reflection and a painful confrontation of our choices.

Honesty does.

The truth is that most people cannot and will not understand the concept of honest writing.

They will get defensive and say, “Well, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. My story is honest. I’m so about being real, that I put it in my bio.”

Fuck, I get it.

I struggled with it myself, in some really destructive ways.

Here is an excerpt from a piece I wrote shortly after I realized that the story I was telling myself about the end of my marriage wasn’t true and that I wasn’t being honest — and how it was holding me back.

This was the reality of my then-current situation:

16 years in to my marriage, I found out he was cheating on me. With prostitutes. He was hiding money and sneaking around, essentially living a double life…and he had been doing so for years. And when I kicked him out and wouldn’t take him back, he criticized me for “giving up” and consistently withheld support payments, refusing visitation with our four daughters in an attempt to leverage control over me by rendering me a penniless, exhausted single mother. He waged a smear campaign against me with my former family. He threatened and cajoled. He tried to strip me of any resources that would allow me to even reach the threshold of “okay”.

This is the story I told myself:

I was a model wife and mother and he blindsided me! I sacrificed everything for my husband and children. I set the best, most powerful thing about me — my brain — to ‘hibernate’ in order to be a maid, chauffeur, cook, zookeeper, admin assistant, bookkeeper, and sex worker — among other things. And I did it all for him so that he could take his Associates Degree, that took him 7 years and $30,000 of debt to obtain, and accept a job — that I handed to him — for which he is underqualified and overpaid, making well into the six figures. All while I sat at home with my 156 IQ scrubbing toilets and changing diapers so that he wouldn’t have to. And I’m supposed to take responsibility for this shit show????

“Fuck you, telling me to take responsibility. Fuck … you.”

*Said my internal monologue.*

And my moment of realization:

And then, in a torturous, blood red, claustrophobic moment when I couldn’t see through my tears and my heart was asphyxiating in my chest, and I was selling furniture to feed my kids and I was more scared, confused, betrayed, bewildered, angry, frustrated, and broken than I’d ever felt in my life, my friend had the nerve to say,

“How’s that mindset working out for you?”

A scream of “FUCK YOU!!!!!!” caught in my throat. I choked on it.

I couldn’t get it out.

I managed a barely audible, “It’s not.”

And I realized that there was no relief to be found in that narrative.

I dipped my toe in the waters of accountability with one, “What if …”

And right there, as if lit up with blinking red lights was, “I did it all for him…I did it all for him…I did it all for him…”

That was patently false and I had been unable see it through the veneer of the story I was telling.

I did it all for ME.

What could I have done differently?

I could’ve left a long time ago, for one.

Another phrase lifted: “…he blindsided me!”

Bullshit. Pure bullshit.

Pretending like his cheating was the first sign of unacceptable behavior and that I did not see it coming — like in the story I told — was a lie.

Holy shit. What other lies might I be telling myself?

And why?

At what point did his behavior truly become unacceptable and what did I get out of staying?

The turning point:

My choice to take responsibility for my life being thrown into a dumpster and set on fire had zero to do with him…It didn’t excuse his behavior. It wasn’t about getting him to do or not do anything.

It was about Me.

It was about being honest with myself and admitting what I got out of my long-suffering marriage. It was about being honest about the reasons I let his bullshit continue for so long — and, honestly, it wasn’t because I was such a loving and devoted wife.

It was for my convenience and to get my own needs met. His touch made my skin crawl, but I wanted a lovely home to raise my four daughters in. I didn’t want the burden of having to do it on my own so I gave him every incentive to not leave me.

And I weaponized our marriage vows and positioned myself so that when the plane finally crashed, his body would be the one buckled into the pilot’s seat.

Not mine.”

What happened when I was finally Honest Honest:

My ability to see the picture honestly changed my entire life for the better. It enabled me to move forward while my dishonest story had held me captive to the past.

Feelings that once dictated my feelings and behaviors were suddenly, and almost effortlessly, denied decision-making authority in my brain.

It was as if the sky had cleared and I could finally see the sun.

And the pieces I wrote about that time in my life really resonated with readers.

Honesty is not just vomiting how you feel because feelings are rarely a reliable representation of reality. Your feelings can — and will — betray you. You have to work through the feelings, and figure out where they came from and what purpose they serve, before you’ll have access to the truth.

Honesty doesn’t live on the surface and it usually doesn’t feel good.

When you are brave enough to speak your truth, people still may be offended by it, but their words can’t hurt you because you have already confronted that pain.

Truly honest writing is rare because it requires a ridiculous degree of vulnerability, but it’s also the most valuable element you can inject into your writing and it will give you the most courage.

And remember that vulnerability isn’t a weakness — it’s the epitome of bravery.

Learning to access honesty is healing, life-changing, worth the time and energy expenditure, and will help you hit the publish button.

Have the Courage to Be Disliked

The book “The Courage to Be Disliked” is not about excusing shitty behavior or silencing your critics. I mention it because I’ve seen references to it from people who have clearly never read the book, attributing this sentiment.

Read the book.

It’s about choosing who you want to be and standing by your choice. In doing so, you let go of the fear of criticism and rejection. It’s about knowing that your past doesn’t determine your future and that your fear of other people is what drives your behavior.

And that you have the power to change.

It’s not just saying, “I’m going to do whatever I want! Anyone who doesn’t like can fuck all the way off!”

You can tell yourself that story…but it’s horse shit. You have to get right with yourself to find the courage to be disliked.

I recently got an e-mail from a reader who took issue with my most recent piece “Why I Got Breast Implants.” Here’s an excerpt of his critique:

…I read the article about divorcing your husband and becoming his new ruthless tyrannical mom, and then the one that was 99000 more whimpering words about the removal of your breast implants…

…4 kids after a life of teenage trampy behavior and also post-adopting-off the 1st random “oops child” that your womb dropped, and that immediately before marrying some sucker-boy to then use to immediately atone for your guilt by getting him to knock you up in “proper fashion”, then 2 more nearly extorted children from him BUT “hes got a problem on the honeymoon.”…

…then after the divorce years later and after FOUR children total(unless i missed another random womb drop or 2 in there somewhere), you then waste half your time and tons of money for health issue checkups and doctor visits and breast enlargements for already large breasts, and it never occurs to you that watering your vegetable garden with gasoline and muriatic acid will put the tomatos in bad shape ?!?!?…

…I shudder to think how you fed your children, and how toxic your breast milk may have been for them…

…I could literally go on for triple your 99000 word 2nd article on each of these 2 articles without reading any additional of your writing…

…Oh, and i forgot to mention your immediate return to good ole american slutdom the moment that you threw your husband and his stuff out of the house onto the front lawn after only “managing” to fuck him when you wanted to drain his life to create more children for you…

Yup. He’s right. I did all of those things.

As far as the truth goes, he just repeated back to me what my story already confessed:

  • I was a promiscuous teen.
  • I had a child who was adopted when I was 19.
  • I married my ex-husband as a means to have children, not because of attraction or love.
  • I made myself physically ill.
  • I made an irrational choice to get breast implants.
  • My anorexia resulted in damaging behavior that hurt my kids and myself.
  • I returned to promiscuity following my divorce.
  • I write long.

These are all things I had to come to terms with before I hit the publish button — even the last one. None of them are news.

The caustic language is about him, not me.

In reality, his critique represents another person who found my story resonant enough that they took the time to reach out to tell me so.

And I appreciate it.

Go ahead and let people judge. They won’t let you down.

And you will be okay with it when you get okay with yourself and find the courage to be disliked.

Figure out why you are writing and make choices consistent with your motivation

What is your writing a conduit for? Money? Attention? Self-reflection? Professional connections?

Clarify what you want to get out of writing. And be honest with yourself.

It’s for this reason that I cannot write the article I mentioned in my introduction.

I cannot adhere to my own advice to “Be Honest” and then write an article that purports to help you make money but really only helps you help me make money.

It would compromise the integrity of the work I value.

At let’s be clear, this is not a judgment. It’s okay to write for those reasons. Money is a real need. Attention is a real need. I need those things, too. But I have to get them elsewhere. They’re not why I’m here — on Medium.

I’m here to write narrative essays. To develop my writing and understand myself better. I’m about processing where I’ve been so that I can figure out how to get where I’m going.

I’m about being braver than I ever thought I could be and rewiring my brain that was broken by abuse long before my conscious mind came online.

I’m about challenging my status quo and making the whole of my life and my daughters’ lives better.

I cannot accomplish that without being vulnerable and facing my fear and I certainly can’t do it when I water down my content because I’m seeking extrinsic validation, through money or claps or any other external route.

Conversely, if you write to make money, you do not need to bare your soul or risk your loved ones’ ire. You need to figure out what people want to hear and tell them those things — a lot. You need to get good at crafting titles that garner clicks and making catchy lists and you need to read all of the articles with the tips and tricks to maximize the new compensation algorithm and draw in as many followers as you can.

And you need to write incessantly — or so I’ve heard. It’s a different animal than trying to write honest, narrative essays.

There is no wrong reason for publishing. Clarifying your intent will help you understand how to get what you want out of your writing and how to move forward.

I have had students realize that they weren’t really invested in the content of the writing. They wanted to make money. And, when they came to terms with that fact and stopped judging themselves, they were relieved and able to focus on what they really wanted to do.

Some of you might say, “I want to do both! I want to write an incredibly resonant, personal story that goes viral, gets 20,000 views per day, and makes me a ton of money.”

My response is this:

“There are easier ways to get attention and make a ton of money. Here’s an article for you read…”

Commit

Once you decide that personal narrative writing is for you and that you are willing to find the courage to own your story and work on finding your truth, this is what you do next:

Sit down at your laptop or your notepad and claw out every moment of doubt and fear and hurt you can conjure.

Relive feelings of innocent wonder and euphoria. Track down the moments of your life that brought you to your knees — the ones you find hiding in the secret, undisturbed corners of your brain.

Take yourself back to those places and retell them. Describe those moments: how you felt, what you were wearing, what he said and what you did. Focus on the things that make you cringe and think about why you did them…the real reasons, not the ones that insulate you from criticism and responsibility.

And then paint those moments with your vocabulary. Open a thesaurus. Learn new words. They are your colors. Don’t be afraid to play with grammar and semantics and rhetoric and format.

Write the same sentence six times until the words you string together feel how that moment felt.

Wear out your spacebar. Wear out your keys.

Abuse and embrace your machine like musicians do their favorite instruments until it’s so much a part of them — so familiar with the pressure and motion of their movements — that it bends to their will and they can’t fully play on any other.

Spill yourself onto the page, be honest…and people will stick around to read it. They will wrap themselves in your vulnerability like a warm blanket because it is strong and safe and it will make them feel secure knowing that there are people like you in the world who are brave enough to tell their stories so that they don’t have to.

Do these things and it will still be difficult to hit that publish button, especially at first, but if you stick to your story and write honestly, you will find the courage in the truth and in the resonance and learn to value those over avoiding criticism and rejection.

And you will be braver and stronger.

And your writing will get better.

So will your life.

And so will you.

Mama, writer, lover, fighter — I wear my heart on my sleeve because my pants pockets are too small. www.ajkaywriter.com

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