I’m No Longer Editing Myself
I spent my journalism career trying to be perfect. Now I’m just trying to be myself.
Even at the risk of burning, the mouth always seeks the light. —Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X
I just finished Elizabeth Acevedo’s YA novel The Poet X, and that line really stood out to me. The main character, a burgeoning slam poet named Xiomara, writes a poem for her class about her struggle to communicate with her strict, religious mother and how she finds herself unable to truly express herself. But Xiomara concludes in her writing that being herself is more important than the fear of falling short of her mother’s expectations.
This is what she writes, but it’s not what she eventually turns in to her teacher.
Something I loved about this novel is how we see the main character writing multiple drafts of her poems and school assignments. Xiomara first expresses how she truly feels—unfiltered, unapologetic, unedited—but the final draft she turns in is usually something entirely different: pared down, safer, more of what others expect of her, less like who she truly is.
Reading Xiomara’s drafts reminded me of all the times I’ve rewritten myself in both my writing and real life. Many times I’ve stopped myself from truly expressing what I think and how I feel. Many Black women and girls like me silence themselves or try to be something they’re not to protect themselves against judgment from their jobs, partners, family, or community.
I am learning to stop editing myself. I’m no longer filtering my words—both spoken and written—through a colander built of other people’s expectations of me. I’m no longer watering down my personality to meet other people’s expectations.
I’m also learning that doing this is harder than it seems.
The more I tried to fit into professional spaces and friendships and relationships, the more I started trying (and failing) to be perfect.
I’ve been a journalist for more than a decade and an editor for about six years. Editing is what comes naturally to me. I’m used to couching language, parsing text, questioning and requestioning meaning and intent. All of this is done in an attempt to say the right thing, to create the voice my media company wants, to make sure my work is understood. Basically, to be perfect.
These professional practices soon became my real-life MO. Being loud and unfiltered used to be such a big part of my personality, as it is for many Black girls. But the more I tried to fit into professional spaces and friendships and relationships, the more I started trying (and failing) to be perfect. I tried to be the person whoever I was around wanted me to be. I gave up being myself in order to be accepted. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the only way to say and be the right thing is to not say anything at all.
There is a place for self-editing your self-expression. When the things we say are harmful or hurtful to others, the right thing to do is step back and examine your words. But when you’re silencing yourself just to fit an ever-changing standard for acceptance from people around you, then you’re being harmful to yourself.
I have to stop overthinking whether I’m saying or doing the “right” thing and get more comfortable saying and doing the real thing.
I’m now thankfully in a profession where I’m encouraged to be myself. The tagline for ZORA is “Unapologetic. Ours.” But what does it mean to be unapologetic in my real life? I think it means to stop overthinking whether I’m saying or doing the “right” thing and get more comfortable saying and doing the real thing.
I’m learning from this little YA book of poems that the only truth that matters is my own. I’m also learning that it takes practice to get comfortable with who you are without first thinking about who others want you to be. By the end of the novel, Xiomara’s first draft is her final draft. As she continued to write, she continued to find the light in herself. As I continue to live unapologetically, hopefully I’ll do the same.
So, hello, world! My name is Jolie. Every week, I’m gonna be writing about things I’m feeling, thinking, and learning. And, hopefully, every week I’ll learn to be more comfortable being myself.
I’m Learning is a weekly series of essays by ZORA senior platform editor Jolie A. Doggett about all she is learning about life through life. Follow her for more!