Under the Table with Fiona
August 19, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Steven Barker
“Hiding under the table and listening to Fiona Apple,” I texted back to my buddy that asked, “How’s the writing going?” He responded with a laughing emoji and I wasn’t sure if he took me seriously.
I was listening to The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do after spending the previous 10 hours sitting at the table above; typing, deleting, and re-writing my book, which was due in a day. I was laid out on my back, looking up at the bottom of my IKEA dining table that rarely saw napkins, knives, or forks, feeling less alone hearing Fiona admit, “Every single night’s a fight with my brain.” She reassured me that I was worthy, singing, “I like watching you live.”
I was almost a published author and I’d no longer feel like a fraud when telling people I was a writer. If someone asked, “What have you written?” I could give them the title of a book to lookup in a library database that had my name on the cover. At least that’s how I expected I’d feel. Until then, I went under the table to hide from my anxiety telling me I wasn’t good enough and it was only a matter of time before my publisher realized they’d made a mistake and took it all away.
I titled my manuscript, Now for the Disappointing Part: A Decade of Short-Term Jobs, Long-Term Relationships, and Holding Out for Something Better. My editor said it was missing a persona-defining detail to tell the reader who I was—a note I agreed with, although I disagreed with his suggestion to call myself a “Millennial.” I was born in 1980 and can be called a Millennial, Xennial, or Gen X depending on the source, but teetering between generations made me at least five years too old to have written the common person’s perception of a Millennial experience. It felt like an attempt to capitalize on a buzzword to get copies on a display table in Urban Outfitters.
Up until that point, I was so high off the idea that I was actually putting a book in the world that I went along with everything my publisher suggested. I didn’t say anything when they went with my second choice for the cover design, because I could live with it, but I knew I’d never be happy with a title that made me feel like a phony. There must have been a moment when Fiona had to tell a record exec that she didn’t give a shit if he thought a 23-word album title was too long. I pushed back against a week’s worth of emails until they were okay with changing “Millennial” to “Pseudo-Adult.”
My book wasn’t sold in Urban Outfitters, it didn’t get a Kirkus review, I didn’t get requests for interviews, or land on any best new author lists. It’s been three years since it’s been released and recently I typed the title into Google. When I didn’t find the validation I was fishing for, I looked up, “Fiona Apple 1997 VMAs.”
The moon man trophy for best new artist propped up on the podium in front of her is large enough to hide half of her delicate frame. “I didn’t prepare a speech,” she says. “Because I’m not going to do it like everybody else does it.” There’s light enthusiasm from the crowd, but in hindsight and knowing how she’ll be portrayed in the media the following day it seems more like awkward applause. Later she’d be called crazy and some would speculate she was on drugs. I might have thought that too when I watched it live, but at the time I was still in high school and hadn’t yet created something that made me afraid to let out in the world for strangers to judge.
Most people only remember that she said, “This world is bullshit,” which resonates with me more today than it did back then, but it’s not the reason why I regularly re-watch a speech from twenty plus years ago. It’s when she said, “Go with yourself. Go with yourself,” that sticks with me. It’s a fairly mundane mantra that I wouldn’t give a second thought if I saw it written in fancy script on an IKEA accent pillow, but I’m inspired when I hear it from Fiona. She said those words accepting an award for an album she wrote when she was 17, same age as me when I first heard them. Two decades later, she’s still making art that makes me cry.
My first attempt at a second book was a novel that never compelled me to seek comfort under the table with Fiona and eventually I realized it sucked. I reasoned it was because I was writing at a dinner table, which then made me wonder why I dedicated a large portion of my apartment to a table that never served its purpose, so I got rid of it and replaced it with a desk. When I flipped over the IKEA table to remove the legs for easy transport to Goodwill, I noticed a message written in Sharpie: 3/01/2016–Go with yourself.
Steven Barker is the author of the essay collection Now for the Disappointing Part: A Pseudo-Adult’s Decade of Short-Term Jobs, Long-Term Relationships, and Holding Out for Something Better released by Skyhorse Publishing in November, 2016. He is a 2014-2015 Made at Hugo Fellow, and a co-founder of “Cheap Wine & Poetry” and “Cheap Beer & Prose.” His work has appeared in Salon, The Weeklings, Split Lip Magazine, The Monarch Review, and elsewhere.