My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Patricia Ann McNair, author of a collection of short stories, The Temple of Air, which was called “a beautiful book, intense and original,” by Audrey Niffenegger, and was selected as the winner of Southern Illinois University’s Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award and the Society of Midland Authors Finalist Award. Patricia Ann McNair has lived 98 percent of her life in the Midwestern United States. She’s managed a gas station, sold pots and pans door to door, tended bar and breaded mushrooms, worked on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and taught aerobics. Today she is an Associate Professor in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago, where she received a nomination for the Carnegie Foundation’s US Professor of the Year. Visit her website here and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
My First Bully
When the name showed up in my queue of friend requests on Facebook, I actually shivered. She found me. She: my first bully. With the upcoming launch of my debut story collection, The Temple of Air, I was doing what they tell you to do—reaching out on social media, making new friends, reuniting with old ones, connecting. I’d been pimping my book, too, putting up posts about future readings, interviews, workshops, etc. Friends I hadn’t seen in decades—girls, mostly (but not only), from high school—were confirming my friend invitations, and others were sending me theirs. It was fun to see the pictures on those profiles. Who had hair; who didn’t? Who had gotten fat, beautiful, successful, married, remarried, and more or less interesting than I thought they were when we were seventeen?
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when she found me, my first bully, but I was. Her name is different now, a new last name with the maiden name in the middle; the first name more girly than what she went by when we were kids. But the tight smile on her profile picture was the one I remembered from when we first met at a playground when I was what—five? Six? The time she made me sit absolutely still on one of those old swing sets with rubbery seats and metal chains while she twisted the swing in such a way that it caught my fingers in the links, pinching them, making them bleed. I remember her telling me I’d better not say anything to anyone. She knew how to find me. She would really hurt me.
She became a mean teenager, getting into fights in the school parking lot, performing small acts of vandalism. She was from a very screwed up home, I know that now; I think I knew that then. A single mother. Boyfriends passing through like potential buyers at an open house. She was almost certainly abused. She would make an interesting character in one of my stories; I could love her and hate her in the pages I write. Mostly, though, I hated her. She scared me.
So when I saw her name in the requests, I was tempted to hit “ignore.” But I was already engaged in social media conversation with two or three of our common friends, and I figured what the hell. Maybe she had changed. I know that I have—but that’s another story. So I confirmed the request, and almost immediately, she started to write slightly nasty posts on my wall. One of the failures of social media particularly, and electronic communication in general, is that tone can so often be misinterpreted. Perhaps she didn’t mean for it to sound bitchy when she answered my open call for workshop participants with something like “I don’t care what yur doing this summer. Im spending it with my family.” Maybe, when she sent me two or three questions in a single post and I didn’t answer all of them at once, and she quickly wrote back in all caps: “YOU DIDNT ANSER MY QUESTION!!!!” she meant it to be funny or something. Do you think?
But I began to feel trapped, jittery. And when she started to send me notes about my upcoming book that she had advance-ordered, telling me that I almost certainly had got our childhood wrong and she couldn’t wait to prove it (despite the fact that my book is not about my childhood at all, not even set in the suburbs where we grew up) I could practically smell her hot, tuna-fish-salad breath like I could that long ago day on the swings.
I can’t stop thinking about the weird anxiety that hit me when this woman showed up again. Clearly it had to do with whatever childhood trauma I still felt on some level, but more than that, I think it has to do with the insecurity every writer must feel. Once we put our work out there, it is (we are) vulnerable to whatever attacks may come, and I think, no matter how confident we are in the work, we fear the strikes and barbs of others. Writing is not a safe business. Our words on the page often leave us unprotected and perhaps even a little naked. Is it unreasonable to worry about bullies?
I have a small scar on my ring finger knuckle from that day on the swing set a million years ago. I can still see it. It won’t go away. Not entirely.