My family’s well-loved grey Volkswagen speeds through the streets of downtown Seattle, my mother and I watching her iPhone as it spits out life-saving directions to Town Hall. I frantically tear my hair down from its tight bun, throwing bobby pins and hair ties into my dance bag.
“Are you sure my jeans are okay? I feel like I’m gonna be so underdressed!”
My mother, endlessly patient as always, reassures me yet again that I look lovely. I still don’t believe her in the slightest as the two of us walk into Town Hall, but there’s nothing I can do now about my young face and scrappy clothing. As we sit in our seats I squint towards the stage, eyes quickly overtaken by the fluorescent lights up on the too-high ceiling and the grand and intimidating architecture of the old building. There’s a raucous burst of applause as the moderator for the evening steps out from behind a large curtain. I force my attention back to the stage and pull out my notepad, heart pounding.
Accomplished writers often come to lecture in this magnificent venue. Tonight, it’s Carmen Maria Machado, a 33-year-old American essayist and author, well-known for her incredible fiction and non-fiction work. She’s here to talk about her critically-acclaimed book, In the Dream House, and to explain the process and work behind it.
The moment she steps on stage and begins to speak, my darting gaze turns to a reverent stare. Most obvious of Machado is her confidence. From the moment she appears from behind the stage’s obtrusive curtain, her certainty glows just as brightly as any other light on the stage. The (very) occasional fumbles of her smooth and articulate words did not faze my starry-eyed gaze, nor any other in the room, serving only to reinforce the inspiration planted in my mind. She feels familiar. She is brave and unafraid to be angry when the world told her she shouldn’t be. She speaks to the lack of queer domestic violence in the media, of the mentality surrounding female power and how it continues to anger her to this day. I take her opinions to heart, not because I believe she is more knowledgeable than me, but because I believe she understands what the audience needs to hear.
Her words are coherent and yet filled with literary craftsmanship, something many writers (including myself) struggle with. She talks openly about how she uses genre within her work. Horror, superhero fiction, fantasy: she speaks about them all as essential building blocks of her writing. She refuses to be controlled by the strict rules that leave a lot of today’s culture repetitive. She speaks not only to creators like her who understand the struggles of craft and genre, but also those in other fields. Who says you have to stay within the stereotypes of your job? Who decided we as people must throw ourselves into categories and shame those who reach beyond them?
Over the years, I have absorbed a lot of opinions about the world via the adults I know. It is part of growing up in a time where the “us” and “them” mentality is stronger than ever; people like to antagonize others based upon what they believe are righteous opinions, and it becomes difficult to sort through the ones that mean something. How do you decide what’s inspirational to you? How do you choose which words you should take to heart, especially at an age when your mindset is still readily kneadable?
Machado’s words hit closer to home than I was expecting. Two specific aspects of her identity, female-identified and queer, make me feel as though I found the adult figure my 13-year-old self was silently begging for. And though not everyone in the audience understands Machado’s experiences within a world ready to cut her down, she still manages to inject inspiration into her words to appeal to both young women like me, and others that wish to understand nonetheless.
The motivation she instilled was clear at the end of her speech, when every person in the large auditorium burst into an emotional round of applause.
It is still raining as I exit Town Hall, but the drops are scarcely noticeable to me as my mom and I walk towards the parking lot. I am discussing the talk with her in bursts of excitement and realization, still riding the buzz of inspiration, even though I know tomorrow is waiting to bring me back to my repetitive life.
I look out the window, watching the raindrops continue to fall as I think about Machado’s words. Can I try to use her wisdom in my likely twisted and thorny path to success? Could I ever live up to that standard, to motivate others in a way that seemed so impossible in such a desolate world?
Then I realize something.
She was wearing jeans too.
Carmen Maria Machado's lecture was presented by Seattle Arts and Lectures on January 24, 2020. For event information see here.