When I finish grading final papers next week for the MFA program I teach in, it will mark the beginning of a three-month period during which I’ll work exclusively on my own book, due 3/15/21. It’s a rare opportunity for me, which comes as the result of luck, privilege, hard work, and patience.
After much internal debate, I’ve realized my mind has been too filled with other people’s stories for me to be able to focus on my own. So I’ve paused everything: I’m taking next semester off from the MFA program; I won’t be teaching or editing for Catapult until spring; the series I was editing for The Guardian has wound down, at least for now; I won’t seek/will try to turn down any additional editing or writing assignments until April.
I’ve waited a long, long time for this. I’m both excited and terrified. Of course I’m afraid of failure, but I’m also anxious about being forgotten and losing my place. It’s been difficult for me to tell writers pitching me essays that I’m not able to make use of them, at least for now. Will they still want to work with me in the spring?
I’ve been a freelancer since 1996, and have spent the past 24 years fighting an uphill battle to get to the place where I am as a writer/editor/teacher, which is honestly just an okay place. So many of my peers are a hell of a lot more successful than I am.
Someone recently referred to me as “established” and “influential,” and I don’t think they have any idea what a struggle it’s been for me to arrive at anything vaguely resembling those adjectives in my mid-50s. The truth is that it’s been two-and-a-half decades of exhaustedly vying for gigs. At the beginning I was too young and too much of an outsider to be taken seriously. Now I worry those who might hire me think I’m too old—that I’ve had my chance, and it’s time to put me out to pasture. It feels as if there hasn’t been much of a middle to this story.
Anyway, I’m exhausted, I’m burned out, my head is swimming with the stories of everyone I’ve edited over the past several years. Writing my own book requires me to take a step back, at least briefly.
This is something I’ve wanted to do my entire career, and it also feels necessary for my career. It’s time for me to put myself out there in this way, so that I can be taken more seriously as a writer/editor/teacher. So, I’m doing this.
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Another thing I’m worried about: being lonely. I know—tolerating loneliness is a necessary part of being a writer. But the pandemic has already been so hard for me in this regard. And now we’re entering winter—a season I’ve always suffered through—and not just winter but Covid winter, when sharing meals with friends safely outdoors is largely impossible, and other social opportunities are even more scarce.
I’m fortunate to be partnered, to be sheltering in place with my favorite person. But I’m equal parts introvert and extrovert, and the social butterfly part of me is really struggling right now.
To help myself lean into this period of isolation, early this morning I began reading Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, by Katherine May. I like the idea of approaching this time as if it’s something necessary and curative. Honestly, I know that I need it, not only to be able to write my book, but as a way of healing from burnout and grief and loss of various kinds.
In an early passage, May writes:
…approaching a personal winter, I’m certain that the cold has healing powers that I don’t yet come close to understanding. After all, you apply ice to a joint after an awkward fall. Why not do the same to a life?
I also realize I’m writing a book about becoming, something I am still (and always will be) in the process of. And at the risk of pushing a metaphor too hard, it’s probably not a bad idea for me to sequester myself in a chrysalis of sorts until spring.
I found it soothing to read the first couple of chapters of Wintering at 6am, when I couldn’t sleep. I hope it will help me surrender, retreat, and chill. I’ve never been good at chilling. I somehow turn it into work. I’ve ruined just about every massage I’ve ever gotten by commanding myself to get busy enjoying it. My internal monologue as I lie on the table:
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The only place left for me to interact with people this winter is on social media, and so, no I will not be giving it up (nor this newsletter!) during my retreat—although I will try to engage with it a bit less.
Earlier this week I succumbed to my vague, intermittent curiosity about The Social Dilemma and just watched the damn thing. It was good in ways, but also bad. The documentary parts about the dangers of unregulated social media were pretty well presented, but they were interwoven with a cheesy after-school-special-quality dramatized story about a teen who gets radicalized by misinformation on Facebook. The “villain” in that story was Vincent Kartheiser in triplicate, a weird anthropomorphized representation of the FB algorithm as it preys on the teen’s weaknesses in order to up his engagement.
Mostly I didn’t learn anything more from The Social Dilema than I already knew. You guessed it: there are aspects of social media that are horrible—like the way platforms amplify and spread misinformation, allow foreign interference in elections, compromise our privacy for profit, further polarize people at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and rewire our brains so we are increasingly hooked. One tech dude interviewed suggested social media would spark a second American civil war, and at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.
All that said, I’m not ditching social media. I’m not someone who is vulnerable to becoming radicalized. I’m media savvy, and I can almost always tell when news is fake. And, above all, there are still more pros than cons for me in staying connected, especially as we endure this next cold stretch of isolation.
For me, social media has been a lifeline since just a couple years after I left New York City for the mid-Hudson Valley. I joined Facebook (my least favorite of the platforms) in 2007, Twitter in 2008, and Instagram as soon as it was introduced, and they’ve helped me deal with feeling removed from the city, which is also the center of my professional field. Social media has help me stay connected, get jobs, refer other people for jobs. It has helped me make friends, even though I’ve only met some of them online, and it’s kept me entertained.
There’s a lot of shaming going on these days with regard to being “extremely online,” often by people who are…extremely online. It’s some weird flex, like, You can’t call me thirsty for attention because I called myself that first. Lol. But screw that. Social media has advantages for me, so I’m sticking with it…if a little bit less.
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So, I’ll see you there, on the twitters and Insta, a little on Facebook, and also on here. And in the spring I’ll be back, promoting the reissue of Goodbye to All That, and looking for work. Please remember me then, if you’re someone who is in a position to hire me!
I’ve got some new series and anthology ideas in the works, too. Alright, maybe I’ll emerge from this period okay… Wish me luck!