What happens after you design the life of your own making? What then?

the new work

Boomers will be our ruin, was our constant refrain in the late 90s. This was a time when we actively practiced our apathy, regarded the internet with a mixture of interest and suspicion, and carried cellular phones the size of small bricks. We survived grunge (barely), witnessed a 70s comeback (no thanks), and shirked off our over-generalized Gen-X moniker. We weren’t fragile unique snowflakes, but we didn’t aspire to be our parents either, and it would take a new generation of upstarts to fix the mistakes we initially made with the internet (remember the epic implosion of 2001? My unemployment checks sure do) and show us that everything we were taught to believe about work, success, and life, was far from gospel.

For seventeen years, I worked in an office. I did what I’d been told to do or mimicked generations past — I worked hard and paid my dues, knew my place in the hierarchy and adhered to it, and believed an Odyssean commute and a matching 401K were the “only way”. I never conceived of a career outside the confines of a cubicle until I learned that corporations couldn’t guarantee a safety net or protect you from market and industry volatility, and even though you were constantly reminded of your value and worth during the annual corporate retreats and holiday potlucks, your livelihood was predicated on a P&L. You were only as valuable and indisposable as a company was profitable. You existed for as long as a company could bear the weight of you.

In 1997, I graduated college with a plan: work in finance for 10–15 years, get married, have kids — the whole whitewashed nine-yard. Just stick to the plan, I told myself because this singular version of a dream, one that had been photocopied by multitudes, was the only way. Right?

Until I learned that I loathed finance. You could be good at something and still cry in bathroom stalls. My work didn’t challenge me, the dress code (yes, back then we had a suit dress code with only Fridays as a reprieve) was daunting, my coworkers all hailed from the same Northeast schools, and I became curious about this “Internet thing”. I spent nights and weekends navigating AOL and dial-up service (remember when no one could reach you because you were online? Good times.) and using my financial and accounting skills, I launched a small business where I bought designer clothes and accessories from outlets and samples sales in New York and sold them online. I did this successfully for two years, but still didn’t believe in the safety of going out on my own. I’d relegated my business to a side project, that thing that would steer me away from finance and I could mail my paper resumes to new companies in new industries. During this time, I managed to fit in getting my master’s degree in Fine Arts — the antithesis of my “safe” Bachelor’s of Science degree.

My plan in 1997 was a graft that didn’t take, an implanted organ rejected by its host. My views on marriage shifted — I cared less about the white dress and the fanfare and confetti and instead wanted a partner, regardless of the paperwork. I also realized that I didn’t want children, which made marriage at the time a trickier proposition. Instead, I wanted my career and my novels. I worried less about the whitewashed life and figured that a partner would eventually materialize.

By 2013, most of my views of success were usurped. Millennials annoyed me initially with their impatience toward hierarchy and their seemingly abnormal professional velocity. There seemed to be an urgency in this generation that hadn’t existed previously. I kept thinking know your placeuntil I began to wonder what is “your place”? I was reminded of how I hated being silenced in the room when I had good ideas simply for the fact that I was under 30. I wanted to work hard, true, but I also wanted to contribute and be respected even if I hadn’t yet gone gray. I’d spent time around smart and creative millennials, who had great ideas and worked hard, but believed one could take control of one’s success, that one’s identity was not inextricably bound to their title. I saw them leave and start their own ventures and at first, I was shocked (though mostly afraid), but that fear turned into envy because I thought: I could do this too. So I left a job that made me unhappy to venture out on my own.

At first, I thought, oh, I’ll probably consult for a few months and get a job. Fast forward three and half years later.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles that will instruct you on how to be successful as a freelancer. I’m not here to add to that noise, other than to say yes, it’s important to discern if this kind of work is right for you as opposed to being seduced by the glamour of working from home (it’s not glamorous, rather, it’s often isolating), getting experts like bookkeepers and lawyers are tantamount, and being smart about your offering and value proposition (i.e. what you do and why you do it better or differently than the freelancer down the block), know you have to have multiple projects going as a hedge and you have to always be pitching, closing, etc — these are all important and elucidated elsewhere in excruciating (and necessary) detail.

I turn 41 this weekend and it took me a really long time to be okay with not having a plan, of playing the days as they lay. That I’m not a failure because I didn’t cleave to what I had thought defined one’s personal and financial success and realized that definitions aren’t binary. That you can fail and fail better.

Sometimes I look at my peers or those who are younger than me and I think: they have it together. They bought a house, they live debt-free, and their life isn’t an artful navigation of student loan officers, creditors, and creative accounting. And for a moment I step into that comparison trap and before the claws snap I fall back. That’s their life, their definition of happiness, their path — not mine.

Would I love to be out of debt? Absolutely. Do I regret going to a fancy Ivy League school for a graduate degree when I could’ve saved money and gone somewhere equally good and local? Sure. But right now, right this moment,I have a business that makes me jump out of bed in the morning, I write the books I dream of writing, and I’m healthy (finally), sane, and the things I want will come…eventually. Right now, I focus less on a “plan” and more on living the best and most mindful life I can live. Right now, I focus on giving back and using my privilege to help others. Right now, I focus on living.

I read this quote today (I’m not a fan of Kerouac, but felt it appropriate):

And I will die, and you will die, and we all will die, and even the stars will fade out one after another in time.

You could look at it and think, that’s morbid, or you can view it as a call to live.

odds & ends

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“Can’t you just be like the rest of us, normal and sad and fucked up and alive and remorseful?” ― Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows

I haven’t loved a book so hard since Lauren Groff’s Fates & Furies. I never thought a relentlessly dark tale of a prodigy pianist, who so desperately wants to end her life, could be funny. It’s easier to write binary and it’s downright difficult to create balance, and Toews manages to achieve this on a level that is awe-inspiring. The novel centers around sisters, one of whom is a gifted, yet tortured, musician (think: the poet in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Percival in The Waves), and the other the prodigal fuck-up, and how their private, unbinding love is challenged by suicide. In one scene you’re reading about Elf and her latest attempt to take her own life by slashing her wrists and downing bleach, and then you’re somehow laughing at the dark comedy that is this large, disruptive family plagued by a history of depression. As a writer, I often read books on two levels–one for pure enjoyment, entertainment or education and another as a devoted student. I deconstruct structure; I diagram character and tone. I’ll ask, how does he/she achieve what I’m trying to do, and how could I learn from them? While I’m tethered to the darker side of things, I’m feeling the need, especially now, to imbue my work with needed light.

If you don’t mind a book that’s a little heavy (balanced by light), I can’t recommend Toews’s novel enough. Buy it. Now.

I love science fiction. My favorite show of all time is The Twilight Zone, and I think Rod Serling a genius for the stories he imagined and brought to the small screen–most of which were provocative in the late 1950s conservative culture. I loved Stranger Things for the imaginative plot, as well as a feeling of nostalgia for the 1980s, and after I visited Guillermo Del Toro’s very magical and horrifying LACMA exhibit, I found The Strain and I’m addicted. The story is less sci-fi than apocalyptical and biblical — the world we know plagued by a virus, which we soon learn to be a sophisticated strain of vampirism. This isn’t your staid fangs and capes, rather, Del Toro’s modern day monsters are painstakingly conceived from an evolutionary and biological perspective. And while the story is smart and forward (the catastrophic battle between humans and monsters), the characters grapple with real issues of love and loss.

It’s also occurred to me that I’ve become enamored by artists who straddle and redefine form. The Leftovers isn’t just a cable drama about a day when millions of people suddenly disappeared–it’s drama, sci-fi, poetry, all meditating on all the ways in which we define and experience loss. This is why I admire writers like Maggie Nelson, Kelly Link, Lydia Millet and others of their ilk who refused to be confined in a box. A few weeks ago, I shared my new novel’s jacket copy with someone whom I was potentially interested in hiring as a freelance publicist but was disappointed when this person wrote back, oh, this is genre fiction. Let me pause and I say that this argument isn’t about whether I like or don’t like genre fiction (I do, and think genre fiction is hard to pull off, thus warranting so much respect–I wish I had the commitment to pacing and patience that a brilliant mystery novel requires), it’s about having myopic vision. I set out to toy with form–I wanted to write a story rooted in literary fiction (my comfort zone) but have elements of psychological thriller and suspense. I look to Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder as a perfect example of collapsing form. If you read her book jacket, you would say, oh, this is just true crime. While there’s nothing wrong with true crime (Ann Rule’s memoir of her working with Ted Bundy is one of my all-time favorites), that reductionist thinking would’ve ignored what Nelson set out achieve. Her slim book is parts true crime, memoir, poetry, and a private letter between her and her aunt, who died in the hands of a serial killer.

I get that we want to give everything an elevator, fit everything into a neat and tidy box because it’s quick, efficient and easy. However, I admire artists who break tradition, who say, this book, show, or song need not be only this. It could be this and that.

A brief aside: have you noticed that shows have literally gone dark? I already wear glasses. Please don’t make me reach for the flashlight.

In the vein of nodding to people who inspire you, I loved this take on success being defined as how you elevate others. Years ago, I read The Art of War, and now I find it a pile of shit. I’m not interested in Darwinian workplace warfare, rather, I know I win by how I treat others and how I help them rock out in whatever they’re doing. Another way in which you can view success is by how you redefine size. We naturally think that bigger and more is better, a sign of achievement. I have X amount of followers, thus I’m an “influencer”. My home is Y square footage, so that means I’ve “made it”. I don’t subscribe to a McMansion view of life, rather, I’m in step with Mike Birbiglia’s call to play small.

And if you’re not reading Bianca Bass’s wonderful blog, you’re not living your best life. She writes about success and creative work from the millennial perspective–namely, you don’t have to hustle 24/7, rest is a virtue, and her musings call for more meaningful connection beyond fan counts. I’ve grown really tired of being sold to ALL. THE. TIME., so it’s a respite to discover someone’s blog and their writing and not feel trapped by an affiliate link. There are people who still tell stories just to tell them.

Finally, one of the things I’ve learned this year is the need to nurture relationships and be patient. I admired this mother’s lament on how the challenges in her life prevent her from being the kind of friend she knows she can be. I’ve been there (with an unhealthy relationship to my work replacing children), and if there’s anything that I’ve learned over the past year, it’s this: Be kind. Be patient. Be thoughtful. Lean on your friends and help when you can.

 

you are what you go after

launching a new company

Three years ago I wrote a story about a job that was slowly killing me. There were weeks during the summer when I’d rarely see daylight and I’d fork food into my mouth I couldn’t remember having eaten. Did I eat lunch ?— I can’t remember, but I must have eaten because my garbage was overflowing with take-out cartons and Seamless Web plastic bags. I’d scroll through pictures of myself taken with my phone and I had to turn away because all of them looked like proof of life photos. I was walking through my sleeping life and I became a version of myself that to this day I still apologize for. My generation was reared to believe that if you worked hard, paid your dues, climbed slowly up an invisible ladder, you’d be handsomely rewarded with a matching 401K, and you’d no longer fear the first of the month when rent was due. You didn’t quit; you kept moving even when you knew that as a woman your work would be harder. You kept working because you hadn’t yet come to the realization that the things you own end up owning you. But that comes later, much later, when you’re so tired you stop rubbing the sleep out of your eyes. You kept waking up in the middle of the night to scan your emails because no one ever slept. Sleep was for amateurs, people who weren’t thirsty. People who didn’t want to make partner.

I worked for a man who peddled his snake oil wrapped in Powerpoint presentations. He was the sort who believed that if you said all the right multisyllabic words, people would hand over their checkbook with a dazed look that resembled idolatry. A man so consumed by his greed that it ended up being his ruin. I’m reminded of what someone told me once — you are what you go after.

When I was made a partner of this company, all of the women stood and applauded and I was happy. It occurs to me now that I should’ve been angry over the fact that all of these brilliant ambitious women reported to a company run by men, men who reported to a holding company and a board filled with white men. And I was the lone woman who stood amongst the gleaming white.

When I was a freshman in college, I switched majors from psychology to finance. There were a lot of reasons for the move but none of them really matter now save for the fact that I grew up poor in Brooklyn and I watchedWall Street one too many times. I was eighteen and I believed that money corrected everything. Money gave you comfort. Money was your shelter. So I took all the required classes, interned at Merrill Lynch and other fancy banks at $15-$20/hour. I remember attending a party a few days before graduation where the man who would be valedictorian, a man who was a fixture in my study group, told me that competing with me made him work harder. He was drunk and so was I, and I couldn’t help but think he was congratulating me on my loss. It didn’t occur to me until years later that I would allow snake oil salesmen to use me to get ahead.

Two years out of college and sick of wearing skirt suits (this was 1999), I started a side business where I re-sold clothing and accessories I purchased from sample sales and outlet stores on eBay. This was a time of dial-up internet service and AOL buddy lists. Few business set up shop online, and women across the country were excited about this eBay business and how it allowed them trespass to the false feeling that you’re important, that you mean something, simply because you have a pair of $300 sandals strapped to your feet. I was 23 and filing LLC paperwork and doing my own accounting at night because I was tired of being told by recruiters, who scanned my paper resume printed on bond paper, that I could only get a job in banking because I’d only worked in banking.

I don’t like being told no.

This side business got big, big for me, and it attracted the attention of the wife of a man who would eventually be my boss, a man who worked for a $10 million dollar venture-back dot.com that aimed to sell Italian designer accessories over the internet. I resigned from my job, trashed my suits, and worked full-time at this company while I attended Columbia University’s MFA program in between work hours. Never did I conceive that owning my own business was something that one did, much less one that was built using the internet. We were taught to crave the creature comforts of big companies. Big companies meant stability.

That sound you hear? It’s the sound of one hand clapping.

There are many things in the span of a two-decade career for which I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the time I spent working for a man who gave me a much needed attitude adjustment and taught me most of what I know about marketing. He also taught me, by example, how to be kind and compassionate to the people who work for you. I’m grateful for another man, years later, who was my sponsor and champion when the snake oil salesman was content on wreaking havoc on my self-esteem if it meant keeping me in line while he continued to add zeros to his paycheck. If it meant cleaning up his mess after he’d lie to client after client, and set expectations he knew we couldn’t achieve. No matter. As long as the contracts were signed and the cash flowed in. No matter when people caught on to his game, and he hid in his office while I had to fire people who had mortgages and families. It’s a business decision. I’d choke out these words and cry in the bathroom later. Anyone who tells you firing someone gets easier the more you do it isn’t human. But I was deemed “emotional” because I cared about the wellbeing of people. Even if many of them will never know it.

For the three years after I resigned from this job, I thought I would be happier flying solo. No office to go into, no lives to turnover, and fewer hearts to break. I even left New York, my home of 39 years because I grew tired of the velocity, of watching my home devolve into a whitewashed H&M, of no longer wanting the things I thought were important. So I moved to Los Angeles, and for the first time in my life I had unmitigated quiet. So much so that I nearly drowned in it, and I spent the greater part of this year in a very dark and severe depression. A darkness I believed I couldn’t come back from until I did. And that’s another thing I’m grateful for — people online and off who bring you shelter when you least expect it. A kind of shelter that makes money laughable in contrast. A kind of compassion that makes you only want to work harder, be a better person.

I spent the bulk of my career hiding my gender and swallowing my voice. My decks couldn’t be too pretty lest they be deemed feminine. Perhaps we’ve conveniently forgotten study after study that tells us that having diversity and inclusion on boards and in companies is the very definition of a company’s success. I couldn’t be vulnerable when that could be construed as a sign of weakness when countless studies prove otherwise. That vulnerability means you’re human and people will admire you for that. Your humanity.

This month I returned to 1999, albeit changed and demonstrably older. (Hopefully wiser). I filed paperwork for an LLC; I opened a business banking account and created the credentials I wanted to read. I contracted nearly a dozen women who wanted to collaborate on projects that challenged and excited them. I sent emails, scheduled meetings and made plans. However, there was a moment — a full day of them — when I wondered if I would fail. If there weren’t a place for people who wanted to speak English, not jargon, for people who demanded mutual respect from their partners and people who understood that our best work could be achieved if weren’t tethered to our desks and chained to our chairs. I thought back to a younger version of myself who didn’t question failure because this change, regardless of the outcome, was what I needed to move forward.

So here I am, 40, moving toward what’s next. And I couldn’t be more excited. If you’re interested, here’s what I’m up to. I hope you’ll fist-pump me along. Drop me a follow on Instagram or Twitter if you’re feeling my vibe.


For those who are curious, I plan on taking this space in a markedly different direction. I’m keeping a great deal of my personal life offline, so this space will be filled with books, food, the ins & outs of running my own small business, travel and the like. I hope you’ll stick around. -f

life lately

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You could say that the photograph above is an accurate representation of my life lately: frenetic, productive, and often chaotic. When I came home from a work trip a week ago, I felt out of sorts because the home I’d known for the whole of my life suddenly felt like a stranger. Everything in New York had become too loud, too fast, and the glare of cars streaking down Park and the sun rising up from behind tall buildings was entirely too blinding. I made a deliberate choice not to travel this year because, by definition, Los Angeles is new and I’m its tourist and there’s much to see. I promised myself I’d commit to this place, get to know it, and, more importantly, try to make a home and life for myself in a place thousands of miles away from the world, family, and friends I’d built in my prior life. So to say that my quick trip to New York was jarring would be an understatement, and when I boarded my flight back to L.A., I felt relieved in the same way I used to feel about flying into JFK.

I’ll be honest, it’s been hard to come to this space. Even now, even as I type this, I keep looking around my apartment for things to distract me because I don’t know how to explain exactly how I feel. Maybe the word pulled seems appropriate? Pulled away, pulled toward, pulled from? I’m working 70+ hour weeks to save enough money so I won’t be in the position I found myself for the past five months. I’m working to pay down the sizeable debt I’d accumulated during that time, and I’m logging these hours to save enough money to break my lease, move out of my apartment into a little house with a yard so Felix could play. Last week a friend comes over and we’re taking photographs for a client and my friend wonders aloud if I still have my designer shoes and handbags, and she stops herself and asks whether I’ve sold them all. I nod. I have, with no regrets. This week she brings over expensive leather that we don’t end up photographing. Instead, we play with avocados, eggs and rose petals. Instead, we do the thing we never did in New York–stop and see everything. Can I tell you that the best part of my day yesterday was when my friend kept pointing out places in Santa Monica that could serve as a backdrop for our client’s product? Can I tell you that the constant pause gave me joy? Because when you live in a city for a while, you tend to take it for granted. You tend to see less because you’ve already seen it, shapes and colors have already been committed to memory. You find that process to be efficient: see once, log, move on. Rarely do we return to that which we know to see it anew, to rediscover it, to take it less for granted.

Years ago, my yoga teacher told me that the mark of an advanced practitioner was not someone who could kick up into a handstand, rather it was someone who could return to a basics class and re-learn downward facing dog as if it was the first time she encountered the pose.

I haven’t read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in over a decade–it sat on my bookshelf collecting dust. I remembered the story only vaguely, on in parts, and when I read it for the first time I didn’t love it as much as I do now.

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I’ve been reading a slew of good, fast books (see above) that were endearing and honest. From a journalist with two decades of experience at Newsweek who’s forced to reinvent his career and work at a cultish start-up to a cookbook author who discovers her husband is having an affair while she’s seven months pregnant to a blogger turned essayist who’s just trying to get through her days without screaming–I felt acutely connected to each narrator in markedly different ways. When I finally came to re-read Murakami’s book, it felt like a clarion call. The dreamlike novel invites you to question your surroundings, it commands you to not get accustomed to the light and it compels you to ferret out the extraordinary from the ordinary.

“But finally, Mr. Wind Up Bird, isn’t that what life is? Aren’t we all trapped in the dark somewhere, and they’ve taken away our food and our water, and we’re slowly dying, little by little.” I laughed. “You’re too young to be so…pessimistic.” I said using the English word. “Pessimistic, pessimistic.” She repeated the English word to herself over and over, and then she looked up at me with a fierce glare. “I’m only sixteen,” she said, “and I don’t know much about the world, but I do know one thing for sure. If I’m pessimistic, then the adults in this world who are not pessimistic are a bunch of idiots.”

When I first read Wind-Up, I liked it but didn’t love it, and it took me a decade to understand the story’s quiet nobility. Much like my life right now the story is fantastic and dull, magical and ordinary. Much like the story’s main character, I’m trying to wade through the confusion and noise to get to the other side.


What I’ve been reading:
What if your mind’s eye was blind?
Amanda Peet on not crossing the Botox line.
What’s really wrong with the “do what you love” narrative.
The new mantra for Indian gurus is social media.
Why not post your failures for the world to see?
Today’s coffee shops are not far off from fraternization 350 years ago.
The uncanny value. Get depressed.

finally!

fucking finally

You better believe I’ve posted a picture of a pineapple perched on top of an ocean rock. It’s been that kind of week.

The past six months have been nothing short of horrible, and I finally feel as if I’m climbing out from under the rubble. When I moved to Los Angeles, I had no idea that I’d have to confront all of my losses, which had been slowly mounting. I hadn’t realized that I was approaching the middle of my life and I needed a change, a new course of direction. Instead, I spent the past year myopic, driven toward a single goal: leave New York, and it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d arrive here and have to sit with my losses spread out in front me, alone, confused, in complete quiet. It’s kind of like sitting naked in a room surrounded by mirrors and you’re forced to confront your most raw, unattractive, and frightened self. And you look at the person rising up in front you and the one behind and beside you, and for the first time you look around and haven’t a clue as to what to do.

And then depression. And then the realization that some friendships can’t survive geography. And then the fear that I will always, in some way, define myself in the context of my mother.

Last week a friend warned me about what I choose to share online. He came from a kind and concerned place and said that some hands are worth holding close simply for the reason that people don’t know how to handle discomfort. They don’t want the burden of one’s sadness. And I considered what my friend said and told him that while it appears that I share a great deal online, I don’t. I’m surgical about what I share and do so because if words have the propensity to make someone feel less alone, then I’ll keep writing them until all the pens run out. I don’t care if people don’t like me or what I say, rather I care more about people who’ve been forced to suffer privately or feel the stigma that accompanies addiction or mental illness. Over the past six months, I’ve been a voyeur in other people’s lives–reading blog posts documenting their constant struggle or scrolling through their photos as they try to survive their day without screaming into pillows. I drew comfort from this because it reminded me that there are others. And while this is captain obvious, you’d be surprised how swiftly and often we forget. How we believe that our pain is an anomaly, that our suffering is singular and acute.

One night last month I wrote a post that I subsequently deleted–one where I shared that I no longer feared death, and wouldn’t it be easier if I took my own life? I then went to bed, oblivious to the panic I’d created amongst my closest friends, and I woke the next morning to a slew of messages. My oldest friend called me from work and I could hear the pain in her voice and the difficulty she had in assembling her words. Listening to her, I tried to arrange my face in the shape of fine but the shape wouldn’t take and my voice shook, and I promised to return to therapy because I loved her and it killed me that I was hurting her. When I hung up I wanted the love I had for her to eventually become a love I would reserve for myself.

Whenever you think life doesn’t get better, it does. Eventually. I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

Last night I spent an evening with old and new friends and I was comforted by how freely we spoke about politics, mental illness, familial anguish and discord, and addiction. There was no shame, only laughter between people who had gone through war and sometimes knew they’d have to dress their wounds. We are the bandages that we wrap around our hurt selves. We are our urgent care.

Then I thought about my friend who told me to play my cards close and now I shake my head. No. Fuck no. If someone reads what I write here and judges me for being human, for trying to take my life back and live it–that’s not someone whom I want to know. I’m finally, slowly (snail’s pace, people) getting back on track. I’m in the contract phase for a new project, with a list of good leads coming in. I’m hosting my first dinner party next week for old and new friends in Los Angeles. I’m volunteering at Kitty Bungalow, helping feral kittens get adopted. I’m reading and writing. I’m more present for my new friends, and I’m doing everything I can to help those who are struggling since I’ve been humbled by those (strangers and close friends) who’ve extended me their heart, compassion, and care.

And when have I ever played a straight hand? I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I feel good. I have hope.

If your words have the capacity to shake someone, to comfort someone, use them. Keep writing, keep talking, keep texting, keep caring because we all walk quietly through this world bearing varying degrees of struggle. Why not be empathetic? Why not pause and care and not immediately judge or dismiss? Why not say: What can I do? How can I help?

Because I’ve been there. Or simply, because I care.

 

I must write: when a woman finally finds her vision

Illustration Credit: Summer Pierre
Illustration Credit: Summer Pierre

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world. –Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

When I was small I used to watch my mother knit; her thin fingers mastered the tango between two needles as they warred to create a scarf, shawl or blanket. For years I took up mimicry like a kind of cross-stitch, but I failed because the complexity of patterns and needlework subsumed me; the chink of cool metal forever eluded me. Here I was, a child composing haikus likening my mother’s voice to thunder, yet I couldn’t thread a needle. My thread always grazed the eye but never dared plunge through it. And I worried about this. A lot. If I couldn’t conjoin cheap yarn how could I possibly tell stories? How could I step into a world and inhabit it so completely? Words belong to one another, and a writer’s job is to sit amongst spools of thread and weave. Their work lies in creating tapestry, silent symphonies.

I think about the movie, Heat, specifically the “face-to-face” scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

These are two men who are what they go after. Two men who don’t know any other work than the work in which they do; their life is their work, no going back. And although the work is risky–it’s like risk versus reward, baby–the action is the juice. The work, the life, is the reward. Even in moments that feel like plague, when the ground gives way and the fall seems infinite, bottomless, we press on. We carry the weight of the dark on our backs in the journey into the light because all of it, the depth of it, the darkness of it, is worth the stretch.

We try to see in the dark; we toss up our questions and they catch in the trees. —Anne Dillard

A WRITER? Why do you want to be a writer? Writers don’t make any money, said a woman to me once. I remember the way she said writer, as if it were tinged, sullied, a word not worthy of the letters that comprise it. Maybe she thought herself as someone who could wash the stink off me, scrape away at the plaque that had begun to harvest its way into my heart. Because finance will make you clean again. This woman was a managing director at Morgan Stanley and I sat in her office discussing my resignation. I’d just been awarded admission to a fancy writing program and I was jubilant. My work until then had become a blanket intent on smothering me, and all I wanted to do was fucking breathe. For a time I relegated writing to a hobby state while I managed the serious work, my vocation, off to the side. Because I was an adult now. I had student loans now. I had an apartment now. I had a bone-crushing subway commute now. I had my mid-day Starbucks run now. I had happy hour now where everyone was on the road to ruin, night drinking until they saw black, now. I had to wake up now. I had to Monday moan now. I had to do this all over again now. I had to measure my own grave now.

The days had become repeats of themselves with minor variations.

I go through this a lot–trying to deny writing as something serious and true in favor of the work over there. And I always, invariably, come up short. I always end up working myself into a place of despair because while I’m good at what I do–marketing, projections, budgets, brand positioning and planning–it’s not the only thing I’m meant to do.

What I’m meant to do is write. Plain and simple. Although, in reality, not so plain and definitely not so simple, but give me a minute with this.

Illustration Credit: Elle Luna
Illustration Credit: Elle Luna

Over the weekend I read a book in one sitting, an exposition off of a widely-read essay, “The Crossroads of Should and Must”. I remember reading the essay with a considerable amount of interest and passing it along to my friends. I remember being inspired by Elle Luna’s words but untouched. Perhaps I wasn’t primed for confrontation because I was still sorting out the nuances of this freelance life, but now, right now, I’m ready to drive my car off the road.

I’m good at compartmentalizing things, brilliant even. When I resigned from my last job I talked a lot about having room for all my children to play in the proverbial sandbox, that none of them would be considered changelings. That I could practice my writing in one space, my affection for food in another, and finally, the marketing–the bill-paying stuff–in another silo, far over there. Never once did I consider how I could merge the three. How I could seamlessly move from one state of play to another and even imbue my life with play! IMAGINE THAT! Never did I think that three simple children could morph into one complex child.

Never did I realize that I’m now in the midst of my own needlework.

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about my life. That might sound dramatic and it probably is, but when you’re inching your way toward 40 and you’re still in student loan and credit card debt maybe it’s a good idea to take a step back and take stock. I did the 8,760 hour mind map. I read a slew of books. I got angry all over again about shit blogger books getting published while I’m told my strange, beautiful writing will never find a large home (fuck this and the horse you rode in on). I thought about my move to California and the role a foreign place would have in the grand scheme of things (more alone time, more space and less distractions). And after all this noise and mess and thinking (all that yarn!) I asked myself a really simple question:

What brings me joy?

I started to look at everything I did over the course of the day and I realized that my joy lies in writing. Whether I’m working on a brand voice guide or a blog post or a short story, the art of weaving words together challenges and excites me. The art of reading and constantly absorbing information so that I can keep the knife sharp as it were, feels like home.

Writing is home to me.

It’s taken me 39 years of denial to admit that I have to put writing front and center. I have to design a career, a life, around my ability to take up wordsmithing like cross stitch. And I’ve finally landed on an idea that I’ve been sharing with friends over the past few weeks–a consultancy focused on storytelling.

Now, this isn’t about creating content or some other bullshit reductive term that looks fancy on LinkedIN or gets you penning articles for trade publications–as you know I don’t care about exposure or popularity. By default, I’m unpopular and far from mass market. What I’m talking about is the ability to hire me (and down the road, others) to help you create a world or tell stories. From product naming to brand architecture to helping you write your book, I want to be able to practice what I love, what I must do, EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Will I fail? Probably. Will I get to connect with talented artists? Absolutely. Will I get better at what I do? You better believe it. Will it take the sting and weight off of having difficulty publishing my own experimental fiction? For the love of god, yes. Will I freak out? Probably once a day, on a good day.

But it’s like risk versus reward, baby.

Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigues, I have had my vision. ― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I’ll unveil the official name + all the fireworks in the coming weeks, but for now know that I’ve set down my brush, as Lily Briscoe once did.

Know that I’ve found my vision.