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off with the truth

Book Sellers keep asking me how old I am. They cup my elbows in their bony lady fingers and whisper, can I ask you a question honey, how old are you? And then when I tell them honestly, the amount of years that I am, their faces fall and their eyes go soft. As if to say, oh. And you’ve only written the one book? Well, you’ll get it honey. Just keep going.

Audience members don’t even bother asking how old I am. They just flat out state the fact that I am very young. You’re so young. You’re very young, do you keep a journal? You’re very young, is writing something you would like to pursue?

Usually I bend the truth if the truth isn’t working for me, I like to play with the truth, cut it up into little pieces and put it back together crooked and strange. But, I can’t really do that with my age. If I say a number that I am not exactly, that’s lying. And I’d rather not lie.

Although, people call me a liar all the time. Especially when I am lying. When I am spinning juicy tales about the Russian orphans so and so is adopting, or the elaborate marriage proposals what’s his name is planning, or the humanoids that have taken over Albany Park, or the prize money I am about to be rewarded. Any second now. I enjoy lying to people’s faces for the moment I come clean and they pull their hair out. I like to see how long I can get someone to believe me.

I can get someone to believe that I am seventeen and that I wrote my memoir at a summer camp in Iowa faster and longer than I can get them to believe that I am in my late thirties and I had a career in theatre before I went back to school and started writing.

One of my favorite theatre directors told me not to be so nice. She said, don’t be nice; don’t worry about being nice. At some point we have to stop making theatre for our mother’s.

My book is classified as fiction, but people seem to be reading it as memoir, or auto fiction, or literary memoir. And that’s fine with me. Not all of it happened, but every word is true. And by the way, Mom—if you’re reading this—in the book you are a monster. So if I were you, Mom, I wouldn’t leave the house for a while. But, the truth is you don’t leave the house. And the truth is you would probably enjoy the notoriety. And I did include the good years. I made you a good villain. Glamorous. Infectious. More Norma Desmond than Cruella de Vil.

Last Saturday a friend asked me what I had planned for tomorrow, and when I said not much just church in the morning, he said that’s so weird. He’s right. It is weird in my tiny bubble of day drinkers and atheists that one of us is a Jesus freak. Most people don’t believe me when I say church in the morning. When he asked me what does that do for you? I said wow I never ask myself that, I don’t know. Church, for me, is a lot like theatre, for obvious reasons. Stage, audience, monologue, etc… And, like the theatre, it’s where I’m from. It’s where my family is. It’s familiar. It’s what I come back to again and again. And the question I ask myself is how can I make myself useful? How can I be of service? What can I do for the church?

I wonder if my genre-bending/genre-crossing literary heroes begin drafts by asking themselves, what can I do for the memoir?

I spend a great deal of my quiet time sifting through the fog of my grief. It’s heavy and horrible and ultimately not very interesting. So, in conversation I’m more comfortable presenting my tragedies as a series of wise cracks and sassy attitudes. I like watching people cock their heads and whisper things like, what? Is that true?

Anne Lamott begins her Ted Talk by stating that all truth is paradox. She goes on to say that publication and fleeting literary success is something you have to recover from. But because all truth is paradox it’s also a miracle anyone ever gets their work published. Rejoice.

I’m interested in the space between our rejoicing and our agony. Prize money, and publication, and the coveted teaching position, and the phone call that your mother has died suddenly from a blood clot, those things seem to happen to one random, lonely, lucky person at a time. There’s no way to prepare for those unbelievable things, and they’re very hard to communicate. And they never last. It’s never enough. It gets better, and it also gets worse. It’s like we’re all just a bunch of blind, fragile sacks of skin coming down from the last high, crawling out from the latest cavern of now what. Lying a little, avoiding some truth, pretending a lot, curating our personas, whispering, turning away—into each other—collected together—dancing alone in our respective crooked homes—churches—bars—theatres—bookstores. And in each home is a hearth where small groups of us can gather round on breaks from toasting and mourning, and take a moment to confess our brilliant truths and our tiny white lies, count our prizes and cut our loses into the toasty flames. Feed and fan the poor pieces of each other as they mingle together and rise up in smoky signals. I’m interested in that. In the soot that’s left of our big moments. Everything is so fleeting. Everything could use a good sweep.  

I got the last blurb for the back of my little book one day before the book was due to be completely finished and sent to the printer. It was December 30th, 2016, and I was so happy to get this blurb from a writer I deeply admired. And I was so relieved to be finished, it was an ecstatic mix of happiness and accomplishment. The writer I admire and I even emailed back and forth a little about how shitty the year had been for everyone, but that it’s almost over and it can not possibly get any worse, and we should meet for drinks soon. Cloud. Nine.

I proceeded to take the hottest shower of my life. I even plugged my phone into the speaker for some bitchen Sheryl Crow. But, before I even got to the conditioner, the phone rang. I answered the phone soaking in suds. And over the speaker, my husband said he had to tell me something. He just got off the phone with my step mom, and the police found my brother dead.

There’s really nothing to do in those moments other than sit on the edge of the tub and shake like a leaf. I thought of emailing the writer I admire right back to say, oh wait, actually it just got worse. But, I didn’t think she’d believe me.


Jessica Anne is the author of A Manual For Nothing (Noemi Press, 2017), and the writer and performer of her one woman show, Mike Mother. She’s an alumna of the Neo-Futurist ensemble (2006-2012) and a co-producer of Lit Crawl Chicago. She also edits nonfiction for MAKE literary magazine, and is currently acting as managing artistic director of MAKE Literary Productions’ Live Magazine Extravaganza Finale. Jess holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Roosevelt University.

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