Name: Rachel Vorona Cote
Claim to fame: Writer behind the Fake Friends series on Jezebel with bylines in PS Mag, The Rumpus and many more
Wise words: "Crying shouldn't be seen as a failure. It's a physiological response."
I want to invite you to take a moment and come up with three things about yourself and your life that you don't feel comfortable speaking about openly.
Credit card debt?
The amount of sex you and your partner are having?
Your difficult relationship with your mother?
Now, imagine what it would be like to write an article about one of those experiences and have it read by thousands of people online.
Welcome to the daily life of Washington DC-based writer and recovering academic Rachel Vorona Cote. A quick glance through this up-and-coming essayist's portfolio reveals pieces on everything from productivity anxiety to sexual awakening to divorce in your twenties and what it's really like to attempt suicide.
What I find so inspiring about Rachel's work is her unapologetic precision when writing about these taboo topics -- even when most of us would find it tempting to look away, she never backs down from her truth. Instead of hiding behind vague statements or expressions she uses her incredible command of the English language to carefully select the words that will paint the most vivid picture possible of her experience for her readers.
In doing so, she makes an incredibly bold statement to the world: "me too."
On Being “Too Much” (AKA ‘muchness’)
Growing up, Rachel Vorona Cote had always felt like she was simply ‘too much’. In her words, she was “too emotional, too expressive, too loud at the wrong times, too wacky, too whatever”. In an essay about emotional excess for The Hairpin, she writes, “I spent much of my childhood having prolonged, seemingly inexplicable outbursts like this, and my flummoxed mother came to describe me as a “raw nerve.” I was neurotic, haphazardly emotional, ultra-sensitive to change.”
A keen observer of the world around her, it didn’t take Rachel long to get the message from society that this way of moving through the world was not widely considered to be ideal or acceptable. But there is a big difference between understanding a social rule and accepting it. “I do think that for a lot of us, living in a society where you so often feel that you need to suppress yourself -- and you just can’t -- feels limiting,” she explained, “there are things that I internalize as failures that shouldn’t be seen as failures,” she shared with me, “crying shouldn’t be a failure, it’s a physiological response.”
It wasn’t until 2010, when she watched what she calls a “really kind of mediocre” adaptation of Alice In Wonderland by Tim Burton, that she began to see the notion of “too much” in a brand new light.
In the story, Alice returns to Wonderland and endures a period of powerlessness where she is unable to vanquish the Red Queen. Because of this, she is chastised by the other characters for having lost her “muchness,” AKA her “je ne sais quoi,” her fierceness, her power. Eventually, Alice summons that special sauce of hers and uses it to overcome the fearsome mythical Jabberwocky. Having now reclaimed her strength she retorts, “Lost my muchness have I?
For Rachel, it was an unexpected moment of revelation, an invitation to see her way of being not as a flaw, but as a source of power.
"All of this feeling and all of this energy made her powerful."
“If you had just put this word, muchness, in front of me with no context and said “come up with a definition”, my definition would have been so diminishing, I would have defined it in terms of my own insecurities and this sort of inability to be contained, but not in a good way,” she admitted. “What I love about the film is that it meant the exact opposite -- that she was so self-possessed and just channelled a sort of emotional power. All of this feeling and all of this energy made her powerful. I thought that was really beautiful.”
For Rachel, this notion of “muchness” has become a gateway for a more empathetic conversation about emotions and self-expression, one that takes into account the fact that we can never fully grasp what it going on in the inner lives of others. “I just hate the idea of people needing to repress or suppress who they are,” she lamented, “and I think that if you believe in empathy, you can’t make those sorts of demands on people.”
“I say this with full recognition that every relationship calls for some sort of negotiation of what each person can take, which I think is really important,” she continued, “but I do feel like, so often, and in so many different spaces, the people doing all of the compromising are the people who have to grapple with more unwieldy feelings.”
Oh, and never tell Rachel that she should just “handle” something:
“It’s such an interesting term, “handling it”, you know?” she remarked, “because there are so many things that we can’t get our hands around or grasp, that just elude us and are bigger than us. If we have to trade in words, we have to find words that are more capacious and that are more generous. And we have to push back against certain definitions and find possibility in words where we didn’t originally see it.”
Can she get an amen?
On Writing About Mental Health, Divorce & Other Fun Stuff
Another way that Rachel is championing the cause of “muchness” is by writing, publicly and honestly, about many topics commonly considered to be taboo, or, well, “too much” for polite conversation. Topics like suicide, mental health, money, and divorce in your twenties.
You know, the kind of essay topics that get one of two responses when you tell people at a dinner party what you write about: an uncomfortable “oh, that’s nice..” or a deep, soul-stirring “THANK YOU FOR BRINGING IT UP” conversation.
As someone who regularly bares their soul in essays about grief and death, I am always curious how other writers handle the type of exposure that comes with writing about these challenging topics, and I had to take the opportunity to ask Rachel about her experiences. “Why am I willing to tell people all about my shit?” she replied with a laugh.
In the beginning, Rachel herself wondered what exactly was motivating her to pen these candid, revelatory essays. At first, she privately wondered whether she was simply acting on a deep-seated desire to confess, or a need for her experiences to be validated. Eventually, she realized that her intentions were far more communal: “I’m actually really trying to fight against this notion of ‘confession’ as it has been imagined since the 19th century, the patriarchal notion of it, I’m trying to push against that because what I really want to do is work towards destigmatization.”
To illustrate the purpose of her work, she points to creatives and authors like Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half, known for her quirky webcomics that illustrate the realities of living with depression and mental illness.
"I think that, a lot of times, these things are tied to the best of what's in us."
“In talking about my history with mental health, mental illness, anxiety, it’s not that I’m speaking for anybody but myself,” she explained, “but I hope that in speaking for myself and saying ‘hey, I’m a human living in this world and doing okay, but I have tried to kill myself and I was addicted to cutting for many years, and I go to therapy once a week, I take anxiety meds, and I still struggle with anxiety’ and putting these things into a larger narrative where you’re not defined by that, where it doesn’t become all you are, I think that’s important.”
And then she said something that gave me goosebumps: “I think that a lot of times, these things are tied to the best of what’s in us.”
She does admit, though, that believing in the importance of doing this destigmatizing work doesn’t mean it’s always easy to do.
“I was definitely nervous to publish the first piece that ran on Jezebel about divorce and friendship,” she admitted, referring to a piece that she published in 2014 titled How to Talk About Divorce In Your Twenties. “I was nervous about that because I really was laying bare some of what was most hurtful about navigating the world as somebody who left her husband right before she turned 26,” she added, “it’s one thing to worry or suspect that you’re being judged for decisions that you made, it’s quite another to write for a large audience that you felt like this was happening to you.”
It was important to her that the piece not read like a sob story, but that it still conveyed the message that “hey, other humans behaved in a way that really made me feel diminished and that sucked.” For Rachel, writing the piece was an exercise in attempting to be empathetic to what her friends and family must have been going through as she was getting divorced, while being realistic about how hurtful many of the common reactions to a loved one’s divorce can be.
But with each piece published, the emotional exposure matters a little less to Rachel: “there are certain things about myself that I’d be less inclined for people to know, but I guess I just sort of stopped fucking caring.” While she does take the privacy concerns of her loved ones into account when choosing what to lay bare and what to keep to herself, she explained to me that there isn’t much else that concerns her about speaking out.
“There are definitely moments when I’m at school and I pass by a professor who follows me on Twitter and I think ‘oh....I wonder if he’s read that piece where I talk about totally getting off to Pure Moods?’ which is awkward,” she shared with a laugh, “but then I think ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and that’s sort of how I deal with it.”
“You know what? We’re all weird and we’re all just a bunch of howling animals anyway. I think at this point I’m more concerned with trying to be a better person and I’m far more bothered by someone feeling like I’ve done them wrong than somebody knowing about how many people I’ve slept with, you know?”