I don’t remember when I flipped the switch, but at some point in 2018, I realized I needed a public Instagram account. I didn’t have anything to promote, but I wanted to establish some sort of public presence. This was before the blog. This was before NYC. I’d been posting lip-sync videos to Instagram for a while. Just banking songs that I liked to listen to, and without any other creative outlet, I just wanted to insert myself into the narrative of art. And I was working through feelings that I didn’t have words for at that time.
I’m on an upswing, which is whatever and as yet undefined, but life in the big city as a performer who networks requires a public presence. Short of a blue checkmark next to your name, people just want to see that you’re legit. They can friend me on Instagram (you already know I’m not going to friend most people on Facebook) and keep up with whatever I post there.
I don’t feel obligated to post, but it’s an easy place to just throw things up that I probably will never see again. When I was stuck in Tucson for 76 days this Spring it was a reason to shower and get dressed and put makeup on. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I was holding on by a thread and so lonely that I just went back to being my own best friend like I’d been in Tucson when there really was practically no one around for years. Yah, years. I figured out how to save myself…and not for the first time. It just so happened to be entertaining enough that people watched.
Posting to Instagram doesn’t scare me like it used to. I’m not afraid of falling on my face anymore. If people think my posts are ridiculous or vain, I’m really ok with that. It’s the price of doing business. But I want to key into that person I was in 2017/2018 when I was terrified of anyone thinking I took myself seriously. As a writer. As a creative. As a person.
You probably didn’t know me back then. I was trying to build self-esteem from the ether. I was trying to paint the corners of the canvas and see who I was at my extremes. I wanted to write. I had this overwhelming urge to share thoughts. I wanted to explore what pleased me. It was kind of remarkable that I had thoughts and opinions at all. After having my heart pulverized by D, I had lost all sense of self, including all my interests. I had to reject everything him (music, politics, sports, etc.) because it was all too painful. I couldn’t even look at an elephant without thinking of him. My solution was to shut down anything that would elicit any feeling because they were all too overwhelming.
I went on so many dates in 2016 where I had to talk about myself that I was forced to come up with interesting things to say that weren’t “So I just got out of a mental hospital” or “I haven’t had a job in years.” Those first few months were awful. I spent so much time apologizing for being uninteresting. Note to daters: live an interesting life if you want to be an interesting date and soon you’ll realize that the date isn’t the goal, it’s the interesting life you’re living…and then the dates just sort of start happening as this organic experience.
The guys all wanted to teach me about music. It got pedantic and old fast, but I didn’t have much else to talk about. Sometime in 2016, I told a story at a Female Storytellers (FST) in Tucson about this, in which I’d written this prayer:
“God, you who made Tom Petty and three quarters of the Beatles, help keep me away from ne’er-do-wells with good taste in music and bad intentions. Guard me from men who have styled hair and skinny jeans. And protect me from those who smoke fancy cigarettes and swear that I would just love cocaine.
Find me a dermatologist or a scientist with a kind smile, a wicked sense of humor and an encyclopedic knowledge of movie trivia.
I promise on Regina Spektor’s hands and Rufus Wainright’s voice to never ask for that which makes my little heart go pitter patter but which is not good for me. I don’t need leather jackets and cool boots. And if he dresses from Costco, I can learn to deal…until I burn all his clothes and replace them in the middle of the night.
Yours in reverence, Vene”
I know better now, but at the time I didn’t know very much, honestly. My personal tastes had been cobbled together in high school from movie soundtracks, musicals, and the 90’s alternative girl crowd. I liked Harry Connick, Jr. because John and Veronica Duncan both liked him and I had a crush on them (a platonic crush on Veronica…but those are the hardest crushes in my life). Everything post-16 was somehow tied into this mutual identity that D and I shared. When I was a freshman in college, and mp3s were a new concept, I’d spend hours collecting them off of every computer on the dorm networks. But I had to keep those tastes to myself because D would never let me live it down if he knew what I really liked. So I stop having opinions. They didn’t suit my purpose in life, which was to have D approve of me. I just shut myself down. He liked it better that way.
And when the marriage started to break down, I’d started listening to things he never would have approved of as an act of rebellion. Really tepid things like Death Cab and Coldplay. After Steve Jobs’ memorial service on the Apple campus, D started downloading Coldplay because his opinion changed after seeing them live and in person from 10 feet away. I knew all the words to the songs already and it really confused him because he couldn’t square the fact that maybe I’d been living on the sly.
But when we divorced, I could barely listen to anything.
I had such a voracious appetite coming out of that music fast (2011-2015), and I started consuming anything and everything people would talk about. At first I felt so ignorant that I was ashamed and a little doe-eyed. My tastes were not very refined. Aerosmith, John Hughes 80’s sentimentality. But with the introduction of The 1975 in 2016, I could look at Matty Healy’s influences. From him I was able to delve into The Smiths and The Cure. Baby steps. Depeche Mode and Duran Duran. Yeah, I’d say, I remember this stuff from when I was little. Itty bitty baby steps.
I started building playlists and getting adventurous about trying new things. This probably sound very pedestrian or juvenile, but I was establishing an identity. I like this. I don’t have to ashamed that I like Billy Joel or Jewel or Aerosmith or John Couger Mellencamp. I rediscovered Big Audio Dynamite and The Specials. And now that Apple Music was a thing, there was practically no barrier to exploring. I learned about music for the first time with no judgment. It was such a blessing and a safe way to decide who I wanted to be.
And, just as aside, it was around this time that I switched allegiances from Team Christian Bale to Team Mark Ronson. Not a lot of range, I know. If you look at all the boys I’ve ever thought were cute, they fit a very specific bill. D falls squarely within that metric, but so did Michael, my first love. I wanted an off-white boy with good, brown hair. Now I want everything.
I started collecting lyrics. And then I started writing, but not sharing with anyone but Michael. Instagram, which I’d never really cared for, now became a place where I could park all these videos I’d been making and the 12 or so followers I had could see them. I will tell you with 100% certainty that no one liked those videos. They’d roll their eyes at me. They wondered what was wrong with me. They mocked me. The friends that I had at the time were accepting of me exploring my identity, so long as they could judge and control it. My identity then was a sad, autistic, not so pretty, 30-something old woman. Anything I did that didn’t fit into the metric was kooky or zany. They didn’t see that I was fundamentally changing and becoming someone they’d never expected.
That isn’t an overstatement. If anything, I’m downplaying how different I am now from who I was in December 2015. Most people figure out who they are in their teens and 20’s. I didn’t get that chance until I was 36.
If I was going to survive life, I had to stop caring so much about staying in the lines. I had to steel myself against ridicule and rejection. It was unbelievably hard. Sometimes it required me doing things I was frightened to do…like getting tattoos. Sometimes it required doing things that scared other people…like traveling to see shows by myself. It could easily be confused with a mid-life crisis. But it was very much not that. I was just finally developing a relationship with myself. And, lucky for me, I liked who I was becoming, even if no one else really did.
I grew up fast. My life and my writing were on parallel tracks. And Ira Glass was so right about this:
I fought my way through, goddamnit, and now I’m on the other side, living in Brooklyn and establishing myself in different scenes. Even without this covid nonsense, my life would still be surreal. I interact with really cool artists now who just happen to be really fucking good at what they do and they like what I do, too. I don’t have a huge following. I’m never going to have mass appeal. But I’m respected by people whose opinions matter to me. Some of the people who watched this all unfold from the sidelines call me a badass. They are dazzled by who I’ve managed to become. And some of them will never understand who I am now. I have to be ok with that. I wasted enough time worrying about disappointing everyone and embarrassing myself. I don’t have much time to accomplish what is important to me.
Those silly videos people see on my account are a testament to me learning to face rejection and solitude with courage. They’re not great, but that’s not the point. They’re not even what people think they are. The early videos are me dissecting lyrics. They’re me trying to establish a safe space to express myself through others’ words. Of being ok with being seen period. And then they became creative accountability. And then I figured out how to play with audio on Snapchat and Audacity. I figured out how to play with filters and color and camera angles. I started messing around with iMovie. I got good at syncing Instagram music audio to dub over video. And now that we’re in Covid times, I’m 90% comfortable with performing in front of a camera. Whatever the challenges are…fucking bring ’em. I’m not bashful. But those videos are not me. They are Vene adjacent. They are a means to an end.
I’ve been picking up skills that might serve some purpose in the future. Maybe it’ll pay off. Maybe it’ll just be a fun parlor trick. I’m excited to explore more stuff. I’m not precious anymore. One of my first lip-sync videos (with janky audio and a really bad filter) has 400 views. I don’t care if it’s the same five people repeatedly looking at it. It’s from September 2018 and people are still looking at it, so do with that what you will.
I had to get comfortable with having a life on display so I could become the person and the writer whose life and work would eventually become worthy of display. It’s a feedback loop that saved my life. Music saved my life. Matty Healy saved my life. I saved my life. So don’t go expecting me to ever make excuses for any of it. And if that makes me a badass, well, so be it. I can live with that empty moniker.