Photograph: Tatjana Loh
I am an excellent listener. I have amazing recall for details few other journalists care about. If you and I met, I'd remember things that would surprise you. Why, just last night at dinner, I told my friend Rich: "Hey, that's the wooden salad bowl you picked out of your parents' stash when they sold their house in Chicago to move to Florida. You love it because nobody makes a wooden salad bowl today that is just that perfect size." And he looked at me in amazement and even horror—he could not remember having confessed his leafy-vegetable-serving preferences to me and feared I had access to a secret chip in his brain.
I rush to tell you this because to my own astonishment, and not a little embarrassment, my résumé indicates I have spent the past 15 years writing about (could it be? this can't be right!) myself. From ages 30 to 35 it was via a monthly magazine column; since then it has been weekly, on public radio. (There was one notable gap in 2004 when I was—oops—fired for the accidental broadcast of an obscenity: In case you missed it, that particular personal slipup was reported by Howard Stern, Bill Maher, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and Reuters.)
My entry into this life of literary narcissism was also accidental. As a student in fiction-writing workshops in my 20s, I would submit short stories starring "Sharon," "Aunt Faith," or even "Mr. Hovick" (an aspiring writer/struggling English teacher whose despair was symbolized by his falling-apart 1972 VW Karmann Ghia). The other students would say blankly (looking out the window at my battered Karmann Ghia): "This is you, isn't it? Why don't you just say it's you?"
At first I didn't want to admit that my writing was autobiographical—too many humiliating things were happening that did not fit the life I had planned. It was the '80s, and my goal was to be the next Laurie Anderson, an internationally famous performance artist admired for my coolly brilliant synthesis of art and technology and fabulous spiky hair. In reality, my bangs moussed themselves into a poodle pile while friends and acquaintances pressed me for stories about my fascinating Chinese father. And why not—Dad was busy marrying Chinese mail-order brides, hitchhiking across Los Angeles, and Dumpster diving. (Intrigued? You can read all about it in my first published story!)
Yes, narrating stripped-bare tales about my father, my C-list Hollywood meetings, and tragic dating experiences (sample story title: "Bad Sex with Bud Kemp") made me feel like hugging my clothes and running away. At first. Gradually, though, I found the more humiliating the anecdote, the more readers and listeners would line up afterward to relay an even more humiliating personal story. So a decade and a half into my autobiographical writing career, I've come to feel, simply, like the world's confessor (to this day, you should read my e-mail!). The Patron Saint of the Embarrassed, I don't feel I write about myself at all—I write about us, and about you....
And my goodness, has your life been mortifying. I'm so sorry. My heart goes out to you. Here's a coat.
A writer, performer, public radio commentator, and Atlantic Monthly contributing editor, Sandra Tsing Loh is the author of five books, including the new memoir Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting!, on sale in August.