the gift that distance (and life) brings

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When I first moved to Los Angeles, I sat in a coffee shop and wrote a story collection in two months. I remember arranging printed pages on my floor, growing increasingly disturbed by how swiftly the stories came. Writing for me always felt a bit like surgery–although ultimately rewarding, the creation process existed as a series of stops and starts, and the editing process always proved far more unrelenting. There were days when I’d read through a manuscript and press delete on whole chunks of it. First readers of my new novel were shocked to see hundreds of pages excised in subsequent drafts. I was merciless on what needed to be cut for the sake of telling a good story.

But these new stories were different–they were dark, acerbic, and they excited me in ways I couldn’t understand at first.The voices were clear and puncturing, bordering on a violent tone I hadn’t explored previously or perhaps felt too frightened to. The story collection, Women in Salt, was a loose re-telling of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a group of friends meditating on their friend’s suicide. I felt Salt was better than my second book, a novel that took me years to write and re-write. A novel that will be published nearly a decade after my first book–that’s how long it took me to find new characters on which to fixate.

When I write, I think about the characters for a long time before I even sit down in front of a computer. I originally conceived of the principle characters in my new novel, James and Gillian, when I attended Columbia’s graduate writing program. Fifteen years ago. I’m methodic when it comes to my characters and they’re nearly realized when I set out to write a story.

Not this time. Half the time I wrote these stories without thinking. The characters arrived, fully-formed, and they were filled with rage. And when I first sent this book to my agent his response was measured–I think perhaps he was surprised that I managed to write a story darker than what I had just written.

I set the book aside for months and yesterday I spent the day re-reading the stories. To say I was disturbed would be an understatement. Although I loved what I composed on the page, I had to put the book down at times because it was just so fucking bleak. And it occurred to me that what I had written was a mirror of my depression, a lifetime coping with a condition that had only recently been diagnosed and treated. For years, I never understood when people told me what I write is sometimes difficult to read. My characters, while interesting to read, were helpless, hopeless. I’d laugh, confused, because it wasn’t as dark as it could be. Actually, the fact that my main character in my novel could be described as Ted Bundy with a whisk was kind of funny.

What started as a 230-page manuscript is now down to 120 pages. And I sat on my couch, I sit in this cafe, wondering where to take this. I have a 120 good pages but what do I do with this? How do I dig them out from the graves I’d dug with corners pristine and neat?

When I started taking anti-depressents I had the worry that most people have–would I change? When people ask me how now is different than before, the only way I can explain it is that there’s this door that never opens. I can feel sad, I can cry, I can hurt, but I don’t spiral. I’m not able to return to that dark country I’d once considered home. It’s like standing in front of a door while you’re crying, knocking, and someone on the other side telling you there’s no vacancy. There’s no room for you here. Go back to where you’ve come. And without drink, with therapy, I’m able to deal with all the things that I’d spent a lifetime avoiding. I uncovered aspects of my character that made me wince. There’s a reason for me being difficult but I can’t go on using it as an excuse. That’s the work I do, every day, and it’s hard.

And it’s hard to explain that while I’m in a much better place that I sometimes miss access to that place. I can write those 120 pages over but it would be different. I would be writing from beyond the place not in it. It would be seeing the dark from a distance rather than having it rise up all around you.

I don’t know how to write about the space I occupy–a place that temporarily exists between before and later on. It’s unfamiliar and requires a whole new vocabulary. Being here feels like a new language I have to learn and here’s me stuttering, messing up the verb tenses and conjunctions. Here’s me feeling my way around new words and being surrounded by kind people who help me with its pronounciation. That’s what three months back on track feels like.

So I wait, I guess. I wait until I can stop staring at a blank page, not knowing what to say and how to say it. I focus on getting better.

book buff depression

running from ambition toward grace: the year I stopped wanting all the wrong things

pineapple in the ocean

There goes that pineapple again.

Let me tell you what I thought I wanted. I wanted to write a New Yorker story and get a blurb from the Michael Cunningham of 2002. And then I read the magazine and didn’t particularly like the stories or their formulas and Michael Cunningham started writing books that drew a chasm between author and reader and it had become an ocean I was too tired to cross. I wanted blue glitter heels that gave me the advantage of a few inches because height, the ability to stand over someone and stare down at them, got you places. Or so I thought. But the pretty tall shoes pinched my feet and one day I tripped and fell and nearly twisted my ankle. I donated the shoes and hoped they wouldn’t pinch another woman’s feet. Now, I mostly wear flats and have lost interest in staring. I thought I wanted an expansive brownstone apartment outfitted with a blue velvet couch, and when I had the home I lamented over the largeness of it and when I finally bought the couch I felt it was a thing you would admire in a magazine but an item in your home that you’d dust and preserve but wouldn’t dare touch. Everyone complimented my blue couch while I sat on the floor repelled by it. I spent over two thousand dollars on a piece of furniture and when I moved to Los Angeles I sold it for $50 and begged a young woman to take it away as quickly as you can. The thing I’d coveted had become an eyesore–a reminder of all I hadn’t wanted. I thought I wanted a job with a fancy title and a check with a sizeable number of zeros because I thought that represented respect and intelligence, but the job became my slow burn ruin and the paycheck only served to buy things that self-medicated (see: blue glitter shoes, blue velvet couch). I didn’t need a title to tell me I was smart and a title doesn’t actually hand you respect–you earn it. I thought I wanted what Tony Montana wanted: the world, chico, and everything in it because I spent my childhood playing the role of parent, of an adult. Because I thought I deserved it. But who deserves anything? Who says that with a straight face? And I came to realize that the words that found themselves replayed in rap songs and printed on posters and t-shirts weren’t two arms wrapped around a globe, rather they were a black ocean intent on swallowing me whole. When you have all there is to have you have nothing. The ground gives way and the fall is bottomless as a result of your want, which is never really fulfilled because you dedicated your life to accumulation rather than cultivation.

Funny how time sorts things.

A while ago, one of my closest friends, Amber, asked if I’d seen the Nora Ephron documentary, “Everything is Copy”. I said no in that dismissive way I can sometimes be, and told her I’d add it to my Netflix queue. She posed that question while I was surveying my home with the realization that I didn’t want this apartment. I didn’t want much of what was hanging in my closet. Pacing my very expensive apartment I kept saying I don’t want as if it were a sermon, a prayer.

Then I boarded a plane to New York for a work trip and when I landed in the maelstrom that was JFK I was exhausted. In Manhattan, I viewed the buildings and the people with their clipped tones and determined gait moving every which way with dread. My home, my place of origin, after eight months, had become a stranger. My solace were people: my client team who’s smart and passionate and funny, my mentor who told me I seemed changed but in a good way, and the few friends I was able to see whom I held close and made a point of smelling their hair and feeling my cheek against their shoulder or neck. I know that might sound strange or primal, but I wanted to remember them whole not in parts. I want to remember what it felt like holding them close rather than what they wore or how they colored their hair (all my friends have lightened their hair since I’ve last seen them, which is interesting. More so when one of them pointed out I’d lightened my hair too, to which I responded, laughing, L.A.). This was me taking a picture of them because I knew I wouldn’t see them for a while. And this want, this desire to have them close to me, in my home, broke my heart in places I never conceived could break.

While I was in New York, I stayed with Amber and we watched the documentary and all the while I imagined Joan Didion calling Nora Ephron a cool customer. In her dying days, all that ambition, all that want, morphed into a grace, a quiet and deliberate receding. She’d built a career on ambition and there’s nothing wrong with that–in some ways we should want and work for that want–and I consider the balance of ambition and grace. It seems to me that one tends to follow the other–maybe because of age or exhaustion, who’s to say–and I wonder if both of them, grace and ambition, can occupy the same space and live amicably. To want but not to be subsumed by it, to recognize that life is not a series of battles waged, wars conquered and spoils savored. To realize that one can want but one can also simply be.

In the cab headed to Kennedy, it occurred to me that New York is a repository of my history of wants, of so much history that it’s daunting–all of it is entirely too much to bear and carry. Perhaps this is why I was so anxious to abandon the only home I know because the memory of it was inextricably tied to the life I’d devoted to creating–a life I ended up never really wanting.

I’ll tell you what I do want. I want to stop wanting because desire can sometimes be exhausting and often confused with need. I want a small house I can afford with a yard because I’ve never lived in a house, only apartments. I want this space because it affords me quiet and it would be nice to watch my Felix roll around in the grass. It would be nice to consider adopting a dog. I want to write without caring where my work would be published or if it achieves any level of acclaim–and I’m nearly there, but not quite. I want to live within my means and not feel the pang of desire simply because someone else has more things. I want to be calmer, quieter, less reactive and more forgiving and pensive, and I’m almost there but not quite. I want my ambition to be graceful and filled with grace. I want to remember this is how her skin felt when I left her. This was the crush of our embrace and it feels good to love and be loved.

I want to be and remember this moment as it happens as it’s happened as it has happened and as it will happen.

I would also like a pineapple.

 

Image Credit: Unsplash

the gathering kind

my captain obvious moment as a freelancer: play nice with all aspects of yourself in the sandbox

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Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

When I started my career in finance, I learned about the power and peril of diversification. Creating a diversified portfolio carries with it an element of calculated risk–too much and you lose focus and expertise, too little rendered you a specialist tattooed with an expiration date. Your work lies in cultivating balance in the extreme so that in the event the ground opens up and gives way, your fall won’t be precipitous, bottomless. A strategic, well-rounded portfolio is the hedge you need to weather industry downturns and personal catastrophe. When I started my career in digital marketing in 2001, many of my peers were recalcitrant–they considered online commerce a blip, a fad that would inevitably fade and their marketing prowess, experience, and education would prevail. They resisted social networks and failed to learn the language of a seismic behavioral and cultural shift that would become omnipresent, ubiquitous. A Darwinian marketplace rallied against them, rendering smart, albeit stubborn marketers, obsolete because they didn’t diversify–they failed to keep up. On the flipside, you’ve seen what happens when one company or person tries to be all things to all people: they end up being nothing to no one. They end up broken, a whole that would never equate to the sum of its parts. They’re reduced to a spin-off, a division excised from the whole, auctioned off to the highest bidder.

For much of my career, I drew a fine line between work and art. Never have the two played peacefully in the sandbox because one was always kicking sand in the other’s face. Work colleagues were hardly aware that I wrote lyrical, dark books and writer friends were always shocked when I used words like “brand positioning” and “customer segmentation”. One part of me made money and the other derived purpose from writing the small stories that rarely registered on the cultural radar. One part of me paid for the other; for much of my own career, I served as my own patron. I had become my own benefactor. For a while, this strange symphony worked. I wrote my first book and published a successful literary magazine while working in marketing at Time Warner Cable and HarperCollins. I started (and subsequently sold) my second book while juggling brand strategy and digital marketing projects as a consultant. But money sometimes gets tricky and soon I regarded my “work” with mounting annoyance. I was beholden to marketing in order to create the kind of stories that bolted me out of bed in the morning instead of looking at it for what it was: another vehicle that allowed for storytelling.

To use an anti-feminist, subjugating turn-of-phrase: I had become my own bitch. And I didn’t like it.

This week my therapist and I talked about how I fell so hard, so fast when I moved to Los Angeles. Part of it was prolonged grief from not adequating mourning the death of my mother (sound familiar?), for sure, but, more importantly, I had spent the year prior to my move in a state of persistent acceleration. There was a cross-country move to plan, projects to land and conquer, a book to revise with my agent and sell, and the subways, the frenetic rush of people, the axiom of living in New York: do it faster! and it was only after I unpacked all the boxes did I realize I had been running on empty. I’d been forced to settle in quiet and I didn’t exactly like what I saw. I told my therapist that I wanted physical and geographic space, to which he responded: from what, your friends? I laughed, shook my head no, then shook my head yes and then said I don’t know. Maybe all of it? Maybe I’d built my life defined as one thing, stuck in that thing, and moving offered the promise of not being the thing people knew, or expected you, to be. I arrived and wrote a good book in two months and then fell apart.

During the journey back, I created a portfolio–you know, your resume in narrative form with pretty pictures and colorful slide dividers because everyone craves the elevated, derivative state. We want our stories beautifully told. We want our personal brands to be luminous, yet accessible, yet aspirational, but still inspiring and achievable. Yet in creating the outline which would morph into the final presentation, I found it difficult to tell the story of me without including the whole side of my life devoted to storytelling. Suddenly, it felt strange to not talk about the dual nature of my life and the value that it brings to bear. I took on a small project for a successful blogger (and dear friend) where I helped her tell her story in professional form. Gone are the media kits and capes decks–I wanted to create something that started the conversation but wasn’t the whole of it, and I found tremendous joy in using my two loves: marketing and lyrical storytelling and profiting from those lives lived without needing to take a long shower.

Today I had a wonderful chat with an acquaintance who served as my editor on a short essay I’d written about going to Ireland with my pop. I’d be referred to her by a friend and she was curious about my background. Could I edit books? Could I develop projects with authors? Could I help authors structure their books and tell their stories in a compelling way?

Of course, I can.

I started talking about all the work that wasn’t on my resume. Editing at Scholastic, working closely with editors in book publishing, editing and publishing a literary journal, butchering my friend’s novels and helping them create structure and refine their voice in their work. I even trotted out the Columbia MFA, although I’m fairly ambivalent about the degree now, and regret the debt that accrued as a result of it. I’ll be paying for my writing to the grave and so on.

As a freelancer coming out of a long hiatus and finally back in the proverbial saddle, I realized that I’d been myopic about consulting. I failed to create a portfolio that spanned my strengths: marketing, digital, social, editing, brand architecture, organizational design/process, writing, editing, brand development, project management and development. I hadn’t mined a network that would account for my diverse skill set. I hadn’t positioned myself as someone who could create, distribute, analyze and refine. It was only this morning did I see the need to have all the kids playing nice in the sandbox because right now I need all the kids to rally.

Now I position myself as a creator, someone who builds things and tells stories, and what distinguishes me is my range, breadth, and depth. What sets me apart is the fact that I color outside the lines and I also create new books in which to color.

This is why I want to remain here. I want to feel the new, uninhabited and unconquered. I want the space to be able to see.

freelance life + careers

on my bookshelf: when books are/fail to be a salve

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For the past few months, I’ve been swimming upstream in a sewer. Books have always been my salve, my reprieve from waking life. It was easy to step into someone else’s life when my own became too much to bear. When Mike B. and his crew made me their object of scorn and ridicule in high school, I packed my bookbag with Cheever, Salinger, Hemingway, and Ann Beattie. When I was laid off from a dot.com that blew through $10MM in VC-funding within its first year, I cocooned in my bedroom with Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, and Judy Budnitz. When I learned a great love was sleeping with half of the women in the tri-state area, I pored over biographies penned by Stacy Schiff, Harold Bloom, and Janet Malcolm. I read every biography on Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and T.S. Eliot I could find.

I write to make sense of the world. I write to create clarity when none exists. I write to get passed, to get through. However, there are times when I can’t find the logic and my life is so dark I can’t see what’s in front of me. Times when grief and sorry become entirely too much to bear. In that disquiet, I turn to my bookshelf and browse. I might re-read a story collection I haven’t read in a decade because I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to remember the plots of the books I read in my 20s–I only recall the generalities of a book, not its innards. I might read poetry because it’s hard (economy of language, the constant reference to other works that make you feel as if you’re falling through a bottomless nesting doll) and a single line could seize me for days.

[As I grow older it occurs to me that I only have vague recollections of all the years that came before, only my romanticized memory of them.]

However, over the past few months, reading has been a challenge. I’ve started nearly a dozen books to only file them back on the shelf. I’ve fallen asleep in the middle of a chapter. And sometimes I’d stand in front of my book thinking that the act of reading is an exercise in futility. A book wasn’t going to change my reality; I didn’t have the time to hide because I had resumes and cover letters to submit, humiliating emails to write.

Perhaps it’s my intensive therapy. Perhaps it’s the meds. Or maybe it’s my desire to climb back from this dark time and fight, but after the hours spent looking for projects and work, reading is a reprieve. Yet, it’s better than staring at a television screen playing out my anxieties to the point where they feel like an inevitable reality. And slowly, I’ve become engaged again–not at the voracious book-a-week clip, but just long enough to read a few chapters and check my email again.

I haven’t read much, but what I’ve read has been exceptional. Let’s hope the oncoming months usher in light and more books worth reading. For now, here are a few book recommendations:

Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot: I’ve been waiting for Samantha Hunt to come out with a new book since I first read The Invention of Everything Else in 2009, and her new novel does not disappoint. The dual-narrative story follows the lives of abandoned orphans Nat and Ruth with Ruth’s pregnant niece, Cora, as they desperately try to piece together some semblance of a family. A modern gothic that plays out varying ways in which one can form a family–cults, religion (replete with faux evangelical Christians), orphanages–when a traditional one fails to materialize. The plot twist at the end is imaginative and unexpected. By far, this is the best book I’ve read this year.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words: I admire Jhumpa Lahiri, an author who takes calculated risks in her work. I’ve read a lot of the criticism of her latest book, which is an odyssey of an infatuation with a language–in Lahiri’s case it’s Italian. Some called it frivolous, an act of privilege played out on the page. Others remarked that In Other Words didn’t have the narrative prowess Lahiri exudes in her prior books, where English was her dominate language. However, I loved it because it was risky not in spite of it. As a writer you can choose to play it safe, to create in your own narrow dominion, or you can fail better. Lahiri’s latest reinforced that sometimes it’s okay to pursue a passion that may not necessarily be pragmatic.

Pamela Moore’s Chocolates for Breakfast: I loved this book SO HARD. I have a predilection for books detailing the exploits of the rich and morose, and this story set in 1950s New York and Los Angeles, about the pains of privilege, was downright delicious. The story centers on ambivalent and bored Courtney Farrel, a fifteen-year-old-going-on-thirty-five, who comes of age in the midst of financial ruin (her mother’s an actress whose star is no longer a firmament in the sky), teenage debauchery (think Gossip Girl before cell phones and Instagram). I felt like I was reading Fitzgerald because everyone’s wasted and no one is happy–lost generation, etc. I read this book nearly in one sitting and I’m glad it’s back in print.

Monica Drake’s The Folly of Loving Life: I happened on this story collection by accident. Scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post from Drake’s publisher promoting the book, and I instantly bought it. I’m half-way through the book and already it’s one of my favorites. The linked stories set in a non-hipster Portland show characters at their most vulnerable. Broken people determined to find ways to make themselves whole. You follow the journey of a family where the mother is plagued by a vague illness (schizophrenia?) and the father who tends to her at the expense of their two daughters who try to find their place in the world when familial love and stability are missing. From Mexico to empty art museums and college dorm rooms, the despair expressed by the characters is palpable, but there’s a feeling of hope, which has been pulling me through.

Lauren Holmes’s Barbara The Slut & Other Stories: I wanted to love this story collection more than I did. The stories navigate the spectrum of intimacy. From the slut-shamed Princeton-bound woman who cares for her autistic brother amidst the cruelty of her peers to a daughter hauling Victoria’s Secret lingerie to Mexico in hopes of reconnecting with her mother–the stories are sharp and poignant, yet I felt as if there was something missing. I know that sounds vague but I finished the collection content, but not wholly satisfied or as connected to the characters as I wanted to be.

 

book buff

the cult of cruel: on duplicity + hate-reading

donuts at sidecar

In high school, Mike B. made it hard for me to get out of bed in the morning. There’s no logic to who gets chosen as the object of one’s vitriol, other than perhaps the fear of someone or something other–disgust toward a person who doesn’t conform or blend in. Mike B. was relentless. His friends vandalized my locker and all the girls on the kick team (think cheerleaders, only cooler because these were the kind of girls who smoked Newport Lights and swiveled their slim hips) called me “Fro” because my hair didn’t blend. My hair wasn’t fine and smooth and like Renee’s. Renee sat in front of me in A.P. Bio and she was a smart girl but she played dumb because she filled out in all the right places and with Renee you didn’t hit bases, you knocked her right out of the park. Boys didn’t like hot girls who were smart. It just didn’t make sense. But Renee was the only one who was nice to me–she didn’t ridicule me like her friends did, and when I tutored her in English and she helped me in Bio, she confided that none of these people matter. Mike B. was one of her best friends but on that afternoon in her bedroom, she rolled her eyes and said, Mike B.? Wait ten years. He’s going to be such a loser. Renee would tell me about the boys she slept with and the boys she didn’t want to sleep with but had to sleep with anyway because this was high school and she was Renee and she was popular and she didn’t want to be the girl who didn’t give guys a good time.

For two years I was the subject of Mike B.’s torment. I devised alternate routes home in fear of him driving beside me, yelling out his insults and taunts. I ate lunch alone in the senior lounge or in teachers’ offices because I was the kind of girl teachers trusted. Renee opened doors; I closed them. I was miserable but had a certain satisfaction when I received acceptance letters and scholarships to all the schools to which I applied–NYU, BU, UPenn, Fordham–and Renee confessed to me that Mike B. was going to community college if that.

Ten years later, a chorus of people from my high school somehow tracked me down and sent invitations for a reunion at a waffle joint in Long Island. I browsed the website they’d set up, which reminded me of a Geocities page, and it amazed me that the people who made my life miserable were intent to find out what I was up to. What ever happened to “Fro”, they probably wondered. Word had gotten out that I’d attended Fordham and Columbia, that my career was somewhat successful, and Mike B. still hadn’t left Valley Stream.

High school’s supposed to be terrible, right? Par for the course, right? But how is it that you can remember those days, hallways, and the places you hid, so vividly? We never remember the kind words, rather we feel old wounds opening up, raw and fresh as if you’re forever paying homage to that old hurt.

I can’t imagine high school and the internet because my only solace back then was the fact that there places Mike B. and his tormentors couldn’t reach. For brief periods of time, it was as if everyone in that school ceased to exist.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately–the ways in which people exact their minor and major hurts. People subtweet about their hate-follows and hate-reads. People talk smack behind other people’s backs to then kiss-kiss, hey how are you? to that person’s face. People leave hateful comments tearing apart someone’s appearance: well…if she didn’t want to hear how fat she was, she shouldn’t have posted that picture online, which reminds me of a similar refrain: if she hadn’t worn that short skirt or that tight top, she wouldn’t have gotten assaulted. Same country, different state. Groups exist on the internet devoted to the care and feeding of  hate.

Yesterday, I read two articles about trolling and hate, and saw a tearful Brianna Wu on SyFy’s new show, “The Internet Ruined My Life”. Brianna tweeted last night that she was afraid of her mentions, and amidst all of the support for her bravery, for not backing down against men who make it their business to “put women in their place”, there were articles and tweets calling her story a “great comedy”, lambasting her with cruel retorts. Just the other day, I tweeted a retort to an outspoken feminist friend who routinely gets trolled by men, and a self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi called me a cunt.

A cunt.

We live in a country that espouses free speech, but many are forced into silence in fear of the hate avalanche. I’m in a private Facebook group, and many of the women who are writers talk about not reading the comments of their published articles out of sheer self-preservation. A few bloggers shared stories about strangers calling CPS based on their opinions of a blogger’s particular Instagram post, and their views on how a mother should/should not raise her child. Because, as you know, an online representation of one aspect of someone’s life is the complete story, the whole of someone’s life (/sarcasm). A few years ago, I was the subject of a man’s ire, someone whom I believe I knew (or at least had come into contact with during my agency career, which makes the whole situation that much more jarring), who essentially rambled on about how much he hated me, how I was a troll, etc, because I stood up for women who had been ridiculed because of their appearance. A decade ago, a small circle of literary bloggers posted cruel blind items about me and I remember being at work, in front of my computer, reading these posts and my whole body going numb.

While it’s unrealistic to expect that everyone will love you, what you do, or what you choose to put out into the world, that knowledge doesn’t remove the sting you feel when you saw yourself as the object of someone’s ridicule on the internet. While the taunts of the Mike B.s of the world in the early 90s have a limited shelf-life, words published online leave a permanent indelible mark. It’s public, made searchable by your family, colleagues, and friends. It’s a cruel reminder that always hovers, whispering, we don’t like you.

The spectrum of cruelty feels seemingly infinite–from the side-eyes and whispers behind one’s back to the full-blown doxing and harassment of women and minorities online, made that much more ubiquitous in today’s frightening political climate where people wear their hate as a badge of honor. And we’re all culpable, we may have talked shit behind someone’s back and played nice in front of their face, or we may hate-read someone’s blog or Instagram waiting for the object of our ire to stumble and fall. Or maybe we leave anonymous comments–words that burn and hurt. We’ve all been cruel in one way or another.

I’ve been guilty of double-talk and hate-reading, and I always felt dirty doing it because I know exactly what I was doing, felt horrible for doing it because I wouldn’t want someone to do this to me. But it was hard, especially when I was deep in my depression and sneered at everyone living their best life because, frankly, I was jealous and wanted that life too. In January, at the height of my depression, I read a post from Paul Graham that put me on pause. Life is short, and we’re literally giving away time in our life to others. He talks about arguing online with strangers. He writes:

But while some amount of bullshit is inevitably forced on you, the bullshit that sneaks into your life by tricking you is no one’s fault but your own. And yet the bullshit you choose may be harder to eliminate than the bullshit that’s forced on you. Things that lure you into wasting your time on them have to be really good at tricking you. An example that will be familiar to a lot of people is arguing online. When someone contradicts you, they’re in a sense attacking you. Sometimes pretty overtly. Your instinct when attacked is to defend yourself. But like a lot of instincts, this one wasn’t designed for the world we now live in. Counterintuitive as it feels, it’s better most of the time not to defend yourself. Otherwise these people are literally taking your life.

Hating people is exhausting. Perhaps it’s easier to hate than to be empathetic and kind because that requires us to be vulnerable and exposed. It forces us to ask that uncomfortable questions about ourselves. What about her bothers me so much that I have to leave that comment, say that thing behind her back? And hey, awful people who do awful, stupid things, exist, but we have a choice to devote our attention to them. We choose to give them our life in exchange for the privilege of hating them, publicly or privately.

The past six months have been the hardest I’ve ever known. I have to devote all of my energy to putting one foot in front of the other. I have to wake every day to this financial anxiety and devise ways in which I can get back to a place of stability. My time and energy are precious–they’re things I can’t ever get back–so I’ve made a conscious choice to lay down my anger, jealousy, annoyance, and fear. Years ago, a wise friend told me that crooks undo themselves, always, so there’s no need for us to contribute to their inevitable downfall. So why should I waste my time picking apart others when I can instead use those moments to put myself forward and spend time with people I do love. I don’t hate-read and while there are people in this world I do not like, I no longer devote my energy tending to that dislike.

You have one life. Why would you waste it hating people and acting on that hate? Where does it get you? Does it move you forward? Ask yourself why you might feel so satisfied in a feeling that’s so destructive?

Why not focus on yourself and moving your shit forward?


 

You might wonder why there’s a donut in this post. I had a crap day and decided to leave my house and treat myself to a donut. That’s why. 

the gathering kind

forget mass-market. why not play small?

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What we are is a set of walking contradictions. Our inner lives are not partitioned like day and night, with pure light on one side of us and total darkness on the other. Mostly, our souls are shadowed places; we live at the border where dark sides block our light and throw a shadow over our interior places…We cannot always tell where our light ends and our shadow begins or where our shadow ends and our darkness begins. — From Lewis Smedes’ Shame and Grace

We always want more — even if we don’t want it, even if we never needed it. When we were children our eyes roved over the things we saw–the pink light that filtered in through the trees (dusk), machines that raced down streets (cars), furry things that licked their paws (cats, dogs–this could get complicated), and in those experiences we cultivated memory — the first of our many acquisitions. Everything used to be a puzzle; images and words played Lego, and we leaned on others for definition, interpretation, and perspective. We were taught to believe that everything in the diminutive represented an unfinished state, something not yet realized and far from its potential. That cute wobbly puppy will grow into a dog that can sprint. That infant who once smelled of clean cotton sheets will become someone who will build houses, fly planes, cure diseases. Our memory of the miniature plays out in sepia, it’s hazy and often romanticized — we only fixate on what we’ll become, leaving our previous states aside.

We always dismiss our smaller, unfinished states in favor of the large and seemingly complete.

I’ve been thinking about children lately. Not having them, but observing them. I’ve also been thinking about death and making connections between the two. Our destination varies depending upon what you believe, but I wonder if the place we’ll go vaguely resembles the one from which we’ve come, and the space we occupy between the two, our holding pen called life, will be spent trying to make sense of our journey from one place to the other.

Or maybe that’s my life.

We cry coming out and we weep slouching home, because isn’t that what death is? Our final stop, a story, a home that can’t be torched or torn down? Our tears come from fear of the unknown, of what’s to come. I assume babies scream-cry because they consider everything an assault. What are these shapes, colors, and lights? Who are you? What is this, what am I, and so on. Over time, the answers are revealed in degrees, and for a brief time, we are comforted by these certainties. Life becomes a slow conquering of sorts, a means to ferret out truth from the unknown, and our death is a surrender. We lay down our armaments because we’ve no idea which tools we’ll need for the next battle. Come our twilight years, I suppose we’ll weep because we’re left with a life where most riddles have been resolved, loves have been felt, truths have been revealed — to what? A fugue state that morphs into the eternal black? Or do feel sorrow because we’ve spent our lives trying to know what we’ll never know. Have we wasted time in this single, temporary waking life?

“I greatly fear my hidden parts”–From Augustine’s Confessions

It occurs to me that these moments, life and death, are monumental, yet we’re small when confronting them. We’re small in the beginning (literally), and, in the end, we become small in ways that are more complicated. In both states we don’t consider the notion of wanting more; we can’t even comprehend acquisition, and isn’t it funny that we face our two greatest moments being valiant and great in our smallness, in our need for nothing?

Lately, I’ve been feeling, for lack of a better term, colonized. Colonized in terms of defining a home, colonized in reference to how I live my life. We all have a reference point. I came from a home that had nothing and spent my 20s and early 30s in the business of hyperaccumulation in hopes that it would satiate a need that could never be truly filled by the things bought in legal tender. I hailed from a generation that believed in the beauty of size. We measured our self-worth in width, height, and weight, and our homes made us feel like dwarves, our Italian leather handbags threatened to swallow us whole. We became bound to this title, to those letters after our name, as if ascension equates to human greatness or a rich character.

The measure of achievement is not winning awards. It’s doing something that you appreciate, something you believe is worthwhile. I think of my strawberry souffle. I did that at least twenty-eight times before I finally conquered it.” — Julia Child

A friend and I talk about the avalanche of e-books and articles we read: how to build your newsletter, how to achieve a million readers, how to grow at scale — apparently you cease to matter if the world doesn’t read you (that tree in the forest metaphor). I’m a difficult woman who writes often about the darker aspects of life, so I know I’ll never be fit for the masses. I’m not someone who colors in the lines, rather I’d rather create new books in which to color. I know I’ll never be “big” or widely read, or deeply connected or nominated for the fancy awards, and I’m okay with this. I’m okay with playing small and accumulating a wonderful, compassionate tribe.

I think about my dad. For a time, I couldn’t comprehend why he didn’t want more from life — why he didn’t demand the world and everything in it just I had. His home and closets are spare, he has only what he needs. He cleaves to his rituals: coffee in the morning, coffee as a means to connect, and long drives to clear his head. He holds few photographs. Luckily, I’m in some of them. He doesn’t speak about the past often, but what he remembers are the moments I sometimes struggle to recall: they’re small, but we explode into laughter when he recounts them. The day he drove down a one-way street. The day we made a point to eat one meal from every fast food joint in a five-mile radius (I don’t recommend this). He has the ability to say one string of words and we’re immediately transported back and I can feel everything. He has a way of making the world simple, clean and neat–even when he’s engulfed in sadness, loss, heartbreak.

I admire him this, his quiet nobility. I admire a man who’s lived a great, small life–who loves every minute of it. You feel everything so hard, he once joked. When I look at him or when I think about children, I’m reminded of the beauty of playing small. Of not needing to puff up my chest, resume, byline or biography. Life is still worth loving even if I don’t win prizes, or reach financial and professional heights. Last year I read David Brooks’ The Road to Character and in the final chapter, he underscored the dangers of a society focused solely on meritocracy, on the accumulation of desires and the constant cult of “big me”. He writes,

The meritocratic system wants you to be big about yourself–to puff yourself, to be completely sure of yourself, to believe that you deserve a lot and to get what you think you deserve (so long as it’s good). The meritocracy wants you to assert and advertise yourself. It wants you to display and exaggerate your achievements. The achievement machine rewards you if you can demonstrate superiority–if with a thousand gestures, conversational types, and styles of dress you can demonstrate that you are a bit smarter, hipper, more accomplished, sophisticated, famous, plugged-in, and fashion-forward that the people around you. It encourages narrowing. It encourages you to become a shrewd animal.

We covet the largess of life, yet we end up feeling silly and small. What if we revered the reverse? What if we came from a place of curiosity, humility, self-acceptance, and honesty? What if we formed our character based on how we loved, what we built as an extension of that love versus blasting out what we’ve acquired, the weight of objects we carry? I think about this tension a lot, especially when I read that I have to make a ruckus in order to break ranks. What if I ceased wanting all the things? What if I burned the measuring tape and scales, and stopped equating large and more with joy and greatness? Fewer, better. Quality reigns over quantity. I’ve done this in nearly all aspects of my life, but not completely. I wonder if that’s even possible. I’m not sure that it is, so perhaps that’s part of the journey, too.

Why are we defining success by a metric, a site visit, or a number of comments? Why is mass suddenly the marker of achievement? A blog with a book deal and a stylish lifestyle show and a line at a fancy department store — are these the new markers of success? Have we updated the old playbook where we were told as children that a good life meant having a career, getting married, having kids, buying a house, having a summer house, and retiring? Shouldn’t success and happiness be the achievement of what we love to its own end, knowing that end might be private and personal? That we should strive to create depth, complexity, difficulty, meaning and devotion in everything we do instead of optimizing our content for search or being “social” because that’s the sort of thing we ought to be doing?

The idea of working a room makes me want to gouge out my eyes with an acetylene torch.

A boss once we told me that we have to think about content in the context of its distribution. For nearly four years I clung to this fiction, repeated it to a litany of clients, left an indelible mark on those whom I mentored, and it occurred to me that this statement was wrong. Of course, we don’t create something to simply leave it there to gather dust, but if I start to fixate on the end game, the thing I’m creating suddenly loses meaning. It becomes airless, soulless, a pretty picture worth pinning with nothing beneath the surface.

Fuck being big. Fuck scale. Fuck viral. Have integrity. Because when you achieve the largeness, it never is what we wanted it to be, and we end up just wanting more. Instead, create that which bolts you out of bed. Build and be everything that gives you heart and purpose, a big life lived small squeezed between our beginning and inevitable end.

Why not play small?

Image Credit: Pexels

freelance life + careers

you want to pay me $250 for a comprehensive marketing strategy? that's cute.

Death_to_stock_photography_Wake_Up_5

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

Let’s not talk about the time I was offered $250 for a comprehensive marketing strategy — weeks worth of work — and say we did.

There’s something many of my peers have been discussing in private groups and behind closed doors but no dares to speak out loud for fear of losing work. We trade emails where editors think $25 for 500-word articles, replete with secondary sources and rounds of revision, to be a living wage. We lament over the fact that seasoned marketers are being outbid by people with little to no actual work experience beyond preening themselves in front of a camera. I’m told, why would I pay X if Competitor A offers a third of your rate, to which I respond: I don’t compete on price; I compete on value, efficacy, and experience. Last week someone told me that she made more money doing the same thing ten years ago than she does now. Her professional life is one of diminishing returns: she has to work twice as hard now to make the same money she made a decade ago. In a private Facebook group, scores of influential bloggers talk about how brands and publicists trot out the word “exposure” in exchange for free work. Recently, writer Victoria Philpott shared a perfect scenario of this charade in her incisive essay about the trap of blogging for exposure:

A new startup wants you to review their app on your site, host a competition to give 5 away to your readers and write about them on the App Store. In return you’ll get to be one of the first to try the new app. You go back and tell them that’s advertising and will cost but they ‘don’t have the budget for that’.

So, they want a good few hours work, and access to your audience, in return for an app you didn’t ask for or want?

Another friend seethes when she’s told by her editor that college kids would be willing to work for free (or for a fraction of the standard rate) because everyone wants exposure and experience. In a hustle economy, everyone’s juggling side gigs and projects, and the refrain is constant: we’re working harder for less.

I worked through college — balancing a 20+ hour work week with a full course load, volunteer activities, and a social life. Most of my internships were paid because I couldn’t afford not to make money, and while I understood that my compensation directly correlated with my experience, it was unthinkable to compete with full-time employees’ comp, people who had years of experience.

Let me be clear and say that this isn’t a get-off-my-lawn rant, a Gen X vs. Gen Y kerfuffle that rivals Biggie and Tupac. We need each other, and I believe in the power of symbiotic mentorship. After I left a digital marketing agency where I was an equity partner, I kept in close contact with many people who reported to me, brilliant women who went on to break ranks and with whom I forged close relationships. Although we were 10–15 years apart in age, we knew our respective value, and it was equal and powerful. I mentored women on being a manager and leader, how to negotiate comp and deal with toxic employees, and they kept me fresh on burgeoning trends and social media, and what I’ve learned most from my millennial friends is the power of reinvention. Of taking something old and seeing in it the new.

So if you’re ready to get riled up at the kids today, there are plenty of articles on Medium that will satiate you — this is not one of them.

For the past few years, I’ve witnessed a disturbing trend in some agencies where they’ve skimmed the top (less P&L impact) and hired junior talent in hopes of growing them rapidly into senior roles. A whole middle layer of management was nearly non-existent, so you had very senior people too deep in the weeds and junior talent feeling overwhelmed and non-equipped to manage work and situations in which they had little experience. In The Devil’s Advocate (bear with me), Al Pacino’s character tells a young and arrogant Keanu Reeves:

I know you got talent, I knew that before you got here. It’s just the other thing I wonder about: pressure, it changes everything. Some people you squeeze them, they focus. Others fold. Can you summon your talent at will? Can you deliver on a deadline? Can you sleep at night?

Some people surprise you — they’re natural leaders and they exude confidence and acumen beyond their years, a talent that’s rare and priceless. A soon-to-be college grad outlines, in detail, how hard she worked to get published in bold-face publications before graduation, and I respect her tenacity, talent, and hustle. Yet, there’s something to be said for tenure, for having the years, for enduring experience and learning from it and then having the perspective that only time and distance brings to bear on new situations. I will always believe in the adage “you get what you pay for”.Replacing tenured talent with cheap labor to save bottom-line impact isn’t a viable long-term strategy. Placing band-aids on dams might work in the short-term but inevitably the dam will burst.

There’s real and tangible value in having a college or intern perspective. There’s value in having someone who knows the nuances of a particular social media channel give input on content and strategy. However, the value is complementary, not interchangeable. Just because someone will do something for free doesn’t mean you need to take advantage of it for the short-term savings, completely sacrificing the value of experience and perspective. Complement, don’t replace all.

Let’s revisit that offer of $250 and what comprises an integrated marketing strategy. Building a strategy requires (I’m summarizing big time here):

  1. Discovery/Research: A complete brand and business immersion and discussions with staff across business units — all of this in the context of industry factors and consumer trends/behavior
  2. Key Learnings: From all of the research and discussions, I tend to identify challenges and opportunities, along with some kick fixes or wins. Since I’m removed from the day-to-day, I have the fortune of distance and perspective and can usually identify issues (internal and external) and opportunities that staff too close to the business might miss
  3. Objectives/Goals Discussion: This is lengthy, and often we review past day and performance as well as a deeper conversation about their existing customer base. We discuss quantifiable and qualitative goals and objectives, knowing that our strategy has to satisfy or meet those goals/objectives. We discuss what success is and how to measure/optimize it, by channel, by tactic
  4. Strategy Outline: This is the “What” — What we’ll do to service the goals/objectives. This isn’t a tactic, a “we’ll launch an Instagram channel” or “we’ll hire a YouTube celeb to bolster our brand” — this is the big idea and plan that will impact the entire business, and will be implemented across paid, owned, earned and partner media.
  5. Tactical Roadmap: From the strategy falls the tactics, which brings the ideas to life in a practical way, i.e. the “How”. This will invariably require the collaboration between partners (internal and external) for development of distinct and detailed plans with budgets, timelines, and allocated resources

So you think all that work — weeks of labor — is worth $250? I’ve worked hard for 17+ years to be paid $250 for a marketing strategy? Surely you jest.

You think the hours it takes for writers to find sources, compose interview questions, transcribe interviews, draft articles and make revisions are worth $25? $100? $250?

As Shannon Barber so sagely writes: “No one can eat exposure.” I tell people I’m not operating a non-profit. Would I ask my doctor to reduce her rate because someone down the street charges less? Would I nickel and dime a plumber? Would I ask someone to paint my apartment for free in exchange for an Instagram post? Why is it that people find it easy to diminish the value of writers and marketers (non-tactile skills)? Why is it so easy to sacrifice quality for short-term profit?

When will brands and businesses focus on complementary talent rather than bottom-line savings that hurt over time?


I originally published this post on Medium
freelance life + careers

feeling bookish: when books are your greatest salve

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“What happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody.’’ —James Baldwin

 

The thing about depression you’re always losing things even when the losses mount and you feel as if there couldn’t possibly be anything else left to lose. It’s a cruel thief that pilfers through your things in the night and leaves as swiftly as it came with everything that you hold dear. This week, a friend phones me from work and I can feel her sorrow over the line when she tells me that what I’ve been writing lately disturbs her–one post in particular that I’ve since deleted as it caused her, and a good deal of other people in my life, considerable anguish. She pleads with me to return to therapy and that if I were still in New York she would come from me. And I think of her arms as duvets swaddling me, and the first thing I thought was: I’m glad I’m here. It occurred to me then perhaps I purposely moved here to unravel out of the reach of those who love me. It’s a dark thought, but one that haunts me. I feel grateful for the unbelievable support my friends have given me in the past few weeks through calls, texts, emails and loans for therapy that I’m not able to afford on my own. This year has been a harrowing one, to say the least, but it’s taught me a great deal about friendship, kindness, patience and empathy. I haven’t been my best self and now I deeply understand what it feels like to lose your way but want so desperately to climb back. So I’m excited for the comeback tour and even if the road back will prove to be a difficult one.

Books have always been a comfort, a salve for anything that ailed me. When I was small, I read on my fire escape, imagining myself sprawled across the pages I was reading. For a time my surroundings gave way to the scenes and stories playing on in the stack of books I was making my way through and this kind of wandering, this loss, was a welcome one. Lately, reading has posed a challenge. I’ve started half a dozen books to only discard them. I tried to finish A Little Life and fell asleep–not any fault on the author, but rather my ability to shed my existing surroundings for a new one. Instead, I read articles–dozens of them, ever day–in fear of atrophying. Even though I am where I am now, I still want to learn. I continue to be a student.

Last week I came across a fascinating article about Pamela Moore, a writer I’d never heard of, but the tragedy of her and the power of her work has likened her to Sylvia Plath. Moore took her own life at the age of 26 but enjoyed a successful, albeit brief, career when her debut novel, written at 18, caused a sensation. Chocolates for Breakfast reminds me of The Bell Jar, but better. It’s a story of a privileged teenager’s sexual awakening–a precursor to Gossip Girl with the wealth and private parties and oceans of booze. Reading the story doesn’t feel dated even if it was written in the 50s because the rules of wealth, privilege, abandonment and being a teenager rarely change. It’s the first book I’ve been able to read in a long time–one that has managed to sustain my interest, and I’m grateful for these minor victories. Especially on days when I feel like I’m constantly failing.

What’s also made me smile is Heather Havrilesky, Ask Polly columnist, who is acerbic, funny, and unafraid to say fuck one too many times. I recently discovered her via Austin Kleon’s email list and streamed her recent Long Form Podcast interview while reading her hilarious essay on writing rituals and routines.

On a more sobering note, these two essays hit close to home. One ponders whether a girlfriend who encouraged her boyfriend’s suicide should be considered his murderer, and a brave series penned by a woman who was formerly homeless and still penalized even though she’s doing everything to get her life back on track. And finally, an astute read on poverty and privilege amidst the smart set–an apt response to Claire Vaye Watkin’s excellent “On Pandering”.

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege and class assumptions. Over the past few months, many people have said the words, “You would never be homeless. It’s just not possible.” Part of me wonders if it’s because I have the privilege of having a few friends who would take me in, lend me their homes, or is it because the assumption that a well-educated, moderately successful white woman (by all appearances, I’m white but I’m part African, Italian, Greek and Finish) couldn’t face peril. I read statistics that tell us the economy is doing better! Unemployment is at an all-time low. But then why am I reading hundreds of status updates and posts about people across race and class who are really struggling. People who made the same money now as when they graduated college, 20-30 years ago. Even my therapist asked about my project lull. I’d been consistently busy for nearly three years but I haven’t worked on a big project since October.

To which I respond, I have no idea.

 

book buff

built by women: meghan cleary, founder of MeghanSAYS® shoes

THR

Did you know that there are less than 10 footwear companies in the United States run by women? Women purchase twice as many shoes as men yet only eleven women designers/manufacturers were represented in the Power 100? So many companies create products believing they have their customer’s best interests and sartorial desires at heart, but my dear friend, Meghan Cleary, involves her customers at every stage of the product development process and she’s one of the kindest, smartest, passionate, and funniest women I know. Meg and I met in 2006 and back then we were in the business of bringing women together (specifically in book publishing + writing) to collaborate and support one another. Every month I hosted a gathering of 50-100 women in hopes that there would be strength in numbers, and Meg’s tireless and unwavering support (from finding us spaces to bringing the coolest people into the room) marks the kind of woman she is: mentor, friend, collaborator.

It’s been formidable to witness her bloom from passionate shoe aficionado to a company owner, and when I sampled her products first-hand, not only did I love the price point ($98-$168) for the quality, her shoes were stylish and comfortable. She’s someone who I always want to celebrate and even though I took a break from posting on this space, I wanted to share with you not only her line but her verve and wisdom. Meg’s worth breaking my break (I’m still on hiatus). I hope our chat will inspire you just as much as she’s always, always inspired me. –FS

 

Felicia C. Sullivan: When I first met you, nearly a decade ago in New York, you were this ebullient force who had just published a book about shoes and was a fierce connector—you had a way of bringing smart, passionate woman in your network together that was infectious. We’re both from the east coast and I remember how we talked about our respective journeys west. What motivated you to leave New York, and what have you gained (and lost) as a result of calling Los Angeles your home.

Meghan Cleary: Well, first of all, that is so nice to hear. I remember being a part of really trying to bring women writers together with you and it was so fun. There are so many groups now like Binders doing that online it’s cool to think we were there in the beginning.

In terms of making my shift to the left coast, I had been thinking about moving to Los Angeles for about a year before I finally came out. I had a lot of friends here, and after ten years in NYC — and watching my once quaint West Village neighborhood turn into a high-end shopping mall (!) — I was craving some physical things — mainly space and light. The idea of having more space and more access to nature was a big thought — as a creative person literal, physical space can be really freeing. I was also looking for an easier lifestyle, not so much the daily schlep. Originally I was going to come out for six months and see how I liked it, but here we are eight years later! What’s interesting is how many people from NYC have made the leap. There are more of us here now than ever although I’m like don’t tell any more people how great it is — we want it all to ourselves!

In October 2008, I came out here for a TV appearance on TVGUIDE network. I was on a show called “Fashion Team”, which was a really great show about actual fashion — really well produced. One of the co-hosts who interviewed me was Lawrence Zarian. He was incredibly encouraging and took me aside after the show and told me I was one of the very few experts that came on the show who actually know what I was talking about and knew my subject matter. His words kind of planted a seed in my mind and by the end of the weekend, I was like ok, I’m coming out. It was perfect timing. My contract for consulting I had with a big bank had just ended, and I was free to go. A month later I got on a plane with my dog – it was Nov 5, 2008, the day after the election and everyone was in a really jubilant mood.

10428-1 TOGETHER(1)FS: I admire you because you navigate disparate worlds with ease. You have a background in financial writing and marketing, you are the expert in footwear –how do you balance the reality of having to be a freelancer (doing the things that pay the bills) while pursuing what gets you out of the bed in the morning (your new shoe line, MeghanSAYS®)? How do you make time for both and do you feel a sense of balance?

MC: Well, thank you so much. There are so many people like us that have to juggle and hustle. Choosing a creative life means you have to really get inventive about your income streams, learn how to manage your cash flow like a fierce businessperson and be flexible. I got really fortunate early on in that I worked in finance doing marketing and it is something I can always return to. I actually enjoy it because it is so different than my creative life – it’s very calming, in fact because it works another part of my mind and there is often a beginning, middle and end to a project. I’ve found that my natural penchant for narrative and story is extremely helpful as well in my financial consulting realm.

In terms of balance – well, I think balance is kind of bullshit. There is no balance — there’s maybe balance over the long-term but for me, it is more about figuring out how and when to expend energy. There are certain times of day I get more done in an hour than I would in three hours at another time of day. As a woman there are certain times of the month I am more creative and outgoing, some days I’m more introverted and marinating. What types of people do I spend what levels of energy with, how do I sustain energy over a long day? My biggest challenge has been allowing my body to rest when I am sick. I still find this a challenge. Especially as a creative person, if you are consulting too, you don’t get paid for missing a day. The hustle is always there in the back of your mind, and as a creative person, we are not given stability and pensions and etc. You have to make that all for yourself. Fortunately, as the workforce changes, there are a ton of resources to do so, and as I said, especially as a woman you have to get financially savvy – and it still can be challenging even then. Barbara Stanny is a great person to read about this. Also my friend Laura Shin writes a ton of helpful articles on freelancing and personal finance.

LA TimesFS: Your journey to shoe designer is amazing! Tell us how MeghanSAYS® came to be, and your vision for the debut collection and the brand.

MC: Thank you! It has been so exciting honestly. I became obsessed with shoes when I was five years old and I also wanted to be a psychologist when I was little, I started writing poetry when I was 10 and I have always loved dressing up. What I do has been kind of a weird blend of all of these things. I’m deeply interested in shoes in relation to questions about culture and identity, what they say about people. I love really spirited, fun design. Through my work as a shoe expert and listening directly to actual women, I learned there was a huge gap in the market for what women wanted in a shoe. I thought it would be fun to begin to try to meet that need in a really fun, spirited way. The collection itself came out of an offhand conversation with a friend at a holiday party – one thing led to another, and soon I had a manufacturer who was willing to underwrite the first line of samples. This is huge for a woman entrepreneur – we do not have the same type of access to capital and infrastructure that men do so it was a huge beautiful thing they were will willing to do it. My first meeting at Soho House, I brought shoes to the table literally and put them on the table – I had a very clear vision of styles I wanted, what I was thinking of. While I was talking, the woman at the next table leaned over and asked about the prototypes I had on the table — she wanted to know where to get them! I think that helped and boom! We had a line. I wanted to create shoes for women that were easy to wear and at the same time extremely fun. I don’t take the word fun lightly by the way – there’s so much in our society set up for not fun, to actually try to infuse it into things you do, and in this case, an actual product I feel is essential.

FS: I love that your line is affordable and stylish without sacrificing on quality—a rare breed in the shoe business. Is this balance a challenge (if so, how), and did you have a price range in mind for your woman going into the design and manufacturing process?

MC: I love that you called that out – it was something I thought about a lot. What I learned is that how you are able to price your product is largely based on how many shoes you can get a retailer to order and your relationship and negotiating power with a factory. It sounds totally backward I know, and you need to go into the design and sample process with an idea of where you’d like to be pricing-wise obviously, but it all comes down to how many shoes you are making. The more you make, the lower the price the factory can give you. So the more a retailer buys, the better pricing you can give them and, in turn, the customer. You also have to figure in margins for your manufacturer and yourself. I got incredibly lucky that the manufacturer I partnered with has amazing relationships with factories and was able to get the pricing we wanted. Although in order to keep the flat under $100 I took a huge margin hit. I have practically no margin on the flat but I was adamant I did not want them to be over $100.

FS: What has surprised you most about launching your business? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

MC: I was surprised and honestly I am always surprised when I set out to make a product – making actual physical things gives you a whole new appreciation for how things get created from a sketch to on someone’s feet. All this year I literally go into a shop and am like wow – can you believe this glass was made wherever it was made, and now it is here on this shelf and I can buy it! How amazing! Seriously, the amount of things that have to come together to make a thing, and then get that thing into the store, seems like a Sisyphean task. But it happens! It all happens and comes together. You wouldn’t think you would get so excited about supply chain or shipping logistics, but you do! Again my manufacturer has a huge infrastructure already set up so for me to plug in was amazing – and still it was full of surprises even though it’s a well-oiled machine. That’s just the nature of making THINGS.

FS: I’ve met a lot of people our age who feel regret. Regret that they didn’t pursue this or that life sooner or hadn’t met their partner earlier in life, but I tend to believe that we find ourselves at a certain place because of all the choices we’ve made, not in spite of them. Would you agree? Do you have any regrets about the paths you’ve taken?

MC: I think honestly the only thing I regret is spending ANY time on worrying or what my brilliant friend Vanessa McGrady calls future tripping. It is a natural part and parcel of being an artist to have fear, anxiety, dread and resistance come up. It’s only now I feel like NO! I do not want to spend time dragging myself into that pit like I have spent too much time doing that. Saying that, I also have a very fearless side of myself as well. I don’t really listen when I hear naysayers and I have a special penchant for just doing things. Like ok, that sounds fun, I’m gonna do that. I do. That’s how I wrote a pilot last year and how I started a shoe line. Literally because well, why not?

My godson Daniel is the cutest; he calls me a “possibilitarian”. I try to stay in that zone so my only regret is when I’m out of that zone and I spend any time out of it.

FS: Have you endured any challenges building a business as a woman? How did you manage them?

85653-24A BLACK-2MC: I think the challenges I face as a woman are extremely subtle and some not so subtle. I am a white, college-educated woman, so I have a certain amount of privilege in the world and ease with which I can navigate the world. Saying that, I know that because of income inequality, I have not earned as much as my male counterparts, and I am a pretty fierce negotiator, so I certainly probably have come close but over time I could have probably earned more as a man. Also, women are just not given the same financial tools and information from a young age as many men are. I remember I had a great boss at one of the banks I worked at and I asked him how should I invest my money and he was like just park it in a money market – because it was assumed I would get married. He didn’t say get fierce with your 401K, and use it to try and buy real estate or learn about stocks — it was kind of like ok, honey just put it there — and he was an amazing guy who I looked up to in so many ways. I think had I more financial savvy I would be further along. When I first read Barbara Stanny’s Prince Charming’s Not Coming — it opened my eyes about how I think about the ambiguous “future” when it comes to finance. We all sometimes have magical thinking when it comes to money. I’ve gotten very savvy over the years, but still could be so much savvier.

Then there are real, logistical and institutional issues — women do not have the same access as men to capital and financing. And if you are entering a male-dominated business, oftentimes it’s difficult to make the relationships necessary to take the business forward. Factories, sourcing, etc are usually male-dominated so you have to partner up with people or find other ways to convince people to work with you. Capital is the lifeblood of businesses especially when making a product so to not have that access can cripple you early on.

In terms of how I managed these issues, honestly, I just plow ahead. I don’t think about it too much. I find that in a lot of cases, passion, enthusiasm and having a clear vision resonates with people and they will take a chance with you. You only need like one person to get on board.

FS: Who/What has inspired you along the way and why?

MC: So many people. My mom taught me how to work things out and hustle. We got hit by a recession in Michigan when I was little and she was always super resourceful and taught me the same skills. Very handy for creatives! My auntie Mary who did my logo for MeghanSAYS® and all my illustrations for my Shoe Are You?® book and web series. My aunt Kit who had the awesomest shoe collection ever and was a major businesswoman and marketer. My dad who always finds some kind of humor in every situation. He loves to throw in “slingback pump” into any conversation because now he knows what that is! My brother who always is super hilarious. Funny is a big thing in my life and I can giggle my face off with all these people. My boyfriend Tim is one of my major sounding boards. He works in entertainment so he totally gets the creative side of things and is always a huge proponent of just going for the creativity full on.  My BFF in New York, Sarah, who I call the The Rabbi, always tells it like it is. And my BFF in LA, Vanessa, who is always down for blowing up the fear. Jason Campbell who always pushes me to look at design and style in new ways. I also belong to an extraordinary writing group who I call The Pod run by David Hochman — they are my secret superpower group.

FS: What are the three things that people who are interested in launching their own business or going freelance? Are there specific lessons you can share regarding shoe/manufacturing-related ventures?

MC:
1. Don’t quit your day job/Quit your day job. What I mean by this is keep your sources of revenue flowing, but try not to get too caught up in the daily grind of a j-o-b. Like the office politics, etc. Keep it light, keep it observational, positive. You need to keep your psychic space to create so don’t spend it on office blah blah blah.
2. Learn how to manage cash flow and what that is!
3. Be flexible.
4. Lose the shame in working a day job! People get so wrapped up in appearances. I’ve found most of my day job people are my biggest supporters! I’m always very appropriate when revealing what I do in addition to my regular work, you have to feel it out at your particular workplace, but once you tell people you’d be surprised how many people want to be your cheerleader. Because you are doing the risky thing, the thing many are afraid to do. It doesn’t feel courageous sometimes but it is.

Regarding footwear – wow – that’s a whole other interview! I’ve learned a lot but I’d say in the end it all comes down to product and your factory. You want a great factory that wants to make the best product for you – especially because in my case my actual name is on it!

FS: What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day?

MC:
• Burt’s Bees lip balm
• I TRY to meditate – don’t always get there but I try
• Petting and walking my dog – best oxytocin booster ever!

FS Most importantly, which of your shoes do we absolutely NEED in our closet and what is your favorite of the collection?

MC: The ballet flat!!! Seriously you can have one in every color – it is so comfortable, perfect travel shoe and just the chic-est shoe around IMHO. Makes every foot look amazing from size 5 to size 11. The denim is beyond, the floral is super punchy, the b/w gingham I wear literally every day though now I am alternating it with the blush sparkle microsuede because I just fell in love with that one too!

 

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All images courtesy of Meghan Cleary. 

freelance life + careers style

there's beauty in the attempt (and honesty)

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I have a friend coming over for brunch today and I’m pulling out all the stops: homemade blueberry waffles topped with fresh compote, maple bacon, fruit salad and brewed coffee. It’s been a while since I’ve had someone over–possibly because my home is my refuge, and I couldn’t imagine anyone in it because I viewed the slightest intrusion as a pillage on my sanctuary. Although I’ve been in California only a brief time (five months), it feels like home because it’s not yet blemished by all the history. Even though I moved apartments in the Brooklyn brownstone I once lived, I felt haunted by Sophie’s passing (among other things), and I could feel the weight of having grown up in Brooklyn and seeing it changed. And while the city has been remodeled to the point where it’s barely recognizable, I still have the memory of it. I still remember being a teenager, riding the subway, my feet on the seats.

In Los Angeles, there are no subways, and the streets are clean and expansive. People drive and I walk, and sometimes I’ll walk the eight miles from Beverly Hills to Santa Monica simply to feel space.

Last week, WordPress emailed my end-of-year report, which is kind of like an annual report for your blog, and I normally try not to look at these things, to concern myself with the business of numbers because numbers have a way of doing things to you, altering what and how your create. And it’s no surprise that this space had demonstrably more traffic when I was happy, and people seemed to fall out of the frame when I got sad. And then this put me to thinking about social media and how it can be brutally suffocating with everyone demanding that you be positive, happy and in a constant state of growth and repair. People want to read about your dark times only in the past tense, only when you’ve made it out to the other side and you are gleaming and dressing your wounds. There is so much talk, so much desire for that which is real and authentic, yet we see time and time again how people are rewarded for their artful representation of a coveted life. People want their darkness in manageable doses (that one book everyone reads/movie everyone sees) because possibly they have so much (or little) going on in their lives that they don’t want the burden of someone else’s grief. Rather, they reach out to light so religiously they don’t realize when they’ve been burned and blinded by it.

When I was a teenager, I kept losing PTA-sponsored writing contests because people always died in my stories. Parents can’t reward something that disturbing, a teacher once confided to me. Later, when I was at Columbia, a teacher asked me in my first year why people in my stories died and I was confused and said because that’s what happens. My father once told me that I hold on to darkness too hard. In response, I said no, it was more like I didn’t like letting it go. There’s a difference, even though at the time I didn’t know what that difference was.

 

I’m going to ignore what’s popular and inherently desired because I think that our work allows us to weed out that which does not serve us. I’m in this kind of purgatory where I’m not as low as I was a few months ago, but I’m not out of the woods yet and I feel this tension between the need to get better and the ache of giving up. Being in Los Angeles has given me so many things already–a new book, space, and the want of rebuilding a tribe when the old one didn’t serve me well. It’s hard, really fucking hard, to see the constant stream of posts that speak to how everyone’s life is so! fucking! awesome! when my life is anything but, but their life isn’t my life and there’s no joy in comparing myself to others and what they chose to edit and project out into the world, so all I can do is keep attempting, keep doing, keep working, and keep being my most honest self–even if it’s not as attractive as the world would want it to be.

I woke this morning and thought: well, at least it’s no longer 2015.

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california living the gathering kind