Tonight in my fiction writing class, we were workshopping a short story whose main characters were young college Millennials home for the summer and getting ridiculously high off drugs. They were having pool parties and got wasted in hot tubs. They were white rich kids who lived in McLean, Virginia.
The class couldn’t decide if it was cliche or satirical, and wondered if it should be in this genre or that genre, and who, exactly, was the intended audience here? I settled on “not good” writing. Eventually, the conversation caught a tangential train of thought:
“Why do rich kids always grow up to be assholes?” someone asked.
“Because there are never any consequences for their behavior,” someone else answered.
About twenty minutes later, there was a lull in discussion towards the end of the session. Someone made another comment about “rich people” behavior, to which my classmate next to me said, “Shhhh you guys, Kristen grew up obscenely rich and she’s sitting right here.”
He said it jokingly. Everyone laughed, I think, because I am a nice person. And associating me with richness and asshole behaviors heightened the contrast of my nature, and thus, his joke. I laughed too, but I didn’t like it. I didn’t like being associated with two untruths, even for a joke. Especially for someone else’s laugh. It was said so reflexively. Quick-witted but careless. It was a back-handed way to compliment someone who is selectively talkative. Someone who takes her time before she speaks. The moment passed and workshop continued, and here I am hours later, still thinking. Trying to articulate. I’m beginning to wonder if my “slowness” is a symptom of something I should be concerned about, like social anxiety or post-traumatic stress or change.
“Sometimes, you just gotta let that shit go, man,” one classmate told me last week after the group workshopped my piece. It was a short story about women in business. And when I told them it was my first short story, that I was in fact, a non-fiction writer, their opinion of the piece changed. “Write about something else. It’s nearly impossible to fictionalize a true story.” I disagreed, but again, failed to say anything. I was caught off-guard and it felt like getting beat on defense, like someone was going to sub-in a new story on my behalf. It would be someone else’s story. Someone else’s projection of me, moving and sitting and speaking, in my place.
This isn’t the first time someone thought me to be rich, to grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. “Dalton…I feel like your last name is English royalty and wealthy beyond belief,” someone said to me once. We were walking on the sidewalk, and I had known the person for only a handful of weeks. I humored her and said, “Yes, exactly.”
I know it takes more effort to ask a thoughtful question, but this kind of dialogue, these emotional accusations get weighty in their falsehood. They make you poor in spirit. You can’t just throw these projections at other people because it’s what you want to believe about them. Because you want them to wear some kind of response you can read. The rich people that I know aren’t like this. They have an emotional wealth that doesn’t ever ask you to dress down. They have an intellectual abundance that allows you to be, without turning you into a joke. Their curiosity is prosperous. It multiples the amount of thoughtful questions they ask. Even if it takes time. Especially if it takes time.