The Best Blog in America? (June 4, 2013)

The Best Blog in America

Four and a half years ago, in the middle of January 2009, I began my blogging career with these words:

“I’d like to thank my dear younger sister for letting me in on this action. I don’t know about all that ‘smart one’ stuff since she is the one who got something off the ground that I have only talked ad nauseum about doing myself. I may have the Master’s in English Lit., but sometimes we overeducated end up being the most stagnant.”

And it’s true, without that first push toward online confession from my younger sister Jennifer, I have good reason to doubt that I would have let a closet writer’s burning ambition see the light of day. I earned a comfortable living in those days as a manager of corporate standards, and came home each evening to make dinner for my then-husband. I had a clearly defined purpose that hid rather well some painful internal chafing. I was not! (screamed my buried soul) cut out for paperwork, motherhood and meal planning. There is nothing inherently wrong with those roles and for many women, filling them provides intense personal satisfaction, but the farther I traveled down the path of rote domesticity, the closer I moved to its expected tollgates, the more certain I became that I was lost.

Jenny knew it. And she wouldn’t let me pretend otherwise. If I were lacking in personal bravery, well then she’d start the blog, give it a name and a theme and set me up as an administrator. No slouch a communicator herself, she produced the first few posts – in the voice of a harried, swamped suburban career woman, wife and mother – and challenged me to set myself apart.

That original blog, Which End is Up!?, “An in-depth look at the life of two very different Chicago sisters as it happens,” evolved over time, eventually becoming the one-voice forum that I secretly believe Jenny always intended it to be. Months passed and as I gained a following, confidence and a certain amount of prolificacy, I migrated over to the Open Salon platform where Contemplating the U.S. Navel was born.

Through practice and self-discovery, I discovered a genuine passion for deconstructing our nation’s increasingly fractured and broken political system. A long series of posts examining these themes led to professional recruitment from RootSpeak magazine in the form of a weekly column. When RootSpeak went on hiatus, I landed at PoliticusUSA where I’ve enjoyed my largest readership to date. That first push toward blogging from my baby sister has led to a diverse and satisfying professional writing career that includes national awards for journalism (the explosion of urban agriculture), newsletter editing (PenPoints, the quarterly communication of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association) and theater criticism.

And now it is in June 2013 that I have a sense of a fledgling communications career (because a writer can never be too comfortable or established) coming full circle. For it is this year that the contest judges of National Federation of Press Women have deemed this very blog the best in the nation.

I still can’t quite process and accept the mind-bending honor. For writing without varnish (and some in my life might argue, too nakedly) about the triple challenges of alopeciacancer and divorce in 2012, I will travel to Salt Lake City to receive a honor the Becky of January 2009 could only experience as a daydream.

It’s beautiful and satisfying whenever one’s work is recognized by an esteemed body, but when that work is the very lifeblood and selfhood capsized across the screen, the victory becomes so much more gratifying – and humbling. The award I will collect from the NFPW at the end of August is not just a celebration of my words, it’s a vindication of my voice, my experience. The emotions and thoughts I vomit onto the keyboard nearly every week are my most authentic self and somehow, a conglomerate of respected peers have deemed that worthy of consumption and acknowledgment.

I never got into blogging with ideas of grandeur. I always assumed that if anyone outside my immediate family read the words, I’d already won. Blogging was therapy, a way of wondering aloud on so many topics: “If this is how it’s supposed to be, then how come…?”

But it now appears that the attempt to make sense of my self and the world around me has spoken to others. When I read this judge’s feedback, I cried for that young, inexperienced 2009 self who had no idea she could use prose to speak to faceless others, badly inept at self-expression as she’d been to that point:

“This writer has no problem tapping a vein and bleeding onto the page, but she does so with humor and style. My kind of writing! Definitely worth the prize.””

Smelling the Roses (May 24, 2011)

I am highly self-critical. I am not known to give myself a break very often, whether it’s a browbeating for past mistakes and poor decision making, pushing myself to do “more” (exercise, work, writing, cleaning) even when my body and spirit have clearly had enough, or simply honing in repetitively on perceived flaws.

The last seven months have been hellish by any standards: extended unemployment that caused me to question my place (like, if there was one) in the working world, fissure in a marriage to the man I still (and may always) consider the love of my life, and most recently, a battle with stage 2A cervical cancer. So clearly, if one is judgmentally introspective by nature, life has handed me a veritable buffet of reasons to feel like a loser.

I have written about the need to develop new pathways for myself, because at nearly 33 years of age, one thing is clear: the grief I give myself hasn’t amounted to to any sort of spiritual epiphany or life fulfillment. If anything I’m beginning to consider that my own unforgiving navel gazing (this blog bears the title with good reason), has not been a tool for healthy ruminating and moving myself forward, but rather an overly self-conscious roadblock that has led me to make “safe” decisions that instead blow up into explosive peccadilloes. I have been too afraid to follow my “inner voice,” which I am learning a lot about from an unusual authority – star publicist to the fashion world Kelly Cutrone.

In recent discussions with my therapist, I have shared that the one thing I have done right in the last few years was to take a gamble on myself, finally heed the inner voice that screamed at me all throughout my 20s that I was a corporate fraud. I didn’t want to climb the ladder, grab the brass ring or sit in the corner office fending off sniping barracudas. I wanted (nay, needed) to be a writer. That admission was not an acknowledgement of talent by any means. I was completely unsure I had anything to offer, or even knew where to start.

I am not going to rehash the two year-journey spent hustling down unpaid freelance lane, the strain I put on my marriage by asking Eddie to comprehend what must have seemed like a midlife crisis of sorts, where I remained unwilling to birth babies, yet brought no income into the home. It was one of the first truly selfish things I have ever done – and it came with a high price.

As someone in the business of self-flagellation, I often succumb to the inviting temptation to second guess the decisions that brought me to where I sit today: sick, alone, and financially shaky.

But on another level, I am covertly and tacitly aware that I am doing it. I am living my dream, however small and unintentionally isolating it may be.

This past Saturday, and for the second year in a row, I was awarded writing prizes from the Illinois Woman’s Press Association. Last year, I went on to take first place from the National Federation of Press Women in one of their “Special Article” journalism categories. This year, proving that I am more diverse in my skillset than I have otherwise been willing to admit, I received two second place certificates for work on this very blog, “So This is What Fat Looks Like?,” and “A Generation X Bedtime Story.” Additionally, I received a first place award in the state category, “Column Written Specifically for the Web.” That honor was received pursuant to a piece I wrote on education for RootSpeak magazine.

The latter distinction means that I will be able to try my fortunes at the national level in August.

As a struggling writer, I feel very blessed. I have a lot to say, an abundance of avenues in which to be read, and best of all, the occasional validation of my peers to tell me I haven’t turned my life inside out for naught.

It’s important to take a moment now and then to acknowledge that.