The imperfections of realness

This is about my struggle to stand up and be an adult.

(If adulthood were easy, everybody would be doing it – but the reality is that a very large percentage of people over the age of thirty aren’t adults. No, a mature body means fuck all, and we need to stop listening to the social delusion that it is relevant to anything. I dare say I’d be much less frustrated with people if I didn’t expect them to be adults.)

But I’ll begin with talking about what I’m doing.

My life has become so much less about the joy of writing and more about design, about programs, about layouts – about widows and orphans, about selecting type, about trying to speak printer and print preset language, about trying to not succumb to the frustration that is the editorial team letting a third of documents go through with incorrect quotation marks, about trying to figure out why InDesign won’t export the TOC in my epub (or when it does, why all the formatting is stripped) when I’m using the school’s computers, about whether or not to use rules and the correct placement of headers, about why a comma after ‘and’ when connecting two clauses is non-optional, about chasing up biographies from authors, about debating hyphens and em-dashes, about production schedules, about coping when my editors vanish without notification. It’s talking and schedules and organisation and keeping on top of things and work.

I actually like getting to use InDesign again. No, I’m not a designer or a typographer, but … well, these days, editorial jobs mean knowing something about InDesign, something about structural layout, something about knowing why we shouldn’t lay out a prestigious print journal in sans-serif font. I like being able to be creative in a different way, to look at words – mine and others’ – and see how they might look in an e-book or on the print PDF, to see the end product. As someone who has done most of my writing in Word – so, works that look like manuscripts – it’s exciting to be a part of the transformation words take towards the form they have when consumed by readers. It’s fun tweaking around with headers and paragraph styles. It’s hard, but it’s been a massive learning curve, going from taking a semester on InDesign to actually using it to create projects of my own – real projects other people are going to consume. Same thing with the editing – it’s a meaningful, vital contribution to making words and messages be as much as they can be. I’m getting to be part of something so much bigger than just a manuscript, and for all that it’s causing me major hassles with my hands, I’m enjoying it – even some of the 2 AM mornings.

I guess all of the above kind of implies I am an editor, although that confession feels rather like I’m exaggerating the case … except that it’s not. I’ve been working as an editor, the managing editor no less, for the last three months on two different publications; I’ve got a job title of production editor for a job I’ll be paid to do (when we actually get our hands on the copy); I’ve got an editorial credit on a magazine. I’m creating the layout and design for one print book and three e-books (PDF and epub). Right now, for all that I’m a student, I’m actually pretty much living the life of a publishing professional, up to and including the discovery that editing is so much less about grammar and writing than it is about people management.

There’s always a part of me that cringes and recoils when I say things like this. (Yes, I have a point!) I mean – well, I’m an author, technically. (You see, I have to add that adverb.) I’ve been published. By the end of November, I’ll have four more publication credits to add to that (two if you’re one of those people who consider self-publication invalid: I want to snicker at your arrogance being that I’m a non-binary writer with limited publication opportunities, but deep down I’ll probably believe you). Can I call myself an author, though? No more than I can all myself an editor. I’m a writer, always – but I’m ‘someone who has been published (in a dinky anthology, so that doesn’t count)’ or ‘someone who edits (a dinky … oh, large print run, okay, it’s a non-paying job, so that doesn’t count)’ ‘or someone who manages the production (ditto)’ … not an author, an editor or a production manager, despite having credits for all those things, despite having studied those things, despite looking to take on all of these things as a profession.

This whole damn post, if you like, is a demonstration of the fact that I have these skills. No, I am not an expert; I have lots to learn. Lots. But I’ll be walking away from this semester, this course, with quite a bit of experience, a credit or five (in the last three months I’ll have had a major hand in the production of five publications) and the newfound confidence that I can go out and do this adult thing – I can cope with work. I want to study part-time to keep on learning, not because I’m not capable enough to work in my industry. I am. Entry level, sure, but I’m more than capable enough for that.

But I cringe, flinch, tremble when I think of opening my mouth and saying “I am an author” or “I am an editor”.

Maybe it has something to do with the vast number of people who say those things and don’t possess the education, experience and talent to be saying them. Maybe it’s because the words are meaningless – there are any number of authors who can’t write and editors who can’t edit (or people who are not trained editors getting editorial credits because good marks in English class are all that is needed – please note the sarcasm). We live in a world where any number of well-known authors exist simply from a combination of a non-reading/critical readership and, I suspect, deals made with crossroad demons: writing ability doesn’t factor into the equation at all. The amount of people who say to me that they could be an author or an editor – that they have a book inside them and they know they’d be really good at it – is absurd and, quite honestly, hilarious. Yes, relatives. I am laughing at you. It’s like someone telling a lawyer that owning a Law and Order boxset means they can hold their own in a courtroom – it’s ignorant and it’s hilarious. When you’re telling me that you dream of writing your book and you’re so going to be an author one day but no, you haven’t had the chance to write it yet, I am pissing myself laughing even as I nod and change the subject. Yeah, I know quite a bit about therapy and psychology, but would I stand up and say that I can be an actual psychologist without going and doing the study?

Of course, I am not those people. I’ve spent two years (and put myself in thousands of dollars of debt) in study, and my study isn’t over. I have the aforementioned credits and experience. I’ve written eight drafts and counting (as in, after that point I lost track and now I’ve got no idea) of my novella, taking an idea and working and working and working on it. (I learned how far away my first draft of my full-length novel is from being agent ready.) I’m actively pursuing a whole heap of things to help further my professional and literary development. I have a full awareness of how much I have left to learn.

Were I in a session, my psychologist would be pointing out that this is all stuff on the surface – bullshit excuses, although she’s kinder to me than I am – and there’s something deeper than that because I am actively disregarding evidence, here. I’m tying myself in knots to ignore tangible proofs in order to pursue some other idea that feels more real. In fact, I’ve got a whole lot invested in the idea that I can’t/shouldn’t be those things.

So. I could argue that I feel like I don’t deserve those words, but I have evidence and I’m aware of it; I won’t say it doesn’t have anything to do with my self-esteem and my certainties that I’m an ordinary person and if I can do a thing, everybody else can do that thing and so much the better, so why are they fucking shit up when they’re as good, if not better, than I am? (This is why insecurity is as ugly as arrogance – hell, this is where insecurity is arrogant. This is where I need to work on getting over this idea that it is ugly to admit I am good at several things and some, perhaps many, people can’t do them as well as I can.) It probably has something to do with my fears of being arrogant, and the misogyny/acculturation of being raised assigned-female made worse by living in a country where tall poppies are hacked to pieces, and a childhood of being harassed and bullied by students, teachers and family members where the only reward for success was abuse, where putting myself out there only ever led to terrible things. (Oh, yes. I’ve got trauma over failing and trauma over succeeding, the combination of which means I spent a long time doing nothing at all.)

My psychologist, however, would cut to the chase and ask me what I feared about being those things – an author, an editor. I’ve got a sundry list of bullshit answers again – always the bullshit answers.

A really simple answer comes to mind once I sift through the bullshit: failure.

(It always is that simple. Human beings aren’t complicated. We think we are, and we want to think we are, but we’re not.)

If I don’t claim those things, I can be imperfect. I can fuck up. I can fail and it’s not going to matter because I am not those things (yet) – I’m not a real author, I’m not a real editor, I’m not a real professional. I’m just someone who does those things, like a hobby, or as a student, as practice, and it’s absolutely no bearing on my worth as those things if leave a trail of mistakes behind me, because I’m not fucking real – I’m not a real editor, I’m not a real author, so it’s okay! I’ve got a get-out-of-jail free-card to write rubbish, miss commas or create a terrible fucking layout and not feel like I’ve failed at something I really want to be. I can fail without beating myself up over the idea that to be these things I have to be perfect but, alas, I’m actually a human being who can’t be perfect 100% of the time despite my efforts (and those efforts are spectacular and physical-pain-causing). It means I can be safely imperfect without being a professional failure.

The idea that I’m making myself not fucking real to avoid being human (imperfect is human) is actually quite horrific – and I mean tear-inducing, upsetting, triggering, lip-wobbling. I mean grief at the sudden realisation at what it is I am doing – the kind of grief that can tip into self-loathing if I am not careful.

It’s not just that I’m actually holding myself back from doing something I love and enjoy.

It’s not just that I’m invalidating my own skillset.

You see, as a queer, non-binary, mental-illness-having, chronic-pain-suffering person, I am rendered unreal every single day. There is no space in society for someone like me; I am expected to go about my daily paperwork legally recognised as a gender I am not. Think about that one for a sec – no binary cis person would ever be expected to live as a gender and/or sex they are not, would never be expected to suffer the paperwork assigned to something they are not; the outcry would be enormous. Yet that is exactly what is expected and assumed of me: my genderlessness doesn’t legally exist. For all that I actually exist, for all that there are words to describe me, I am unreal in the eyes of society – and my lack of realness means I can be discriminated against in a most basic and fundamental way. I am denied the right to be, officially, my gender (or genderlessness). The only way I can get anything close to recognition is by making significant changes to my body, and I should not have to be denied that recognition because I can’t afford to/don’t choose to make those changes. Even then, that recognition is flawed and incomplete.

It doesn’t just end there. In my dysfunctional family environment, I was unseen – I was a projection of my family’s wants and needs and dysfunction, and I spent my life accommodating them without ever having my own met, but I was never at any point a real person, never K. A. (it is symbolised quite aptly in the fact that I can never get any of my family to refer to me by my chosen name), never seen or heard.

At my old job I was Capable Employee until I got my disabling injuries and become Crip Employee They Wished To Be Rid Of (with all the consequent discrimination and not-quite-discrimination misery-making). When that contributed to the severity of my mental illnesses, nobody cared: my pain and misery did not exist. My employers wanted me to shut up or go away.

Even when I am assumed to be lesbian, I still live in a country where I am denied the fundamental human rights heterosexual people take for granted.

I am doing the same thing to myself that society does to me – I am making myself unreal. I am treating myself with all the callous disregard, invalidation, ignorance and cruelty society affords me. I am deciding that this is preferable to being a professional, human author/editor/publisher (read: real person).

I am deciding that it is better to not exist than to make a mistake.

It’s so very easy to tip over into hideous self-loathing while thinking that. As I said last post … well, it’s not logical or reasonable to expect anything else. I’ve been raised in this world, acculturated with the ideal that I am not a real person and should not exist – that even though I do exist, I am not deserving of having my differences supported and validated. I don’t deserve the things cis/het/able-bodied/non-mentally-ill/male people take for granted; I don’t deserve to have the world go to any extra lengths to accommodate me. We’re raised with this burden; we’re taught to think less of ourselves. Every self-affirming word every queer/trans/non-binary/PWD (and POC, asylum seeker, female, neuroatypical, intersex, etc.) person has ever said or written has come after years of internalised hatred and months if not years of unpacking this burden we’re forced to carry. I struggle, every day, with feeling like I am a lesser, wrong, broken person because my hands don’t work right, because pain holds me back, because I’m not all that I should be physically (should is an ugly word) or mentally; I judge myself against the standards of able-bodied people and find myself wanting, because all I can think about is not what I have achieved around/despite my pain … just what I could have achieved if I did not suffer pain.

This is an unbearably self-loathing way to live.

This is internalised ableism.

To be all of the above things is to be seen as, in varying degrees, ‘imperfect’. (In the case of disability, it’s literal.) ‘Perfection’ is held up as white, cis, het, binary, able-bodied, neurotypical. Again, it’s a perfection many of us can never reach; it leads to my struggles to accept myself and my body as something that’s okay just as it is because I’m living under the social expectation that I’m ‘supposed’ to be perfect. If I am not perfect, I must pretend/conform as much as I can (I am so very good at pretending to be able-bodied, and this is no more a good thing than my ability to ignore my pain is, for all that the majority of able-bodied people think this is a cool or useful ability); if I cannot pretend or conform – well, I must hide, do nothing, be silent, stop existing in any meaningful way, because only ‘perfect’ people are given all the rights and privileges of validated and acknowledged existence.

Somewhere in my head is this shocking, horrific belief that only perfect people are allowed to speak. If I am imperfect, I should shut the fuck up until I’ve gained perfection.

As I said, unbearably self-loathing.

Yes, you can argue that my fear of being seen as imperfect doesn’t have anything much to do with being a minority (and an awful lot to do with the abusive environments of my childhood and early adulthood, although I’d argue minorities are all abuse survivors by virtue of what they’re forced to endure). The fear’s expression, the choice, however, has everything to do it. It means I am taking those hateful lessons and applying them to myself. It means that I am choosing to be unreal rather than accepting myself for who I am and being okay with that person (and the tangle of their flaws and strengths and attributes and challenges and dreams).

It means I’m doing the very thing I rail against in my writing, in fact.

I would really like to be the kind of person who chooses imperfection, realness and honesty over hypocrisy and illusion. I’d like to be the kind of person who gets fucking mad at the idea that anybody should ever have to feel worthless because they have a condition that (through no fault of their own) makes life challenging . I’d like to be the kind of person who believes, utterly, that the problem is the world’s refusal to see, accept and accommodate people who don’t meet (and should never have to) society’s twisted, oppressive and fucked-up notion of ‘perfection’. I’d like to be the kind of person who has thoughts and ideas and dreams, who sees something they can do with the skills they have to make the world a better place for everybody who has to confront the ugly burden of not being real or perfect. I would love to be the kind of person who does not oppress themself out of fear. I would love to be the kind of person who is comfortable in declaring that they can’t actually do everything because their body is what it is, but that’s okay; it doesn’t make them any less capable or awesome.

I yearn to be the kind of person who is okay and happy with being who I am – all of the things that encompasses, all of the things that make me a person with things to say.

A lifetime of bullying, abuse, work discrimination and family dysfunction has taught me that safety lies in not existing – and it does. It really does. It also makes me a ghost in my own life. It means I’m agreeing with a world that says I shouldn’t exist. It means that I am complicit in the argument that I am wrong if I am not perfect, that I should not speak if I am not perfect, that I should hate and fear myself for not being perfect.

I don’t want to be complicit in that hateful, abusive argument.

Which – well, which leads me to being an adult. It means stepping up and saying who I am, saying I have this awesome, employable skillset, saying that if I create or develop works for other people’s consumption I deserve financial remuneration, saying that I am awesome just the way I am, all of who I am. My skills and talents and words come with a bundle of flaws and limitations, just like everybody else, but the trade-off is worth it. I exist. Blogger, screenwriter, novelist, fiction writer, non-binary genderless queer, PWD (mental illness and chronic pain), abuse survivor … and author, editor, manager, beginning e-book designer, professional. I can do a damn good editorial job, I can manage people and book production, and I have produced a novella, and a short fiction collection, and non-fiction articles, that are worth reading and buying. I need to step up and say all this because who the hell is going to do it if I don’t? How can I step into an adult world if I’m shrinking back and saying I’m ‘not really’ all these things?

It’s not just about finding ease with who I am – it’s also just about functioning in the world. If I want to keep on being a student, I can deny my abilities. If I want to be an adult professional, I must speak up – imperfectly.

All this leads me to thinking – I know that the whole idea of ‘born this way’ has been debunked by many awesome queer writers as a binary/cis/heterosexist theory designed only to oppress queer folk: the assumption is that people wouldn’t choose to be anything other than binary/cis/het (which prioritises the ‘normal’ status of binary/cis/het existence). To me, this is absurd: being queer comes with oppression and abuse and struggle through no fault of my own, but it also makes me kinder, stronger, more empathetic, more understanding, more intelligent, more aware. It opens my eyes, my heart and my head. My challenges and struggles make me a better person. Were I to make a conscious decision, I wouldn’t choose to be cishet or binary. It’s bad enough that I’m part of a system that oppresses people due to race and ethnicity – it’s bad enough to be an oppressor on one axis (or in all the ways in which I do not suffer disabilities, such as the ability to wear perfume). Why would I choose this?

I’m still working on reaching that level of acceptance with my body. I would choose my mental illnesses due to the insights I’ve gained in trying to overcome them and work with them; they make me who I am and have taught me so much about myself. I don’t regret having them, only the lack of understanding and care I received for far too long. I’m not there with my pain, however. I can acknowledge it as the thing that got me on the road to where I am, but I wouldn’t yet choose pain. It’s something to work on – my psychologist seems to think this is something that might take me years.

Why am I thinking about the facets of my identity with regards choice?

Well, if I can choose to be non-binary, choose to be queer, choose to have mental illness … maybe I can choose to be imperfect. Maybe I can learn to hold it to my heart with the same passion and fire as I hold my queerness. I am imperfect. I choose it. I celebrate it. I write about it. I live it. This is me, the glorious flag I’ve wrapped around my identity; this is my pride. I am imperfect, I am human, and I am proud of it.

One day, I hope, I can not only choose to be imperfect, but be unable to conceive of being any other way.

Until then … well, I’m going to email my print PDFs to my printer and go about the business of making a fucking book.

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3 thoughts on “The imperfections of realness

  1. Great rant. one thing I have noticed is that “perfect” people like to read our narratives as long as they are “uplifting”. As long as they have happy endings (or tragic ones) and do not peter out into some nuanced and ambiguous ending. Americans detest any ending they have to figure out or pay attention to – they want it spelled out and they want their emotions manipulated so they don’t have to think about what they are feeling. Most people don’t want to accept the complexities of their lives or our lives.

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    • And great comment, because – well, exactly this. It’s not just an American thing; the same phenomenon is far too present here in Australia as well. Pretty much the only queer/disability (as cases in point) stories that make it to the mainstream media are all about gay men adopting children and having conventional 2-parent-2-kid families, or PWDs who soldier on silently through their pain and go on to climb Mount Everest. They make mainstream audiences feel good for about thirty seconds and, ultimately, change nothing about their behaviour.

      If the narratives are all about minorities ‘overcoming’ and being inspirational, then society doesn’t actually have to change. Society can just assume that we’ll overcome – in a heroic, inspirational way – and they don’t have to do anything but admire our heroism. I’m thoroughly tired of those narratives – and it makes me sad how often they creep into our own literature, even non-mainstream literature.

      I like happy endings, but those endings should be complicated (as you say, nuanced), and happiness – well, sometimes it’s just about learning how to redefine ‘happiness’.

      “Most people don’t want to accept the complexities of their lives or our lives.”

      Word to that. Which is probably something I need to work on accepting as a reality (instead of metaphorically banging my head against the wall every time I meet with it), because it’s something that frustrates me as the owner of a complex, challenging, often bitter (and absurd and amazing and so many other things) life.

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