The Burrito Was a Lie: Guitars, Teen Essays and Erasure
February 2, 2021 § 11 Comments
My first freelance essays were accepted when I turned seventeen—fittingly, for the magazine of that name. The first, about my sister’s suicide attempt and my own self-blame for not having seen it coming, was contracted but didn’t run. I learned what a “kill fee” meant, and that knowledge, plus a check, was reward enough, especially since I’d written that essay for one reason only: to get the secret off my chest.
And maybe it was better that piece got killed. I’d given no thought to hiding a national publication from my mother and sisters, who weren’t aware that I was scribbling about family skeletons and sending those unsolicited pieces over the transom, learning the rules of the game from a library copy of Writer’s Market.
Seventeen did run my second essay. I still remember the agonizing wait for the issue (readership: three million) to appear. “Tear sheets” were mailed to me, but I wanted to see the real thing at my local Jewel Foods. I can still feel the tickle of sweat as I flipped past Cover Girl and Anais Anais ads searching for my name. Not bad for a kid who’d received D’s and F’s from my high school teachers.
There was only one problem with my debut article. I hadn’t written most of it.
My essay was about my experience as a punk guitarist treated dismissively by a stage manager in a small Wisconsin town. My bandmates and I were in the green room, about to go on. The manager asked me to leave, assuming I was a groupie. I bristled and strutted onstage anyway. That was my embarrassingly small story. Summed up in one sentence: Yes, girls do play guitar.
The core anecdote had made the cut, but everything else on those slick pages was false. My memory is hazy about the editing process that had occurred months earlier. Maybe I saw pre-pub drafts, but the final published piece still confused me.
In this new essay, my garage band, lamentably called Scamshatter, now had an even worse name: “Steve and the Seymours.” Stranger yet was an invented argument with a boyfriend, Gary, and his subsequent trip to the 7-11 for a frozen burrito, during which I picked up his Fender bass the first time. By the time Gary got back, he was disturbed to find I was already playing better than he could.
None of it was even vaguely inspired by my original submission. Not the 7-11, not the burrito, not the bass, not the boyfriend, not the envy, and certainly not my inexplicable, spontaneous talent.
I’m not expecting you to care about the specifics (Steve and the Seymours?); only to inhabit a young writer’s confusion that our experiences, even those we struggle to shape and make permanent with our own inexpert hands, can be so easily erased.
I still cashed the check—a year’s babysitting wages. I still held onto that issue as a prized possession. I even named my next dog after the editor. And for more than a decade, long after I quit the guitar, I kept writing and publishing essays. In 2002, I turned to writing novels. And here I am, nearing fifty, coming full circle in three peculiar ways:
I just bought a cheap guitar, intent on trying again. Can I now admit I never knew more than three chords? (I just did.)
My new novel, Annie and The Wolves, launches today. In it, a narrator’s inability to deal squarely with her sister’s suicide as well as the reason behind it—trauma, created by rape—plays a central role. (There’s that first killed essay.)
And I’m venturing back into creative nonfiction, writing essays that expose family secrets. Even though I’ve now written a novel fixated with memory and complicity, I still think there’s a place to drop fiction’s veil, if only for a thousand words, to say, “This is based on something real. This happened to my family.”
I want to invite readers to recognize their own stories in mine. But I’m also making up for that teenager’s experiences, wanting to prove it’s possible to write about suicide and incest (and guitars) without anyone killing those essays or rendering them absurdly unrecognizable.
My first publications launched me as a freelance writer. But they also taught me some lessons I’m still trying to shake off. I discovered that editors often shun disturbing, unresolved stories. My suicide essay had some logic gaps, because I was shying away from facts even darker (incest) than what was already on the page. A mature editor could have helped.
The second unfortunate “lesson” was that my unvarnished truth wasn’t compelling enough. Bad enough I received that impression in 1989. Worse still, I recently took a popular week-long memoir workshop with essentially the same message—a rejection of truth in favor of simple chronology and a more commercial story arc. That sort of simplified thinking, uncommon yet still worrisome, gives memoir a bad name.
I’m preaching to the choir here, but I think I need to. I need to talk to my people first, and hear them talk—even sing—back to me, so that I can regain membership in a world in which the truth is complicated, where Steve and the Seymours and inventive editors don’t need to save us.
I want to try again, outside the bounds of fiction, to tell my stories authentically. I want to let readers know what really happened.
I’m starting now.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of five novels published in eleven languages, including her most recent work, Annie and the Wolves (Soho Press, Feb 2021), a novel about a modern historian obsessed with Annie Oakley and a desire to change the past.