Category Archives: Personal

Essays and stories in which I put myself under the microscope.

Sinful Sunday: Pretty Thing

Sometimes, you just have to face the facts. Like no matter how you hold your shoulders, your tits are never going to fill that bra….

Malin James wearing the Malin Bra by Iris London

The bra in this picture is so pretty that I’ve kept it, even if only to wear in self-deprecating posts. It’s so pretty that I wasn’t even that disappointed when it didn’t fit. Sometimes pretty doesn’t have to have a purpose. Sometimes it’s just nice to know it’s there, smiling in your drawer.

For more Sinful Sunday, click the pretty lips.

Sinful Sunday

4 a.m.

4 a.m.

4 a.m. (Photograph by Malin James)

I have a pretty serious relationship with 4 a.m.

It was 4 a.m. when I realized that God didn’t exist and that my parents were just people. It was too much, too fast for a six-year-old. I felt like an island, floating in the sky.

I was 4 a.m. when I woke up in my dorm room sure that something was wrong. My mom called a few hours later – my dad was sick. I had to come home.

It was 4am when I realized that the only way I could get out of a toxic relationship was to leave the city I loved.

It was 4am when I decided to come back, get out of acting, go to grad school. Maybe try to write for real.

My daughter woke up at 4 a.m. every night and it was 4am when I cried because she was smiling, and I was sick from needing sleep.

It’s 4am when I run to steady my pulse.

It’s 4am when I write nonsense like this.

It’s 4am when the quiet falls like rain, and I imagine slipping through the drops.

This is about as un-sinful as a Sinful Sunday can get. While it was taken from above and not below (as per August’s prompt), for me, my face mid-insomnia is pretty damn revealing so I went with it anyway. If you’d like to see some fantastically sexy Sinful Sunday’s, click the pretty lips.

Sinful Sunday

Sinful Sunday: Selfie

I take selfies for a lot of reasons. I’ve sent them to partners, lovers, friends and family (look, mom! I was here!). I’ve posted some and keep others in a  file that no one will ever see. When I look through the selfies I’ve sent, I remember how I felt at the time – the mad attraction, the contentment, the sense of a start or an end. I remember the impulse that prompted the shot. I remember a shard of time.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 10.32.30 PMDespite the fact that I’m posting it here, I took this last night assuming that I wasn’t going to show it to anyone. I’m preoccupied and tired from not sleeping enough but, for the first time in a couple of weeks, I felt still and relaxed. I just wanted to remember that.

More than one article has asserted that selfies are a form of self-objectification. Inherent in self-objectification is the treatment of your body as an object and, in the case of this photograph, it’s true. I did make my body an object – I made it a memory aid. And given that it is my body to do with as I choose, I’m perfectly fine with that.

To see more Sinful Sunday, click the pretty lips….

Sinful Sunday

On Validation

Black and white photograph of a woman's back as she looks out of a window, for Validation post by Malin James

Photograph, Malin James

There are things that I’m painfully aware of. One of them is my deep, long-standing need for validation.

It’s gotten worse in the past few years. I’ve always had it but, recently, it’s kept me from taking risks. The need for validation has drawn me away from projects that would further my career because long-term gains haven’t been able to compete with that short-term need.

That impulse has kept me safe in the cocoon of a loving community, which is a comforting alternative after years in the less friendly world of literary fiction, but at something of a cost.

It’s a strange thing. On one level, I give zero fucks what anyone thinks. This is the level I try to live on. But beneath that is the fact that sometimes I give way too many fucks, which is why I can’t say that I don’t need validation for my work. The brutal truth is that I do and the same goes for my worth in relationships.

I grew up having internalized the idea that my primary value was in my face and, even more toxically, that the value of my face was arbitrary because I relied on a choreographer, director or photographer to decide whether or not I was right for a call or a role. It’s a conviction that dogs me even now, and the result is an over-reliance on what other people think.

That need for validation shows up in all kinds of subconscious ways. It’s in how I engage social media and how I blog. It’s in what I write about and when. It’s in whether or not I compromise myself in relationships and for how long. It’s what drives my inner sadist – the one who loves to rake my inner masochist over coals.

The need for validation is natural. We all feel it. But the degree to which I’ve allowed that need to dictate my professional, creative and personal choices disturbs me. The primary reason I stopped acting was because my dependence on external (and arbitrary) validation wore me down. Unfortunately, I’ve created a similar framework for myself by reinforcing a comparable need in my writing and relationships.

I’m ok with wanting a certain amount of validation. Like I said, it’s pretty natural. But I’m not ok with needing it to the point where it compromises my emotional autonomy. Validation is, essentially, a salve – an illusory guarantee that everything is ok. In my case, this is what validation usually looks like:

Yes, your writing matters.

No, you aren’t wasting your time.

Yes, he still wants you.

No, you aren’t a disposable fraud. (This one comes with a nice dose of self-loathing. Self-loathing fucking sucks).

The real problem isn’t wanting validation, it’s misunderstanding what validation does. It’s like ointment on a cut – it’ll soothe the surface, but it doesn’t address the bleeding you can’t see. For me, the internal bleeding is the fact that sometimes I give too many fucks, and that those fucks aren’t even the right fucks to begin with.

What makes validation so addictive is that it acts as a short-term guarantee that everything’s ok. And sure, everything might be okay – for now. But what about the next now? And the next? Pretty soon, validation stops being a relief and becomes part of a feedback loop, one that slowly blows everything out of proportion and gets you stuck on a hook, one where your insecurities take over and drive your behavior.

So, when you put all that together, my need for validation is the subjective measure of worries that are way more existential than concrete:

Is everything okay?

Am I okay in the world? (Or this job, or relationship, etc.)

What the hell does okay even look like? I don’t know but please make it okay….

Those worries aren’t something that should shape your work or relationships because the only thing that can comfort them are guarantees, and the bottom line is that there are no guarantees. There is only the fleeting right now, and no amount of validation can get you off that hook.

It’s a big, ugly, exhausting tangle, but I can’t be a productive writer or a fully present person if I don’t stop chasing false guarantees – guarantees that, for me, define okay as the external validation of my value.

I will always need to feel valued, especially by people I care about and respect. That need is carved into me like grooves on a record. But for all that, the fundamental validation I actually need, the one I’ve been chasing my whole life, is my own.

My need for validation isn’t about the story or the editor or the relationship. It’s about me. And because it’s about me, it places pressure on situations and relationships that shouldn’t have to bear it. That’s why self-possession and emotional sovereignty are so important to me. The weight of that need is, ultimately, my responsibility. It’s up to me to decide (logically, rather than reactively) how many fucks I want to give.

The Love That Destroys You

Fine art nude of a woman sitting in a human sized bird's nest for The Love That Destroys You by Malin James

The Nest by Serena Biagnini

Ages ago, (it was actually just last year, but it feels like ages ago), I wrote the initial draft of this post. A lot has happened since then and my understanding of how love works for me has changed.

So, rather than starting from scratch, I’m inserting commentary into the draft I initially wrote. The italicized bits are me now. Me a year ago is in standard text. It may end up being contradictory, but love is complicated – so complicated that, in the end, it’s fairly simple. If that’s not contradictory, I don’t know what is.

I recently had a conversation about love – specifically, the “love that destroys you”. My initial response (and the one I ultimately hold to) is that, for me, this kind of love can happen once or twice in a lifetime. While some people stay open enough to get destroyed (in a good way) again and again while, for others, the damage incurred makes staying open hard. I fall into the latter camp.

My initial response was impulsive and, quite honestly, defensive. Having been decimated twice, I was trying to distance myself from the possibility that it could happen again. But buried within that anxiety is the fact that, for me, loving means vulnerability, and that’s terrifying because love routinely destroys me, to varying degrees, on any given day. A special kind of super combustible love is not required. 

What is “the love that destroys you”? It’s love on a cellular level – love that hurts in its absence, like a phantom limb. It’s the kind of love that changes you, slowly over time, or all at once. Either way, it alters you. You aren’t the same person you were before you met and loved (and possibly lost) that person.

I do agree with this definition, though I remember thinking purely in terms of romantic or sexual love when I defined it. The truth is that any love can do this to you, from the love you feel for your mother to the friend you can’t live without. It just depends on context and circumstance.

I have loved in that insane, chemically induced, destructive way and, in both cases, I got dismantled and had to rebuild. As a result, I became a more solitary thing. This isn’t to say that I can’t love passionately. I can and do. I just can’t love in that young way anymore. Over the years I’ve developed barriers – the ability to jump in with both feet was burned out of me.

It wasn’t really, it was just safer, at the time, to think so. Loving in any way – sexually, romantically, platonically, maternally – is a fucking risk. There are no guarantees. Guarantees create the illusion of control, but control goes out the window when you make yourself vulnerable. It’s impossible to predict who you’ll love in that cellular way, but regardless of who it is, barriers won’t stop it. You can either shut down and avoid it completely, or accept it and take the risk.

My daughter is the exception to all of this. Loving her destroys me every day because barriers don’t work with her (nor would I want them to). Every time she wraps her hand around my thumb or cries because her “feelings are big”, part of me crumbles and has to rebuild. Loving her is compulsive and holistic. I could never not love her. But there was something in those early experiences that changed me. I can’t seem to stop protecting myself, even (shamefully) sometimes with her.

Which makes me sad, because what I couldn’t consciously see is that nothing in me had fundamentally changed. I was just so used to guarding myself that it felt like a state of being rather than a choice.

The odd thing is that I still feel that crazy love in random pockets. It’s in the way my mom smiled when she bought orange shoes or how my brother limps when he’s tired. I feel an intense pop of love in small, unconscious moments. Those pops get under my heart, and in those moments, my love for them is so huge that it undoes me. But destruction on a grand scale, I suspect I’ll only feel once or twice.

Here’s the thing. Those small destructions, like the orange shoes, are no different than the big destructions, like the attraction that poisons you or the loss of your right to kiss him. Regardless of scale, those feelings reveal, if only for a moment, the true extent of your attachment. Sometimes that awareness is AMAZING. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it guts you. That emotional intensity means vulnerability and loving enough to be vulnerable means loving enough to be hurt. 

I’ve known great love with friends, lovers, partners and family members. But the love that destroys you, that remakes you in some way…that’s happened twice. I’m not saying I couldn’t feel it again, or that others don’t feel it all the time. I just suspect that, for better or worst, I’ve had that experience and won’t have it again.

Comforting at the time, but wrong. While not every love destroys you, the reality is that, barring complete emotional shutdown, how a love affects you is out of your control.

People die. People leave. Feelings change. While not every love destroys you, any love could if you experience it fully, (which isn’t to say that’s the mark of “real” love. All love is real love. It’s just one way that it can go down). A year ago, that scared me too much to contemplate, so I wove a self-image that helped me feel safe:

Sure, I love. I love like a champ, but I can’t get hurt because everything flammable has already been burned.

Like I said, comforting but wrong. If I can love, I can be hurt. That’s just the way it is for me. So, rather than tell myself pretty stories, I can acknowledge my vulnerability and get on with it. It’s not exactly comforting but it’s honest and, at this point, honesty, even painful honesty, is better than the illusion that I won’t get hurt again.

Writer

Sepia picture of an old-fashioned typewriter with its ribbon unspooled for Writer by Malin JamesThings have been interesting lately – lots of things in lots of ways. The changes are fundamental and long overdue. Not easy stuff, but good all the same.

It’s a strange thing, feeling your internal landscape shift like stop-motion film. If history were anything to go by, I’d say that this should be a creatively exciting time. In the past, periods of violent transition have always led to a surge in my creative energy. But for the first time in my life, change and transition are affecting my ability to write.

Writing has always been my way in. It’s how I process everything, from emotional nuance to the world around me. It is, quite literally, how I make sense of things. Unfortunately, “things”, both internal and external, have shifted enough that writing taking a hit.  I feel dull and mentally paralyzed in a way that is vaguely terrifying. And, in the end, that’s probably good.

This has happened before – I hit a place of maximum pressure and catharsis becomes inevitable. The energy released by the catharsis usually channels right back into my work, which as been a pretty great silver-lining, especially as rabid creative focus has, more than once, given me the mental and emotional space I needed to deal with whatever I was dealing with.

This time was different though. This time, rather than helping me through a difficult period, writing was part of what ushered in the difficult period (and I can tell you right now that this was one hell of a motherfucking difficult period).

It’s funny – I didn’t see that connection until I wrote it out just now (oh, writing, you clever, wily beast). The story that rocked me (through a combination of timing and my masochistically gleeful tendency to myself for material) was called “Alice in the Attic” and it drew heavily on a trauma (and the resulting experiences) that have shaped nearly all aspects of my life.

Writing “Alice” was difficult, but it poured out of me in a sort of fevered rush. Sitting down at my desk to work on it was, in and of itself, so cathartic that it emptied me out and left me hollow by the end.

That said, I don’t want to misrepresent the situation. This particular pressure had been building for years and the writing of that story was just one of many things that ended up twisting the valves. And yet…I haven’t been able to settle into a larger project since November when it was published.

I am gun-shy like I’ve never been and I’ll be honest – it’s pretty galling. Shorter pieces still come fairly easily (the shorter the better), but I’ve got several longer projects that I just can’s sink into. In fact, I seem to freeze at the prospect of writing anything longer than 1000 words. I think I might be afraid. I wish I knew what of…

I suppose that it, right there. I’m afraid of something, and writing is connected to whatever it is. Maybe I’m afraid of triggering myself again; maybe I’m afraid to trust myself again; maybe I’m afraid of something else. I don’t know. And, in the end, I’m not sure I need to know.

I suspect all I really need to do is acknowledge that I’m scared and write anyway. Because fuck it. I’m a writer. That’s what I do. I’m good at it (sorry – not a humble moment) and I love it and no amount of difficulty is going to keep me from doing what I fucking love.

On Seeing Yourself

A wet plate portrait of Malin James on glass beneath water. Wet Plate Collodian by Nicolas Laborie for On Seeing Yourself by Malin James

Portrait, Malin James. Wet Plate Collodian by Nicolas Laborie

I’ve been bumping up against my own self-image recently, which is a curiously exciting and unsettling thing. It’s been happening in several ways, some easier to define than others, but the overall effect is the realization that I don’t know myself as well as I thought I did, and that that is absolutely fine.

Being photographed by someone gifted is its own kind of gift – one that I couldn’t accept when I was a young, distracted thing. A gifted photographer can distil you with an odd sort of purity. If you’re lucky and the stars align, what you end up with are visual representations of various facets of yourself – shards of personality that often operate beneath your conscious understanding.

Black and white head shot of Malin James taken by Nicolas Laborie. For On Seeing Yourself by Malin James

Photograph by Nicolas Laborie

The self-image I’ve nurtured over the years is that of a controlled, measured woman. I don’t let down my guard unless I choose to and it’s rare that I do. Like most people, I wear a social mask and it’s that mask that I recognize in pictures. I rarely see the person who watches the world from beneath it represented on film. That’s probably why the images Nicolas Laborie took this past week-end pulled me up short.

The wet plate above is recognizable insofar as I recognize the interiority it caught – that particular mixture of nameless emotions is essentially my resting state. I’ve just never seen it on my face, not even when I look in a mirror. I’m not entirely sure how the wet plate caught it – maybe it’s just having to stay perfectly still for the exposure – but it’s the first time I’ve seen an accurate visual representation of my internal life.

Black and white portrait of Malin James taken by Nicolas Laborie. For On Seeing Yourself by Malin James

Photograph by Nicolas Laborie

The other three were taken after the wet plate and they do something a bit different. When I was younger, I longed for self-possession. When someone photographed me, I very consciously cloaked myself in imitation poise. The problem was that I always knew it was fake and I didn’t like seeing that gap between reality and aspiration caught on film.

As I got older and grew increasingly uncomfortable with what I saw in images of myself, being photographed stopped being a pleasure. It was too much of a personal minefield. Participating in Sinful Sunday has helped me enjoy photography again, but only to the extent that I control the image, and I rarely let down my guard.

But these are different. These are just of me being me in the moment because I no longer know how to be something I’m not. That’s why they mean so much to me.

Black and white portrait of Malin James taken by Nicolas Laborie. For On Seeing Yourself by Malin James

Photograph by Nicolas Laborie

The person in these pictures is the woman I wanted to be when I was a confused mess of a girl. I wanted to be calm and hungry and strong, so much so that I tried to pretend to be something I wasn’t and failed every time.

It’s magic to me that I became someone I could respect. I never trusted myself – I never gave myself a reason to – but the person I see in these pictures is someone I respect and trust. That’s why these photos are a bit of a revelation. In many ways, it’s the first time I can say that seeing myself on film is comforting rather than proof of the gap between my reality and everything I want to be.

To see more of Nicolas Laborie’s work, please visit his site, and follow him on Twitter. He’s brilliant. 

NB: I nearly didn’t write this post. Ironically, there’s still something uncomfortable about talking about myself, especially in what could be perceived as an arrogant light (and let’s face it, talking about pretty pictures of yourself skates that boundary uncomfortably close). Ultimately, the fact that the experience was so unexpected and revelatory in its way was the reason I decided to go out on a limb and write it. It was an amazing experience and I hope other people are able to experience something similarly positive in front of a lens.

How Do I Love Thee: On Comparing Relationships

Sepia historical photograph of a woman dressed as cupid next to a lion for Post How Do You Love Me by Malin James

Woman with Lion, courtesy of the Getty Museum

Every so often, my daughter asks me if I love her best.**

This is a tricky moment as a parent, because my impulse is to say, Yes! Of course, I love you best. It’s the answer she’s looking for and by far the simplest to give. But as much as my love for her is one of the most overwhelming things I’ve ever felt, to say that I love her best does something that I’m not quite comfortable with – it accidentally reinforces a way of thinking about love that can lead to insecurity later on.

I realize that I might be overthinking this. Is there really any harm in telling her that I love her best?  There are so many things I don’t bother worrying about, like Santa’s existence or whether or not she believes in god. But reinforcing emotional comparisons feels oddly dangerous to me. It implies that love is a zero-sum game and, as Exhibt A wrote, it isn’t. Survival is, but not love.

Love, like so many things, is contextually unique. For example, a person’s love for their child can be catastrophically powerful, but what if you have two or more children? Who do you love best then? That question is almost impossible to answer (without screwing up one of more of your kids), which is why “I love you all differently” is such a great response. It reinforces the love while avoiding the comparison.

Why is avoiding comparison important for all relationships (not just those involving multiple kids)? Because when you start to comparing the different loves you feel, you risk diminishing all of them. Love isn’t measurable or quantifiable, but comparing relationships with the intention of weighing who is loved best imposes finite limits on an emotion that is naturally infinite.

The real question is what underlies the comparison. Not to get all cold and pragmatic about it, but what it really comes down to is resource distribution. We’re a fundamentally competitive species because our survival depends on it. We commodify resources because resources, whether emotional or physical, have a value rooted in survival. That’s about as fundamental as it gets.

So where does love fit into that? Love is a resource too, or rather, the safety love signifies is. As a species, we evolved through dark nights full of predators that wanted to eat us. Abandonment = death. We are literally hardwired to fear being cast aside, and one of the best guarantors of that not happening is love.

When my daughter asks me if I love her best, she’s expressing a really basic concern: If a lion grabbed Daddy and me, would you save me, even if it meant not saving Daddy? (For what it’s worth, the answer is yes. Her dad’s okay with that). The anxiety that underlies the question is instinctively human – so much so that it shows up in all kinds of relationships, not just those between a parent and child, but friendships, business partnerships and romantic relationships.

I suspect that I’m hyper aware of all this because I’ve been poly for so long. While love is definitely not a zero-sum game, survival is, and at a very basic level, we have tied security to love and pain to exclusion. That’s why, in poly relationships, it’s important to be patient with a partner’s fears and insecurities. That sort of status anxiety is hardwired into us and, for most people, it takes a bit of effort to work through.

The impulse to compare is an instinctive attempt to see if our position in the relationship is safe. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to torture yourself into fearing that it’s not. In the end, it’s about security. The surest way to avoid the trap of comparison is to address the underlying concern. If a person is secure in your love for them, they are less likely to be worried about your love for others.

In the end, it’s not about who is loved best, but how you are loved. Are you  loved well? Is your person’s love a revelation? A homecoming? A whetstone? Is it a soft blanket on a rainy night or a delicate porcelain vase? The how says so much more than any comparison could. The how is about the two of you. The how is solid ground.

**NB: Chunks of Browning’s Sonnet 43 are the answer I give my daughter when she asks me how I love her…that and “I love you bigger than the galaxy and 9 million stars”, which is really pretty big. 

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 10.36.51 AM

Sinful Sunday: My Hands

My hands aren’t beautiful. They’re smaller, female versions of my dad’s massive paws – strong and wide, not elegant and long. But that’s why I love them. They’re good and reliable. They’re sensitive and brave. They express things I don’t have words for. I love the way they touch. They aren’t pretty but I trust them and that means a lot.

And following on the theme of Favorites, this photo was taken while I was thinking about one of my favorite things…. I’ll leave it to you to imagine what that is. (For I am a kind and gentle, heartless tease).

Picture of Malin James's hand for Hand post Sinful Sunday

To see more Sinful Sunday Favorites, click the pretty lips.

Sinful Sunday