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Portrait of a Model as a Young Girl

So here I am stuck up in the woods with no one and nothing to do but work on my book for four days. So far it’s going great except that I’m going to gain ten pounds because I have a houseful of junk food, and it’s raining too hard to go running. In a day and a half I have eaten: steak, broccoli, frozen pesto pasta, a bag of dried mango, wasabi peas, three almond clusters, a banana, an apple, half a Diet Coke, a frozen pizza, two frozen chicken quesadillas, Italian soda, honey sesame almonds, and about four breakfasts.

My goal is to write ten hours a day, and I quit at midnight last night after writing for nine. I got up at 8 this morning but somehow didn’t start until 10. I pumped, I ate breakfast, I made tea, I ate breakfast again, I made more tea. I checked e-mail. And now I’m blogging. All distractions. But hey – nine hours in one day isn’t bad!

Yesterday I spent a lot of time writing about my childhood and my family. I need to really nail down my personality as a teenager, my early family life, my motivations for moving to Paris when I was 18, and my inner conflict with modeling during this revision. That’s where you come in. I’m going to write a blog post about each of those topics and post them this weekend. One of my blogger friends keeps telling me how important it is to “blog on a schedule”—to either blog once a week, three times, or every day, but keep it consistent. Oh well. There isn’t going to be anything consistent about my blog this week! And here is my first post:

Portrait of a Model as a Young Girl

The freelance editor I’ve hired keeps asking me, “Who was she? What was she like?” when referring to my character, so I’m going to try to define that here. I guess my number one trait was that I was shy. I don’t know that much about the science of shyness–whether we’re born that way or we grow that way. I don’t know if shyness and insecurity are the same thing. I just know that I hid my face in my mom’s clothes a lot when I was a kid, that I hated talking to strangers, and that I was always silent in big groups. I was terrified that anything I would say would sound stupid. I remember thinking that shyness was due to a hypersensitivity, a hyperawareness of people’s reactions to everything I said or did. I was hyper aware of people’s smirks, glances, reactions to things I said or did and probably read way more into them than I should have. I was convinced that I was constantly being judged. I think part of this came from having seven (much) older brothers and sisters who really did laugh at and comment on everything I said. My brother used to say, “Shut up, Meghan. No one cares” whenever I’d start talking. It was a joke, and I knew that and thought it was funny at the time, but I’ve also always wondered if it was subconsciously affecting my reticence.

In addition to being shy about speaking in front of other people, I was insecure about my body. I was abnormally thin to the point that I really looked anorexic, even though I ate CONSTANTLY. I was weak and I knew it. I was nice to everyone at school, even the bullies, because I knew I didn’t stand a chance in a fight against any of them. On rainy days in grade school, we played this game called Poison Snake during recess in the gym. You had to hit people with a ball to knock them out, and the last person standing won. I was often the second-to-last person standing. Not because I was good at hitting people with the ball, but because I was so good at making myself invisible that the kid “winning” the game (usually a boy) wouldn’t notice I was still standing until the game was nearly over and my teacher pointed out that he hadn’t yet hit me. I dreaded climbing the rope in gym class because I was one of the few, along with a couple of fat kids, who couldn’t make it more than halfway up. Ditto for handstands. My arms were too spindly to hold my weight. But lack of strength was not the only problem with my body. I also had extremely dry skin, so dry that I never wore shorts to school, even on very hot days, because my legs were covered in brown, fish-like scales. I used to scratch at them with my long fingernails to try to peel them off, which always resulted in droplets of blood and subsequent scabs that looked worse than the scales. I frequently fantasized about a magic machine that would peel the top layer of my skin off, revealing smooth white legs like all my friends had beneath. Instead, I went to bed many nights wearing wool knee socks and sweat pants, my body slathered in Vaseline beneath the protective clothing.

I think other insecurities resulted from a lack of money. We weren’t poor. We had enough food to eat, and I got tons of presents every Christmas, but we didn’t have as much money as my friends–or at least it seemed that way since my dad’s salary was divided among ten people instead of four or five. I was so tall and skinny that my mom had to pin all my pants at the sides so they wouldn’t fall off. She took them in on her sewing machine when she had time, but until then, the safety pins showed slightly and created pleats down the sides of my legs, which embarrassed me. Fortunately the peasant blouses that were in back then covered them pretty well. I remember in sixth grade, my first year in middle school, wearing my mom’s oversized tennis shoes to class. They were flat like Keds, which were bad for running, they were an ugly beige, which didn’t match any of my clothes, and they were two sizes too big. I really wanted a pair of Nikes like my friends had. My best friend had a white pair with the blue stripe and I really wanted a white pair with a white stripe–white on white like a Malevich painting. But they were $30 and my dad said he couldn’t afford them. So I saved up money washing cars and bought them myself. I loved those shoes and felt fantastic when I wore them. Maybe it was then that I began to equate nice clothes with feeling good about myself. With a big family and everyone owning cars, summer was a lucrative time for me. I charged $1 for a wash, $2 for a wash and wax, and $5 for a wash, wax, and carpet cleaning. I had jars of $1 bills stashed away in the basement where my brothers couldn’t find them. When I wanted the $99 Intellivision video game console, my dad once again told me he couldn’t afford it. So I washed more cars and bought it for myself. I spent an entire summer playing Q-Bert and Space Invaders. My parents never complained that I watched too much television (I watched so much TV that I had the TV Guide memorized) because I always did my homework without prompting and got good grades.

While we had broken tiles on our kitchen floor, dried dog shit (I kid you not) crusted into our outdated shag carpeting, and broken-down cars in our driveway for months at a time, my friends had screened-in porches with perfectly manicured lawns, pantries with the cans all in rows, and sofas that weren’t clawed to threads by cats. The first thing I did every day when I got home from school was get wads of paper towel and go behind all the big armchairs to check for piles of cat and dog shit. There was at least one pile a day, sometimes two, and my mother claimed never to smell it. How we lived like we did, I don’t know. It was chaos–kids and pets and piles of junk on every surface, in every corner. One day when I was nine years old, I got up on a stool and washed all the dishes in the kitchen sink for my mom. She was so happy that I did it again the next day. But the next day I didn’t just wash the dishes. I vacuumed the rugs, folded the laundry, wiped all the surfaces of the kitchen, including beneath all the appliances, and straightened up around the house until it was clean. And I did it nearly every day thereafter for as long as I lived in that house. Our floors were scratched enough that my parents didn’t mind my rollerskating in the house, so I used to clean on roller skates, so I could move faster. I remember clomping up and down the steep carpeted stairs on those things. And they weren’t the boot kind with the rubber wheels. They were the kind with metal wheels that you strapped to the bottom of your tennis shoes, the kind that could do some real damage to a hardwood floor. And that week was the beginning of my obsession with cleanliness.

Because I did well in school, my sister convinced my dad to send me to a private school for high school. We weren’t in a very good school district, and my parents valued education. So my dad talked the nuns into letting me in despite my having missed the entrance exam, and he scraped enough money together to pay the $2000/year a Catholic School tuition cost in the 80s. It was at that school that I became more exposed to people with money. Two of my friends had houses several times the size of ours, with swimming pools and cleaning women and gardeners. (I was shocked to discover that my rich friend X, at 16, had never done a load of laundry. She didn’t even know how to turn the machine on.) Their parents drove Lincoln Continentals and Jaguars, not Chevrolets like mine. They owned companies and belonged to golf clubs and took vacations to places like Europe and Africa instead of the car trips we took every few years to Colorado or Florida. They were extremely kind and they were generous with their wealth, rich friend Y often loaning me her clothes and inviting me stay at her house.

And this is where things get fuzzy. I think about my confidence and self-esteem back then and, on the one hand, I remember having less than they did because I had less money. On the other, I remember being more independent than they were. When I said I wanted to go to Switzerland for a semester, rich friend Y said she would be too scared to leave her friends and family for four months. They kept close ties to the “in” crowd–the attractive girls with money who played sports and socialized with the guys from the all-boys’ Catholic school next store. Although I had filled out somewhat, I was still terrible at sports and never made any of the tryouts. By junior year in high school, I had abandoned my less cool “band” friends for the more outgoing “theater” crowd of which rich friends X and Y were a part. When I tried out for the school play and didn’t make it (except for a one liner as a lingerie model, ironically), I started to accept invitations to model.

While the root of my initial shyness and lack of self-esteem is evident, I think the development of my confidence was due to several factors: one was that I had discovered I was pretty and that the boys liked me. Two was that I knew I was smart, even though my grades dropped significantly in high school as I grew more interested in becoming popular and less interested in school work. Three was that I had an independent spirit. I think that stemmed from my having grown up in a family of eight. As a kid I was smothered with so much love and attention that I craved time alone. When my sister married and bought her own house, I loved staying overnight and never missed my parents. Somehow, the combination of my shyness and insecurities (which made me crave validation and attention), my desire for money, and my yearning for adventure all led to my decision to move to California after high school instead of staying in Michigan to go to college like my friends. I had no particular desire to model and, in fact, wanted to make it on my own without resorting to posing for money. But when working at a T-shirt shop failed to pay the rent, I turned to modeling as a last resort. It was either that or move back home to Michigan, and I thought I’d die if I had to spend the rest of my life staring at tract homes and strip malls, living among people who’d never tasted sushi or seen a foreign film. I craved adventure, and, like Curious George, I had to discover everything for myself, no matter how much harm my inquisitiveness would bring.

And that’s the summary of my personality as a kid. Now I have to figure out how to weave that information into my book, probably in scene. Sigh.


30 comments to Portrait of a Model as a Young Girl

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  • Meghan: High five. Why don't you put THIS in your book? This is the voice of the character. You don't have to put *everything* in scene.

  • Thank you 🙂 But EVERY time I write something like this, everyone tells me to put it in scene. Why are writers so opposed to summary these days?

  • Right on, Meghan! I want more! More of this. btw, I agree with Christine. I think you should put it right in your novel. You could add a scene directly after this part, or use this as narration in between scenes. Post pics of yourself, family home, kid self, high school self, model self, etc, your hometown in Michigan. One pic per post to get us hooked.

  • Ask and you shall receive! Picture added. And thanks C and A – I wish my writers' group would understand that everything doesn't have to be in scene. I don't dare submit this to them.

  • I agree with Christine! I think the constant obsession with moving the story forward has made us forget how important it is to let our characters stop and reflect on how their past lead to their present. I love what you wrote here, because I can picture your childhood environment so clearly, and I think you could easily put this whole section into one of the chapters where you talk about cleaning your apartment in Paris and living with the other models. It explains why you have such a high tolerance for cleaning up after them and why your chaotic background led to your need to control your environment. I seem to recall that you do talk about this already, but not quite in this level of detail. Thank you for sharing this!

  • Good suggestions, Jackie! Thanks for your feedback, and I think you're right that it's okay to take time to reflect. Now I just have to figure out a way to weave it into the story.

  • My opinion probably doesn't count because I either write short opinion pieces on environmental stuff – or children's story – but I personally prefer more of a vignette style for background/ formative information such as yr childhood – in the context of the main theme of yr memoir – I wdn't be as interested in reading it as a whole passage – as is – as I wd be if parts of this were woven into the main theme – an example wd be a chapter I had read ( I forget the name of it) – where u talk abt shows in Paris – That u booked etc w yr parents over a phone call and hang up w kisses to yr mom – but that scene says a lot abt not just what u were doing but also yr background/ family – and is integral to that scene – I wd suggest more of that to introduce you formative years. Btw, I do think Oona is looking more like you – Ten hours a day of writing seems A LOT !! good luck and enjoy yr solitude!

  • "Now I have to figure out how to weave that information into my book, probably in scene. Sigh."

    LOL. Yup. I have that exact thought like 10 times a day, hahaha.

    Anyway, I don't think the whole thing has to be a scene, or captured in 1 scene, but I think what you've just written is like a chapter that needs to be grounded in a couple (possibly quick) scenes. It's fascinating, that's for sure.

    Btw, don't worry so much about "rules." I've realized that so many books that I love (including award-winning YA and adult books) break ALL THE FREAKING RULES ALL THE FREAKING TIME, because that's what was needed to tell the story right. So focus on that — what does the story need? — and the rest will fall in line.

  • Aditi – I think you mean you'd rather see it in scene. Yes, I'm sure many people would agree. But all those other scenes are still in the book, this is just added background information, and I think it would suffer from being written in scene.

    Kristan – I'll have to think about whether it needs SOME scene, but there are quite a few memoirs that don't use any scene at all, that are all written in summary (well, mostly). So I may stick with my guns on this one.

    By the way, I was going to congratulate (or reward, or hug) the person who made the 1000th comment on my blog, but it turned out to be me.

    Christine, you were 10001.

  • Jim

    >> Why are writers so opposed to summary these days?<<

    Here's the thing about the "rules" for writing. They're for people who don't walk on the grass. Which, by the way, turn out to not be writers.

    If writers followed rules, they wouldn't be writers. (And you'd still be living in Michigan.)

    That's not to say some aren't kinda handy. Like, for instance, that one about putting periods at the end of sentences.

    But in general I think there's really only one real rule for good writing: Good writing works.

    That is, there are a lot of tricks, techniques, gimmicks to keep people reading. Cliffhangers, short sentences, short paragraphs, ITALICS! (See James Patterson for all these examples. Oh yeah, and he adds absurdly short chapters to the bag.)

    Or you could just use good writing. Which you have here.

    So use it.

  • Jim – great advice! And thanks for the comment.

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