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an ode to McSweeney’s

My last column at McSweeney’s is up here.

Nearly ten years ago, I submitted my first piece to a oddly named literary website, Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Drawn by the allure of Mr. Dave Eggers, I stayed for the spare, funny, and biting writing that graced this weird little corner of the internet. When I submitted my piece I had just dropped out of my Pentecostal Bible college; I was suffering what I didn’t know then to be anxiety attacks. I had packed up my dorm room and lived in my sister’s apartment, crowded with other roommates, where I sat at her PC and banged out a an emotional essay on How I Still Loved Jesus but Didn’t Love Christians Very Much at All. It was all very dramatic, as I remember. I sent it off, still in my pajamas, working up the nerve to think about what I was going to do next in my life. I waited. I went to the Santa Monica pier and got a tattoo, a small heart with a “J” in it, my own inconsequential and obvious way of declaring that Jesus was indeed still in my heart. I eventually got on a train and went to be with my parents in Portland, 33 hours of supposed morose reflection, my depression lifting the closer I got the gray skies of my future, the place that would become my home for the next 9 years.

I got a very nice e-mail back from the site, from the then-editor Mr. Eli Horowitz. I don’t remember it exactly, but it was very polished and polite, explaining that they didn’t really publish personal essays, but he did wish me the best of luck. I took it on the chin, and went on with rebuilding my young life. Through the years, I was a regular reader of McSweeney’s, devoured all the humor books they published (I remember going to Powell’s with my crazy southern friend, him reading the lists in exaggerated drawls, us busting up with laughter; I remember buying the books for my then-boyfriend K, hoping and hoping that he found them funny so I could marry him–luckily, he did). I especially loved the columns they published, the outsider perspectives from massage therapists, skateboarders, transvestites, escorts, teenagers. I lived in such a narrow world, and these narratives opened up my doors, put a personal, thoughtful spin on alternative ways of living life.

Last year, I entered the contest. Can I be all evangelical and tell you that God told me to? That he told me exactly what angle to play, how to write it? I’m sorry, but that is the story. And then I got in, I was picked to be one of the lucky few. I had a platform, I had a space to tell my stories, and the stories of my friends and neighbors. When I got the news, I sat quiet, still, and stunned. It had always been a dream of mine, a list of the top 3 things I dreamed about (the other two were, strangely, writing an essay about love for the NYT and being interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air).

I got some criticism with the first column, some deserved, some not so much. I changed my perspective on a few things, stopped projecting so much onto others and instead jumped headfirst into examining the murkier aspects: faith, doubt, and always failure, failure, failure. People like to read about it, evidently. I wish Christians understood this more.

I love McSweeney’s. I love the site, comment-and-ad-free, a writer’s dream. I love the editors, who were encouraging when I was freaking out, told me when I wasn’t being very funny, said nice things all the time. I love the readers, who (for the most part) wrote me when they didn’t have to, talked of their worlds being opened a little wider as well. I love that people gave me, an outsider, a chance to think my thoughts, in public.

When friends found out I was doing this writing thing, almost none of them knew what McSweeney’s was (a common response: Oh, you’re a writer? You should do the church bulletins!). It further cemented in my mind the way the Christian world is distrustful of the secular, how we have retreated and created our own publishing companies, blogs, bookstores. And as many other, more articulate people have noted, this retreat into our own ghettos has not been kind to us. It has robbed the art and it has robbed the artists. After writing for McSweeney’s, I know I can’t go back to writing platitudes and easy moral stories. I was pushed to ask questions, to be honest, to be vulnerable. And this should be expected of all of us, those who are writing stories, those of us who are living great stories.

And so, I thank you, kind folks of McSweeney’s, for doing what you do. May the next batch of columns be grand, the perspectives wide and varied and funny and honest. I know I will be reading.

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