Let me tell you a secret: I'm a painfully shy person masquerading as a performer. I get loud because volume is a terrific mask. If I tell you the brashest, most shocking story possible, chances are you'll think you know me, and you will know me, but only one version.
Underneath the stage persona, there are something like dozens of layers of story. Like any person, I have more stories than I know what to do with. When I teach, another place where I wear a mask, I am constantly urging my students to keep in mind why they want to tell stories. What do they want to communicate? Who do they want to communicate with? What is at stake if their story goes un-told? I ask them these questions because they are questions I ask myself constantly, and also the reason I have so many masks. The mask that lets me be loud is the mask that helps me tell my stories even when they terrify me.
Another secret, this time as a poem: "Conditional," is the true story of a miscarriage I had before I was old enough to legally drink. My dear friend and comrade in arms, Stevie Edwards, asked me if she could publish it in the company of her own words and those of our friend and champion of women and all the masks they must wear to survive, Rachel McKibbens. I never thought this story would find its way out of my mouth. I never intended to claim it so publicly. But Stevie spurred me towards revising the piece from an open letter to myself in the second person to a poem solidly in my own voice. Replace every "you" with an "I." Tell the whole truth. She asked me to take off the mask and be myself, and I trust her, so I did.
As a writer and performer, I have extreme control over how I'm perceived and what I choose to share with an audience, but again and again I find myself drawn towards telling stories so close to my bones that they seem nearly impossible to articulate without drawing blood. In a space where I could become anyone, I routinely choose to be my ugliest and most broken self. My readings are not the most comfortable places, and that sometimes makes me self-conscious. I'm scared of being off-putting, but I continue to write on grief and trauma as a way of dismantling the masks I wear. We tell our own stories to share our experience and we listen to stories hoping to see ourselves in the experience of others. Sometimes it's hard to recognize how necessary this dialogue is to our humanity, but I think Stevie's introduction to my poem is a good reminder of how important it is to talk about the things we'd rather bury:
At the end of the 2013 Pink Door Women’s Writing Retreat and Good Idea Summit, Rachel McKibbens arranged a ceremony, where we all got to tell partners the following words, “You’re an important person and your writing is necessary.” You were my partner. Telling you these words was easy; they were true. But hearing them back from you forced me to stare the need for my own writing in the face, to accept worthiness. We held each other; I think that’s what our poems can do for one another. When I think of your poem “Conditional,” beyond being beautifully crafted with a mastery of language far beyond your years, it holds a space open for me to face the female body, complex feelings about motherhood, the grief of miscarriage—all without shame. I want to write you room after room where shame has no currency, rooms to be brave in, rooms to love yourself fiercely in, rooms to survive in, rooms Rachel has unlocked the doors to. This is how we can hold each other in poems: by being generously and generatively disruptive enough to make rooms for each other’s work, by knowing these rooms are holy and worth making noise for. Emily, you are an important person and your writing is so necessary.
If telling a difficult story gives even the most distant stranger comfort, it's worth it. A life without masks is near impossible, but we can certainly make spaces to be more nakedly ourselves. Tell even one person a terrifying secret and I can guarantee you'll feel more whole. You are an important person, and your stories are necessary.