Instagram Made Me A Better Writer
Trying to present myself as the writer and person I wanted to be helped me figure out who I was
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Three years ago, I lugged a Smith-Corona typewriter up a coastal bluff for a writing retreat. The typewriter was a Christmas gift from my husband, kept in immaculate condition since the 1970s by (antique store legend had it) Pink Martini’s songwriter. According to the store’s proprietor, the songwriter had hauled it down to Cuba on several occasions. The perfection of the carrying case belies this legend: open up the case and the original tags, warranty and manual slide out, their only blemish the relentless yellowing of time.
“This is going to help me write,” I said out loud, because that sounded like a practical reason to drive an obsolete hunk of office equipment 100 miles out to the Oregon Coast and lug it up sandy switchbacks to a second-story retreat bedroom. The twenty pounds of casing and keys battered against my shins with every step, and I kept stopping to switch hands and redistribute the ergonomic nightmare knotting in my shoulder.
I could have left this hunk of metal in my car trunk and worked toward the writing goals — finish an essay, start a novel — on my slender laptop. It was the not-so-secret reason glowing under my practical veneer that kept me huffing all the way to the top of the hill.
This typewriter is going to look so good on Instagram.
I signed up for Instagram in 2011 for innocuous reasons, just as I had previously for MySpace (everyone was on MySpace) and Facebook (everyone left MySpace). Not only did it distill social media down to its most expressive, engaging asset — pictures! — but its artsy filters revolutionized what a phone snap could be. Harsh lighting and low-lit landscapes were no longer the enemy, not with the warmth of Hefe or the sepia whispers of Crema. My first photo, taken in September before my 27th birthday, is a selfie in half-profile. I stare out of frame, unsmiling. My eyeshadow is smudged along my brow, and I’m not wearing lipstick. The Nashville filter has transformed it into a Polaroid, awash in blue midtones. Like the rest of my early images it is wildly overproduced, covering up the inadequacies of my iPhone 3. I had yet to learn the rules I’ve developed in the time since, to make something look perfect without looking fake. They function as Personal Branding Guidelines: the slightest head tilt, no flash on that food, bend those arms, point the toes. Upward-facing angles will promptly be deleted.
One of those first photos looks much more like my recent ones. It was snapped backstage at Pacific University before walking out with my MFA graduating class. The two-year how-to-be-a-writer intensive cracked open an identity I’d spent my life scratching and picking at. My tassel hangs perfectly in-line with my bob-cut platinum hair. Lined brows, blended dark shadow, lined and immaculate lip. Eyes into lens, full smile. Fifteen snaps to get it right.
The person I was before Pacific doesn’t exist in my Instagram archives. Therefore, as far as my brand is concerned, she is not real. The girl with mousy hair left too long and snaggle-teeth, and an extra 40 pounds after a Great Recession spent unemployed and darkly depressed. She was the self who liked the idea of being a writer in the same way she liked the idea of being a Hollywood starlet or Japanese pop idol — a dream that was impossible to execute, and remained obtuse in the clouds as life stagnated below.
I don’t bring her up much. She’s unnecessary backstory to the narrative I’ve spent seven years shaping into a reality told in 2,400 @tabithabee pixel tiles.
Last month I was in Tampa for a writing conference. I’d been planning the trip for months, knowing it would be an intense four days of Social Media Persona on Parade. There was a lot at stake this year: my first book was coming out. I only saw these friends and associates once a year, at most. There were further connections I wanted to make and opportunities I felt were close, but just needed that little in-person nudge toward my fingertips.
And these people would need to meet Fabulous Aspiring Writer Tabitha, not My-Feet-Hurt Tabitha or I’m-Getting-Shitty-Emails-From-Condescending-Engineers-At-My-Day-Job Tabitha, or I-Said-Fuck-It-To-The-Curling-Iron Tabitha. Those messy, bitchy iterations of myself might get their glimmers on Twitter or Facebook, but I wanted my favorite people to see the best version of me. The Instagram one.
I sketched out a schedule for all my outfits before departure, one for each day and another for the offsite evenings. I picked bright, floral, gaudy Florida patterns and a hibiscus fascinator that I got from a burlesque designer in my home of Portland, Oregon.
At least, that’s what I submit as Home. My actual residence, a rural patch of hop groves and hazelnut trees you’ve never heard of smack between Portland and Salem, gets little mention in my feed.
Would you like to tag Hubbard, Oregon as your location?
Remember my answer: NO.
By Saturday, the last day of the conference, I went off-book to run downstairs in the morning for coffee. I put on my favorite pair of shorts and a new t-shirt from a journal I consider a friend (in that weird way you start to feel, after so many years of hustling in the literary world, that certain publications are your family that accepts you and your particular brand of struggle). It was so comfortable, so fast, so easy. I thought about going back upstairs to my room and putting on the Havana-printed skirt. But instead I walked into the book fair in my casual clothes, the kind I wear the vast majority of my daily life, as I save my swing skirts and wiggle dresses and busy prints for the days that deserve them. The days when people actually see me, when I allow myself to be seen. The days I convince myself that I am in control.
Within a few minutes I ran into a writer-friend from California, one who greeted me with pleasant surprise in catching the subverted expectation. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this casual!” she exclaimed, and although she seemed thrilled at the revelation, I felt guilty. I hadn’t tried.
“I didn’t put on my Tabitha drag today,” I said as apology.
There is a tectonic shift in my vast Instagram archive quilt, though even I almost missed it on the first scroll-through. March 2013 begins with images of cats and cocktails, but then there is an In-N-Out Burger. Andersen’s Split Pea Soup windmill in the nothingness of I-5’s California valley. A sign proclaiming that Arizona, the Grand Canyon State, welcomes us.
This year and a half in Tucson was where I began leaning into Instagram as if my life depended on it. My husband’s job was transferred there with an opportunity too lucrative and rare to pass up. I left my Portland community, my new grad school friends, for a place I’d only ever seen on Google Earth.
Instead of the occasional plate of homemade barbecue or trips to a Seattle Sounders game, my feed becomes frenzied. Crammed. Constant.
A citrus grove in the middle of a Hacienda-styled mall: Oranges! On trees!
Scottsdale chalk artist’s half-finished portrait of a hummingbird: To taking flight.
Posed in front of a gypsy stagecoach as a steampunk version of Ariel the Little Mermaid: Too much fun playing dress-up last weekend! #wildwildwestcon
Strange desert bright blue cloud cover with Lisa Frank neon pink edges: If you wait long enough, the sea comes back to you. #nofilter
In these pictures, I’m dolled up in sundresses, quirky headbands, cat-eye sunglasses, and flashy pumps. I decoupaged my own flats. I bought the bubblegum lipstick that MAC keeps locked behind the counter because only Nicki Minaj should be wearing it. There was nothing to lose; I’d made no friends, my coworkers had already voiced their verdict that I was too weird. I was marooned on an island of saguaro and Republicans.
Yes, my true style was starting to finally come together as I ran down the clock on my twenties, but it was more than that. I knew that each of these shots could travel much farther than I was able. To the palms of my family I’m incredibly close with, and the friends that existed to me now only as abstraction, they were 357 postcards scrawled with the same plea: I’m still here. Please don’t forget.
To myself: You’re fine.
Please be fine.
My loud outfits were a shout from the desert, and a life preserver until we finally moved home. I took everything I thought about being and compacted it into bottle-rockets. I got back to Oregon, to the same house and jobs we’d left behind. The aspirations to color, to prints, to new recipes on Fiestaware plates, to bucking the monochrome aesthetic of my Northwest birthplace, to embracing the fact that a midcentury-cut dress will fit me better than anything invented subsequently: this is what I’ve kept.
On most days — the casual officewear Mondays through Fridays, the weekends when I’m running around getting flats of Diet Coke at Costco, when I’m in leggings and jeans and would rather cram a banh mi sandwich in my foodhole without the worry of destroying a perfect red lip outline — I do not take my picture. Instead, I scroll through the account to bask in the Mayfair light of better times. Book readings. Dinner out with friends. Vacations. Visits back home to see my family and favorite sports team. Nights I was actually writing and not binge-watching The Real Housewives of Orange County.
This is what life can be, I’m pointing out to myself, if only I apply everything I run short on: patience, effort, focus, time. It’s not a fiction of the self, but the best possibility. I cut out the red herrings and tangents, keeping the breadcrumb trail back to the happiest moments clear and bright. I want you to believe I can get there, because it makes me want to keep trying.
I didn’t type this out on a Smith-Corona vintage typewriter overlooking the Pacific Ocean tide. Rather this essay comes to you on my Microsoft Surface from a cramped guest bedroom, wearing stained pajamas while my cat won’t stop mewling for pets. But that’s the way it could have been; the way it feels that it should be. An ever-arching aim into a future on the other side of that ocean bluff, the one I can only hope and dress with the costumes and props of my most treasured days.