For almost the last decade of my life, I have served Seattle’s writing community in various roles at Richard Hugo House. I have scrubbed toilets and shoveled snow before slapping a button-up and sportscoat over my sweaty frame and introducing performances by local writers for whom I would have done just about anything if they had asked. I have pulled award-winning writers from the ledge of anxiety before sold-out readings, pumping them up with, “I invited you for a reason. Because I know you’re going to be great,” and I have had to level with some folks, too, like the brilliant teen poet with aspirations to be the next Kerouac, whom I told, “Partying will always be there, but if you want to be a writer, you have to make the time for reading and writing.” Some days I feel like a therapist for writers and others like a hitman, picking off letters of recommendation, proposals for events and emails of gratitude with a single clip.
That is my job.
But, as a writer, I have often found myself at a crossroads with my work at Hugo House, supporting so many other writers that I have neglected my own, spending hours in the office and out, working well over the typical 40, creating successful programs while forgetting that I am a writer, too. For three years, when I first went full-time (If you’ve ever worked at a nonprofit, you know full-time basically means you’ve surrendered most of your waking life.), I didn’t write at all. Most nights, in those early years, I’d come home after an inspiring reading and want to stroke those keys, but was too exhausted and worn. When you work with words all day, writing and reading can seem like more toil than pleasure. I lost sight of the joy I found in discovering that powerful image hidden within something crappy I wrote on the bus or rereading part of a book because the writing was so good. I even thought about quitting writing altogether. Maybe I found my calling; maybe I was just an arts administrator.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I finally hit my stride as a writer after Cienna Madrid, who’s a reporter for The Stranger and was a writer-in-residence at Hugo House, invited me to write something and pair it with a slideshow for a gig she was producing at Central Cinema. That’s when I debuted the earliest pieces of “Fat Fuck” with little intention of doing more with it, at first. Later that year, my dear friend and little sister, Kate Lebo, invited me to write something about pie and read it at her book launch, which turned into a personal essay about my childhood love of Ninja Turtle Pies and stealing. Performing more “Fat Fuck” at Bumbershoot followed and more inquiries to read and perform would come. Then, I was shortlisted for The Stranger Genius Award in Literature, and although it was for my work, and not my writing, the recognition motivated me further. I wanted to win that award–and the sheet cake that comes with it!–but knew, like everything else, it would require hard work, determination and, of course, writing, which I’ve done more of over the last two years than ever before.
Maybe it wasn’t working at Hugo House that was stopping me–I just hadn’t quite discovered the story I needed to tell, the one I wanted so badly to keep from everyone, though all it took was one look at me to see I was a fat fuck. (In the time between then and when I first began working at Hugo House, I had gained 80 lbs., and while only one person remarked on my weight gain, an unnamed–for now!–editor with a reputation for rudeness, I could tell from the looks in peoples’ eyes that they were surprised by my size.)
Telling this story has been immensely powerful for me personally as well as for my readers and audience members who, after learning about how I was bullied, how I hated myself, how Haagan-Dazs was my best friend, have wanted to share their secrets, their pains, too. The self-discovery I’ve undertaken through writing “Fat Fuck” and this blog is a treasure hunt where the Xs only lead to more maps of the uncharted lands of my psyche, my heart. While my waist line has shrunk, my understanding of myself and my addiction has grown, not to mention that word count, increasing, like the number on the scale has decreased, almost daily.
Which is why, two years after I first dipped into the old shoeboxes and scrapbooks for relics of my fattest years, those days when dinner was a well-worn bridge between two pints of ice cream, scrapping together pictures for a slideshow that would detail visually the cross I carried since grade school, splintered with slices of pizza and two-liters of Sunkist, I’m proud of how this one project steamrolled into a one-man show, so many blog posts and what I hope will eventually be a book.
But more than that–I’ve learned that people actually believe in me, this kid from Queens, who didn’t think he’d amount to much of anything.
I came to this realization just this week when Sarah, a client services rep at Golden Lasso, a marketing/design firm on Capitol Hill that has graciously offered to develop the branding and visual concepts for “Fat Fuck,” plus use of their space for a performance on April 19 (More details to come!), sent me a Schedule and Creative Brief, an email I forwarded to my wife immediately with “I HAVE A DESIGN TEAM!!!!!!!!!!” (Yes, in all caps with 10 exclamation points.) in the body of the message. Golden Lasso believes in my work and from the Creative Brief, I could tell immediately that they get me, something I was worried about because, after all, my show is called “Fat Fuck” and includes pictures of hemorrhoids, nipples and half-naked men. Sarah alleviated those concerns when she confessed, “We’re all happy we can say the word ‘fuck’ around the office now.”
I guess I should have known before, but as someone wrought with self-doubt, I haven’t always believed in myself, so having people believe in me, much less a design firm, comes as a surprise and inspires me to work even harder. The 4Culture grant I received last year helped, too, as well as seeing the writers I’ve supported during my career at Hugo House rally around me–like Keri Healey, who’s out of the blue Facebook message in late 2010 turned into her being my director (4Culture money well-spent!); Suzanne Morrison, who, if she wasn’t already working on her own book, could be my publicist with the way she toots her horn for me; Nicole Hardy, who constantly asks about my nipples; Marya Sea Kaminski, who, in a performance class four years ago, told me, “Don’t be afraid to make your audience uncomfortable,” and has stuck by me ever since; and so many of my close friends, Steve, Elissa, David, Ross, etc., reading, keeping tabs on me, encouraging me. It has all helped me understand why I do what I do. Supporting someone chasing their dreams can be almost as fulfilling as chasing your own.
I’m still not done yet. There’s more writing to come, more Xs to uncover leading to more maps, more self-discovery, more pain and certainly more failure, but, as a writer, I truly feel the support of a community that I’ve devoted so much of my life to as an arts administrator.
I’m glad to be one of you now.