“Carpet is Mungers” is an influential (influential on me, certainly) essay by Meghan Daum from her 2001 essay collection My Misspent Youth. It would probably take you less time to read it than for me to sum it up, and you should read it, if you haven’t. I think about it a lot. I believe it’s one of the essays in that book that leads people to leave aggrieved Amazon reviews that call the author selfish and shallow and “very, very young.” Basically, you are either someone who gets it or you don’t. If you don’t, god bless, enjoy your carpeted existence. If you get it, “Carpet is Mungers” explains everything. It’s about how seemingly meaningless aesthetic details, like wall to wall carpeting in a rented apartment, can make Daum feel “‘other’ to her own self,” fundamentally divorced from something crucial about her identity.
I’m not saying there’s something good about being, like me or like Daum, a Carpet is Mungers person. It’s inconvenient and hard to explain, and there is something sad — simultaneously snobby and overreaching –about it; as Daum so ably explains, it’s much less about being “classy” than about being highly attuned to details that connote a fantasy of a specific kind of classiness. But the cool thing about this essay is that it’s not a judgment, it’s a diagnosis, and this is a condition that I have. And I was strongly conscious of having it today in the changing room at the Mashpee Commons Gap as I tried on four on-sale items from the maternity section.
The problem was not the Gap, really, or being in the suburbs; Gaps are the same here as they are in NYC (except much less crowded and sloppy). I’m not too cool for the Gap and even though the Gap is probably Mungers by a strict Daumian definition I don’t feel un-myself there. The Gap reminds me of a whole set of positive associations; Bennett worked at the Gap in high school and college and I often visited him there; I even sort of associate the Gap Smell (whatever it is, their particular sizing chemicals) with him, and Bennett is one of my oldest most familiar friends, basically the anti-Mungers.
No, the problem was me. As I prepared to try on jeans that are just like my ordinary Gap Leggings Jeans, but with two little elastic panels at the waist that will make it possible for me to wear them buttoned, which is no longer possible with my ordinary pair, I got a look at myself in the dressing room mirror and just felt like, whoa, who the fuck is that?
I was wearing the North Face jacket I bought last year on the eve of the blizzard, which is mega dorky. Unlike all the brightly colored, stylish, thrift store “vintage” outerwear I’ve worn over the years, it actually keeps my torso and limbs warm when it’s cold out, but there is nothing else to recommend it. Until this winter, though, I hadn’t regretted it. I’d even joked about it, that it was my “mom coat,” a joke that seemed funnier last winter, when the idea of actually being a prot0-mom in this coat seemed like science fiction. On the bright side, in a few more weeks I will be too fat to wear it! But today, in the mirror, it contributed mightily to the impression that I was a thirtysomething white woman with glasses and a slightly unwashed ponytail who was wearing leggings out of the house, leggings tucked into sheepskin boots that, while they are heeled and not the “classic” model, might be recognizable to the trained eye as Uggs. How did this happen to me? I thought. Slowly, I guess, and then all at once.
I tried on the jeans, feeling bulky and unwieldy, trying to avoid eye contact with my mottled pink legs in the mirror. They fit and so I got cocky and tried on the other things, which included another pair of jeans that are for much pregnant-er women, the kind that have a huge beige panel of elastic instead of a waistband and are really only “jeans” because the manufacturer can’t call them something more accurate, such as “denim-colored sack for your flesh.” I tore them off so fast I almost broke them. Then I put on my own familiar leggings and tried on the tops, which I had only bothered with because they were $11. They were both the kind of garment that I like to wear while not pregnant: plaid and somewhat voluminous. The recent redistribution of my torso meat has rendered this genre of shirt off-limits to me, I now realize. Something about the breadth of my shoulders and the new farm-animal-ish quality of my chest renders these smocky things unflattering to the point of disturbing on me, like I am trying to camoflage myself as a plaid item of furniture, perhaps so I can spy on something taking place in a Man Cave.
I understood suddenly why new moms sometimes dye their hair pink or get new tattoos. In the moment of standing there in the changing room with that heinous smock on, I wanted to get a new tattoo on my face. IMMEDIATELY.
I mean, it’s okay. It’s no big deal. I know that as alien and gross and distant from myself as I feel right now, and even given how dramatically these feelings are bound to increase, I will get through this strange time and come back to feeling like “myself” eventually, if probably a bit stretched-out. I will also likely find clothes to wear for the next six months that don’t make me feel like Kim Kardashian at the 2013 Met Gala. But in that moment I thought again, as I have often thought lately, of all the women throughout history and right now who’ve felt these awful ways but with the crucial difference of not wanting to be pregnant, and who have been forced to stay trapped in rebellious, alien bodies by laws made by men who think they understand everything that’s at stake.
Those women’s plight is a state far beyond Mungers; it certainly puts the ordinary Mungers-ness of pregnancy in perspective. Still and all, though. The mindfuck aspect of these changes is supra-puberty-level and not for the faint of heart. It’s lucky for men that they can’t do this; they would not be able to handle it for one second.
On October 4th I had a karaoke “bachelorette party.” We ate sushi and drank mezcal like it was water and I bought a pack of cigarettes that I didn’t remember buying the next day. On the 6th I went with my friend Tom to see the Bangles in front-row seats at City Winery, where we drank prosecco and red wine and I ate a cheese and meat plate pretty much by myself.* The Bangles were even more amazing than I assumed they would be; they are a living advertisement for doing what you love and probably also for living the good life in California. They played Hero Takes a Fall, their cover of September Gurls, and, as an encore, Walk Like An Egyptian, which was one of those “I didn’t even realize this was on my bucket list!” moments, even though I was disappointed to learn that they don’t whistle. They go “doot doot doot doot.” I smoked the last of the cigarettes that I’d bought on Saturday on the walk home from the C train. The next morning my period was a full week late, so I took a pregnancy test and waited two minutes for the result. It showed up just as Keith was walking out the door to go to work. I thought of asking him to wait but then thought probably I should take a few more tests before involving him in my worries. The x had been faint, and the test had been in my drawer for forever.
When something’s too intense and mindfucking to approach head-on I usually find some pressing way to distract myself, and lucky for me that day I had a coffee date with a UK editor and a drinks date with a friend from the Internet, neither of whom I’d met before, plus assorted work and wedding-related errands all over the city. But as I went about my day I managed to buy and take two more pregnancy tests. The first was in a Starbucks bathroom and someone was banging on the door even before I’d finished peeing, so I put it in my purse before it registered a result, and when I took it out later to read it it said “ERROR” (I’d shelled out for the fancy digital kind). The second was in a tiny nail salon bathroom and, mindful of the previous ERROR, I kept it level on the back of the toilet sat with it, mindlessly noodling with my phone until it was ready to read. This one said “3-4 WEEKS PREGNANT.” I left the nail salon and walked out onto 25th Street, pregnant. In 15 minutes I was supposed to meet Keith at Macy’s to look at some wedding rings that were on sale and convince him that despite the sale we really did not want Macy’s wedding rings, so I walked up 7th Avenue, in the rush hour crush of that awful stretch, in the last of the day’s sunlight, thinking — as far as I can remember — zero thoughts but a long, slow, perpetual refrain of “Whaaaaat theeeee fuuuuuuuuuuck?”
It’s hard to explain how thrilled and horrified and also just numb and weird I felt that day. On the one hand, I have been thinking in abstract terms about having a baby for forever. I am weirdly well-versed in the literature of birth, inspired half by feminism and half by a taste for sensationalistic body horror. I also have long revered the work of Ayun Halliday, whose East Village Inky zine has always made having kids as an artist on a budget seem more ‘madcap adventure’ than ‘depression-stoking death trap.’ But in my late 20s, when my work was going especially badly/nonexistently and I was spending most of my days in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood surrounded by fancy, very carefree-seeming moms and babies, I thought about having a baby all the time in a really gross, jealous way. I developed a dismissive attitude, rooted in and coupled with envy, about a kind of idealized domesticity that in my dumb brain was totally disassociated from the hard terrifying realities of childbirth and parenthood. I thought of having children the way my Friendship character Amy does — as a prize you’re awarded when you’ve attained other totems of adulthood and stability. I thought that’s what babies were to other people, anyway. To the extent that I, at 28, thought that I wanted to have a baby, what I really wanted was to be one of those people: rich, stable, settled-down, stylish people who ate in the Oysters/Kale Salad/Skirt Steak/Deconstructed Classic Dessert restaurants in our neighborhood whenever they felt like it, with their perfect 6 month olds snoozing in a $900 stroller alongside their table.
In the intervening years, I stopped living in an imagined fantasy future and got busier inhabiting the life I was actually living, and I gradually became better at various aspects of living that real life. Also, my friends began to have babies, and I experienced their joy and worry firsthand. It was nothing like what I’d imagined. I realized that no one, not even the shallowest person imaginable, would go through what parents go through in order to follow the rules or produce a badge of bourgie success. I watched my friends fall in love with their kids. I loved their kids. I got better at letting myself love other people and accept their love (gross, sappy, but undoubtedly true — this, for me, was the “prize” at the end of the obstacle course that I encountered in my late 20s and early 30s.)
On the other hand, WHAT THE FUCK. Ok, sure, I wasn’t young, and I wasn’t (completely) broke, and I was about to get married to my favorite possible human- on paper, the circumstances seemed, while not 100% ideal, vastly more ideal than they’d ever been at any point during my previous 17 years of potential-pregnancy. But still, was I grown-up enough to be in charge of having a baby, who would go on to become a child, who would be my child FOREVER? I love being alone. (LOVE IT.) I want to write more books. I want to make Emily Books a bigger, more profitable, enduring business. And I still haven’t figured out how to write books and make enough money to live in the city that has non-negotiably become the only home I can imagine, as readers of literally anything I’ve ever written already know. Why would I throw into my own path the biggest possible obstacle to achieving any of those goals? Why would I just let my body make that decision for me, when it was clearly such a terrifying and bad one?
I spotted Keith across the street, standing outside Macy’s, and had that nice moment of recognizing someone you love among all of the random people in the crowd, and seeing them before they see you. We went inside the store and looked at the rings, which looked like wedding rings, but couldn’t get anyone to help us try them on or whatever so I convinced Keith that we should go to Catbird, where we later found perfect (comparably inexpensive) rings. On the sidewalk outside Macy’s, he asked me how my day’d been and I told him, I don’t remember how, that I was pregnant. I also don’t remember what he said, though I think he said “Really?” a few times because he genuinely thought that I was fucking with him. But once he realized that I wasn’t kidding I just remember his face, like, I had never in my life made anyone so happy before. We probably kissed. The sidewalk was still crowded. I was like “Ok, come on,” and we started walking towards the subway. He tried to get me to let him carry my purse, which was not heavy. We wound through the maze of tunnels and waited on the packed platform and got on the subway with everyone else, all the other people who were doing totally ordinary, totally extraordinary things that day and every moment of all of our lives.
*a very nice nurse midwife who has had this conversation a lot later had to reassure me that at that point the “baby” is as big as the period at the end of this sentence and can basically go one of two ways — implant in the cushy wall of your uterus or nah –and so alcohol etc. can’t damage it. Phew!
I spent an hour and a half on the phone yesterday with a very nice and sort of understanding call center employee doing a settlement on one of three credit cards, none of which I have spent any money on for well over a year and none of which I’ve made any payments on for several months. Did you know that you can stop using and also more crucially stop paying all your credit cards, then call them up at some later date (but not too much later because they’ll start suing you) and offer them some % of the money you owe them, then bargain and haggle until they accept that that’s all the money they’re ever going to get from you, and then you pay them and it’s done? I had no idea this was possible either until I did it. I sort of found this out by accident. I would not actually recommend it as a course of action if there are any other options available to you. For one thing, it makes you feel like the scum of the fucking earth.
For another, it completely ruins your credit, obviously. But for me this last-resort approach to debt was what it took for me to stop using my credit cards and accept that I won’t be able to use credit for a long time. Knowing that there was no back-up plan was the only thing that has ever been able to coerce me into actually living within my means, which I still interpret to mean “spending every penny I make” but at least I am no longer spending more. I don’t really want to use writing about this as an opportunity to beat myself up for making mistakes because I’ve done that a lot already. I can work on changing but some of the work has to also be about not denying who I am, which is a person who fundamentally loves to spend money. Not in a hoardery way, not in a shopaholic way, but in a much more insidious and also, to my mind, way more fun way that involves *just not ever thinking about money.* Most of my money is spent on snacks and treats and delicious groceries for meals for my friends. I buy presents and experiences, stuff that makes life fun and exciting and glamorous and livable, $4 iced teas and in-season farmer’s market produce. The only problem with this approach is that all the day-to-day *not thinking about money* gets concentrated in these big apocalyptic sessions of *being forced to think about nothing but money, and in the worst possible way.* Finding a way towards moderation is the goal. Supposedly the story of my life is about learning how to see a spectrum of options rather than black and white extremes. (From an astrological perspective.) (I also spend money on astrology.)
I had been told that the settlement call would take ten minutes so that’s how much time I’d budgeted, and after procrastinating about the call all day I finally picked up the phone at about the same time I was supposed to be arriving for a book party in Manhattan. One of the things the call center employee did, probably following a corporate protocol, was to put me on hold repeatedly while she discussed my “situation” with her “colleagues.” The hold music was so much even worse than what you’re imagining: a tinny loop of the same two bars of upbeat jazz that would not have passed muster as a ringtone in 1999. By the way, I am borrowing money to pay this settlement from a lender who specializes in lending money at semi-usurious but not-as-usurious-as-credit-card rates to people with busted credit, but I couldn’t say that, so I said I was borrowing the money from an uncle who I made up on the spot. When she said she couldn’t get her colleagues to come down any lower than 60% of the total amount I owed, I put her on hold to discuss this with my uncle. Actually I used the opportunity to brush my teeth and change out of a sweaty tshirt into a reliable black dress I’ve owned since 2008. I got back on the line and announced that my uncle could not possibly lend me that much money, that the very most I could talk him into was an amount that represented 40% of the total amount owed. This was the most I’d been approved for by the lender so I was actually telling the truth, in a way. I also found myself telling the truth when explaining the “hardship” that had led to my being unable to pay my credit cards in the first place. “There have been a lot of changes in my industry that have made it much more difficult to make the amount of money it was once possible to make.” “It sounds like you really care about your work and are doing your best in a tough industry,” said the call center employee. I don’t know if she was required to say this or was being sincere. She also at one point said “It’s good you have family who can help you,” in a way that could have sounded bitchy, or like she knew I was lying, but that actually sounded wistful and real.
This intimate conversation with a call center stranger took much longer than I’d anticipated and culminated in a standoff when I thought the entire thing would be for naught because they refused to fax the letter I needed in order to get the money (from my “uncle”) but eventually I won. After thanking this woman, my tormentor, who is probably also tormented herself, who certainly did not seem like she in any way wanted to be working in a call center, profusely, I ordered up an Uber so I could catch the last 10 minutes of the party. It cost $19.61. Money well spent. Also, afterwards, I took a subway and a bus to get home and cooked dinner instead of getting takeout even though that meant eating at midnight, so maybe there is hope for me yet.
My essay “Into The Woods,” excerpted from a collection edited by Chad Harbach called MFA vs NYC, was posted last week on Medium. This happened because I insisted that the essay be published somewhere besides in the collection; it’s the only formally structured and edited piece of first-person writing I’ve produced in the last four years and I wanted to make sure people read it. During the six months I spent writing it and then the time I spent on final revisions prior to the book’s production deadline a year later, my life changed dramatically. Writing the essay was part of that change.
I didn’t feel, as I felt with some of the essays in ATHSW, that I was exorcising something by writing, and I didn’t feel, as I did with Friendship, that I was initiating something by writing, inviting something in. Instead I felt almost the same way I do when I force myself to do some kind of organizational task or rote exercise that doesn’t come naturally to me, like figuring out how to make an Excel spreadsheet. Writing this essay felt like learning, like forcing myself to learn. I feel less like change happened to me and more like I changed myself.
One of the most crucial changes is that since January 2013 I’ve been working full-time in an office (two different offices, but the same one since July.) A few weeks ago I took the day off work and went up to New Hampshire to speak to an undergraduate creative writing class at Southern New Hampshire University.
It was a freewheeling discussion of fiction and I’m sure I said a lot of nonsensical things about how writing fiction is best accomplished, but I did think I was useful as an emissary of “how New York works and how different publishing models work and how to think of your career in terms of money.” Being the foremost expert on this stuff that many of these students had ever encountered felt like a big responsibility. I did the best I could. And then afterwards a student emailed me (I’d told the students to feel free to email me.)
Her email was great and very honest. She said she was worried about not being able to make a living as a writer, and her own worrying-prone nature would prevent her from taking the leaps of faith necessary to leading the life she thinks she wants. She wanted to know whether I thought getting an MFA or working in publishing would help her get better at writing and/or help her get published.
This is the letter I wrote back.
I vividly remember being your age, about to graduate, and asking myself and other people all the same questions. Looking back, I regret the time I spent worrying about how on earth I was going to be a writer and make a living, when it was so clear that the odds were stacked against me. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a valid concern.
I don’t need to be the billionth person who tells you that most writers don’t make their whole living from their writing. For example: I don’t!
I have in the past, though, and that was great, but doing other stuff besides writing can be good too — for your life, your mental health, and even … for your writing. How else will you get the experiences of the world and other people and relationships that you need in order to reimagine them in fiction or memoir? The key is just to find work that won’t steal all your energy and kill your spirit. This is hard, and takes time, but you will find it eventually if you keep trying.
Definitely don’t worry about not being good enough. Work in publishing if publishing is interesting to you. Get an MFA if you love workshop classes and school. If those things aren’t interesting and fun, don’t do them. If something else is, do that! Follow your curiosity and your (sorry to be cheesy) heart. Pretend that you’re sure of yourself, even when you’re not, and you will learn to trust yourself. Don’t wait around for other people to give you permission to do what you want, or to say you’re “good enough.” You’ll waste time waiting that you could be writing, having fun, learning, and living.
I am pretty proud of the advice I gave her. I am trying to take it myself. Some days, I succeed.
I turned in the copyedited manuscript of Friendship on October 7th and since then I haven’t written or thought about writing anything besides tweets and emails. Which, to be fair, I have written MANY tweets and emails. But it is a huge brain shift away from thinking about the problems and characters in my book. I already feel like the book is no longer a part of me; it has its own life and I feel like I would potentially respond to any questions about it by saying “God, who knows??” When the time comes to answer questions about it I’ll probably have developed some fun and interesting theories, but I can already tell it will be a lot like discussing a book someone else wrote. Which feels, right now, like what happened. I’m having an excruciatingly hard time even writing this blog post. I feel like I’ve lost the ability to organize experiences into thoughts and words into sentences, probably permanently. Having experienced this feeling and its remission before isn’t comforting because what if this time it really is permanent? That happens! People quit, or just start sucking. That could be what’s happening to me right now. It’s probably not, but it could be. So all my relief and happiness is tempered by fear.
Other than that fear and the constant feeling of loss of an essential part of the self, life turns out to be so much easier when you’ve turned off the part of your brain that does writing! I have a job now where I work during the weeks and for the first couple of months of it I was in the library each weekend working on the book, but now my weekends are weekends. I experienced the feeling of “TGIF” for the first time in years on 10/11 and I probably don’t have to tell you that TGIF is A GREAT FEELING. I’ve had so much time these past few weeks to hang out and have fun and organize and clean and budget and transfer balances from one credit card to another and make obsessive plans for the future. Does that not sound fun? It has been GREAT. One of the things about working on a book, at least for me — and probably it doesn’t have to be this way! — is that you spend a lot of time in “finals week mode.” Like, years on end. Neglecting your body, your friendships, your family and your finances because nothing is more important than your book. Some of that damage will take years to undo (financial, mostly), but my skin already looks better. Not writing a novel is a beauty treatment. Not writing a novel is a spa vacation. Not writing a novel is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, except the nagging terror that this happiness is temporary and fake and could shade into misery the minute I try to start another one.
That first weekend of my novel-less life was also my birthday weekend, and for my birthday Keith got me a bike from Craigslist and a ring from Erie Basin; we’re getting married, finally. I spent the first day of being engaged so happy I couldn’t stop smiling and the second day, Monday, I couldn’t stop throwing up. I had eaten oysters at my birthday dinner but I don’t really think they were to blame. As anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows, my feelings about marriage are, as a politician might say, evolving. I was happy but terrified. I looked at Keith and felt the way Liz Phair succinctly describes feeling in “Love is Nothing”: “I thought, ‘Who am I?’ Who’s this guy?’” As Liz sings, love is nothing like they say. It’s better and worse, and it’s not, I guess, describable. I didn’t feel ready to tell anyone that I was engaged. I told my parents because I knew it would become a weirder and weirder conversation the longer I waited to have it, but it was super awkward (I interrupted their dinner and they asked if I could call back before they knew what I was calling about!) and I told Ruth and Bennett and Lori, but the idea of sharing the news on social media felt completely wrong. And then that feeling itself also felt wrong; who am I, I thought, to feel this way? I thought, is this what it is to crave privacy? The idea of subjecting my happiness to the internet’s infinite potential scorn seemed borderline insane to me. I told myself and several close friends that I simply would not do it.
If you clicked the link in the previous paragraph you can see that I did, on October 30th. I took that photo sitting at a bus stop on Van Brunt Street. I was wearing a fancy outfit because I had thought I was going to see Nico Muhly’s opera that night, but early that morning Keith and I woke up and realized that it was time to take Raffles to the vet for the last time; we’d been waiting for about a week to see if he would make another miraculous recovery — he’d made dozens, in his long and high-maintenance little life — but he was in pain, we could tell, and not eating, and so thin that you almost felt you might be hurting him when you stroked his bony spine. We decided and then I lay in bed with Raffles resting his head on my head while I cried, and I felt like he knew and was saying goodbye, too (let me have this delusion.) I must have at some point gotten out of bed and put on clothes and put Raffles in his carrier and waited with Keith on the curb for Arecibo but it’s hard to remember any of that clearly now. I remember the feeling of Raff’s head on my head. He loved to put his head there, to sleep with at least a paw touching me at all times. This was sometimes very irritating but now I miss it; waking up alone is the worst part of Raffles being gone.
I went to work after we got home from the vet because I wanted to be distracted and I selfishly stuck Keith with the task of putting everything cat-related away before I got home. At work, everyone was very understanding, but I felt queasy and like I was on drugs, dehydrated from crying and slightly hysterically punchy. I had a call with Manjula Martin from Scratch (hi Manjula!) during which I think I acted sort of normal? At lunch I picked at a salad in the park with Ruth, who wisely told me to skip the opera, and then I got an email from Russell at Erie Basin saying my ring was done getting resized and I could pick it up, so I left work early and went to Red Hook.
I got the ring and then when I was waiting to go home on the bus I looked at the memorial photograph of Raffles I’d posted on Tumblr that morning to see how many likes it had. People were universally nice. No one had made fun of my grief. A lot of people, who are familiar to me either from real life or the Internet, had left personal messages, including one person who said that Raffles was “one of my favorite cats of Tumblr,” which for some reason I found especially moving. I stared at the photo for a while. I’d just missed one bus and the next one was taking forever to come. And then I looked at my ring, so pretty with my dark nails and blue dress, and I took a photo of that and posted it on Instagram. It felt like the exact right thing to do.
Last weekend I talked to a friend who has a books-related job. This woman wants to be a writer. I mean, she is a writer, but not of books, yet. And she’s not exactly, at this particular moment, on a career track that will lead her closer to the goal of writing books. She is really young and has plenty of time to swerve. But at some point she’ll have to make a decision about whether she wants to continue to work at her fulfilling, stable job that she’s great at or write books, because there isn’t enough time in the day, no matter how early she wakes up or how late she goes to bed or what kind of productivity-enhancing software she installs on her laptop or how much hygiene/fun/personal life she neglects, to do both. Or enough time, I should maybe say, to do both well. Some people are superhuman and can do both well. But such people are very rare, and that pretending they’re anything but rare just makes everyone else feel bad, so let’s actually just pretend they don’t exist. They functionally don’t exist. She told me it’s taken her a long time to figure out that she carries around a lot of resentment towards people who make their entire living by writing. Although she has a close relationship with at least one such person, and so she knows firsthand that making your whole living that way can make you crazy. So it’s not like her resentment is predicated on a fantasy: she knows both ways of living have their pitfalls/can make you crazy. But the bottom line is that one way of living results in books and the other, mostly, doesn’t.
When I was her age, the age she happened to be turning on the day we had this conversation, I thought that making my living exclusively by writing was the goal of my life. Or if not “exclusively,” primarily. Dimly, and without ever lingering in thought too long about the specifics, I imagined teaching, being a teacher almost exactly like my least-engaged college professors, the ones who showed up to workshop with a large coffee and some xeroxed Raymond Carver stories and then sat there for two hours while their students talked, sipping the coffee and sometimes nodding. The rest of my time would be spent alone in a library or a home office, some room with a computer, a desk, a chair. I would write novels and then, later in the day, make dinner. Maybe sometimes if I felt like it I’d accept an assignment from the kind of magazine no one really reads but that basically exists to pad the bank accounts of already-rich writers, travel and specialized beauty magazines, you know, ”[So and So's] Wacky Adventures In Bangkok,” ”What [Whoever] Really Thinks Of Several Slightly Different Spa Treatments.” I’d slide on up into that echelon effortlessly. My inherent greatness would be recognized and one day I’d wake up and just find myself there. I mean I’d also have published novels, in this fantasy. The parts of this fantasy that pertained to my personal life were just as inchoate and illogical. I thought and maybe (cringe) even said out loud, “I’ll have my first baby after I finish my first novel.” As though those were two goals you could easily work towards simultaneously. As though they were not two distinct and unrelated life paths.
While I was busy fantasizing about the future, I neglected to realize that — aside from some details that would only grow to seem important in retrospect — I was already living my fantasy life. Well, sort of. I did make my entire living, for a year or two, by writing. I did spend most of my days in a room alone with a computer. I didn’t teach bored undergraduates how to talk less annoyingly about short stories, but I did teach teenagers yoga, which was fun and rewarding and not in any way something that I was good enough at or cared enough about to push it towards being a meaningful secondary source of income, which was the ostensible reason I was doing it. But I didn’t ever have to go to an office, didn’t ever have to commute during rush hour, didn’t ever have to go to a meeting, and never had to buy or wear any article of clothing because it would be good “for work.” As my remnants of workwear wore out, my wardrobe devolved in a cotton-lycra blend-y direction. I got really good at creating elaborate procrastination regimens, taking advantage of my ability to do chores and errands on weekdays that office workers can only squeeze into their weekends and lunch hours. It took me several years – really, it took starting a business — for me to figure out that this attitude is anathema to getting any kind of work done; even if you don’t have a 9 to 5 job, it behooves you to be at your desk during those hours, even if it means taking more-crowded yoga classes.
During those years I thought about the baby thing a lot — would I ever get there, how would I get there, would I like it if I did get there — and for a long time I thought it was because of some genuine, possibly-biological longing my genes/soul. Now I think it was probably 90% because when you’re a freelancer in Brooklyn, walking around in Brooklyn in the middle of the day, mothers of young children are the only people you see. Most everyone else is in Manhattan (or Dumbo or downtown Brooklyn), working in offices. So of course you think about babies, the same way you’d think about sand if you lived in the desert.
Needless to say — you aren’t reading this in Elle, are you? — I was not lifted up easefully into the realm of the brand-name. Probably because I didn’t do any of the things that I would have had to do in order to get there. I still don’t quite understand what it takes to get there. More and more I think it’s not what I’m good at, or even what I want to be good at. I still feel jealous of people who get paid well to go on junkets and describe them humorously and vividly, of course. But I want something else, and it does not, for the moment, involve sitting alone in a room with a computer. It also does, of course. I have been happiest and most miserable alone in that room.
When I went back to working in an office after years of not, I could suddenly see the particular brand of crazy my former compatriots in freelancing exhibited, revealed in high definition. Their obsessive Facebook status updates, their public declarations about how much or how little they’d written that day or how their writing was going, the kind of super-involved tweeting that you only see in people who are either trapped at desk jobs where there’s too little for them to do or in freelancers desperate to avoid the work they’ve assigned themselves. I have done all of this stuff, of course, but the moment I didn’t have time to do it anymore, I could see it for what it was. It was, initially, a blessed relief to be rendered unable to ride the waves of Schadenfreude and fleeting, irrational enthusiasm that wash over the social Internet all day. I was also rendered incapable of feeling jealous of everyone whose writing was momentarily elevated by a stream of “THIS!”-style sharing. I had other stuff to do. I have other stuff to do.
My fantasy now is that I’ll be able to write books AND run Emily Books AND have a full-time job helping other people realize their Emily Books-style dreams, with the goal of learning skills that will help me make Emily Books into an enterprise that has employees and an office and a future that includes growth in all kinds of directions. The only reason I think this goal is more attainable than my previous goal is that the outlines of that future aren’t hazy: I can envision the steps that will take me further down this path, in detail. The only part — minor detail! — that’s hard for me to imagine is the writing part. I’ve never witnessed myself being able to get writing done without making myself bored and lonely and a little bit crazy. But maybe the future will surprise me; certainly the past, from my current vantage point, seems to have nothing to do with what I thought was happening at any given time, so maybe I’ll look back on right now in the same way in a few years.
At least, that’s what I’m telling myself, over and over again, so I won’t have to feel like I’ve failed the previous version of me, or the vision of success and happiness that version had. But that version’s vision does not seem relevant to my current life, except right now, as I luxuriate in the privilege of writing this blog post on a weekday morning in a deserted beautiful library. I am not going to get to do this kind of thing whenever I want to anymore, at least not for a while, maybe not ever again. Probably that’s why it feels so good. I have to remember that it hasn’t always felt this way.
Yesterday I left my part-time job in the middle of the day to take Raffles to the vet. He had been behaving strangely for a few days, hiding under the bed and acting confused and frightened when we pulled him out to feed him, and he’d peed on the floor. I thought it was going to be the final or penultimate vet visit; he was diagnosed with lymphoma last summer but has maintained an ok level of health on prednisone for almost a year now. I spent a lot of time freaking out when he was first diagnosed, then as the months went by I guess I had slowly ceased to believe that he was dying. Or, well, I still don’t really believe that he is dying; death is one of those things that, no matter how much preparation you have, never seems possible until the moment when it does. That moment finally came as I described his symptoms to the vet, who gently said that we were no longer in the realm of curative. “We haven’t been in that realm for so long now,” I said, and started crying in front of a stranger for the first time in a long time.
Then she looked in his eyes with a lens and put him on the floor to see how he interacted with a new environment, and as he took a few tentative steps than looked up at us, clearly just turning his head in the direction of our voices, I realized what the vet had probably suspected from the outset and confirmed for herself with the scope a moment earlier: he’s gone blind. He hadn’t been peeing or hiding because he was demented or sick, he’d been doing it because he couldn’t see and couldn’t find his litterbox.
So it didn’t turn out to be the last appointment, or the second to last appointment, at least probably not. (Whatever caused him to go blind — ministroke, brain tumor, etc — isn’t exactly a good sign.) “Blind animals adjust really well, as long as you don’t move things around,” the vet said, and this does seem to be the case — he’s since found his litterbox, explored the apartment with more confidence, eaten, etc. As he lay next to me on the pillow last night making little sleep grumbles as I watched Buffy on my laptop, he seemed so peaceful and happy it was hard to imagine that he was suffering. But if I think that he is suffering I have to summon the strength to end his life. I can’t imagine where that strength will come from. There’s a lot about the immediate future I can’t imagine.
What made my first year of full-time freelancing so happy, besides not ever having to ride the subway during rush hour, wasn’t anything specific about what my workdays were like. I wasn’t accomplishing much, I was wasting a lot of time, and a lot of the time I was bored. Most days, my work did not go well and I felt dejected about my actual writing. But I still felt good and hopeful, because all these potential paths seemed possible. Everything seemed possible. Unpleasant things had happened to me but I still had never been majorly unlucky. This sense of infinite possibility was like a drug; hooked on it, I clung to it even after it should have been clear that I needed to move on, I couldn’t just stay poised to do something forever.
Hi! There are a lot of upcoming events that I’m participating in, all of which pertain to other people’s books. (O.P.B., yes, you do know me.) I thought I would list them all in one place. Well, two places, because I’m also going to post this on my other social medias. Anyway, open up your Google Calendar in another tab, because you are likely free for at least one of these events and I’d love to see you IRL.
Sorry, I feel really rusty at blogging right now, I think this post will get smoother as it continues!
MONDAY MAY 13: WHAT IS THE QUEER NOVEL?
7pm, Housing Works Bookstore Cafe // FB RSVP
At this Emily Books event, authors Sarah Schulman and Barbara Browning will read from their work then discuss this question, and maybe by the end of the night we’ll have a definitive answer! (Well, probably not, but it will be fun to try.) Their conversation will be moderated by Topside publisher Tom Léger, and your enjoyment of the evening will be enhanced by free drinks courtesy of Togather. (1 free drink each, get there early)
SUNDAY MAY 19: HOME COOKING IN 2013
3:30pm, The Great Googa-Mooga Literary Stage
If you’re heading to this festival, take a break from standing in line/stuffing youself and come listen to me talk about food! Cookbooks and food writing shape the way we cook, eat and live, and no one expressed that better than pioneering food writer Laurie Colwin. Her two beloved collections, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, were published more than 20 years ago, and despite all that’s changed since then, much about them still feels timeless. Cookbook author Lukas Volger, editor and writer Sadie Stein, who have (along with me!) cooked together from these books and many others, will join with writer, editor and literary agent Jenni Ferrari-Adler to discuss what’s changed since Colwin’s two essay collections were published, what hasn’t, and her influence on the way we eat, cook, think and write about food.
TUESDAY MAY 28: A CONVERSATION WITH SEPTEMBER GIRLS AUTHOR BENNETT MADISON
7pm, McNally Jackson Bookstore
Bennett and I have been friends since before either of us had armpit hair, so we will try not to make our conversation — about his gripping, funny, poignant, sexy + inventive new book about trashy mermaids who are named things like L’Oreal and need to deflower teenage boys to survive — too full of decades-old inside jokes.
THURSDAY JUNE 6: JAMI ATTENBERG THE MIDDLESTEINS PAPERBACK RELEASE PARTY!
7pm, Housing Works Bookstore Cafe
Jami had planned this party for the fall, but Hurricane Sandy intervened. The theme of everyone’s readings (bc of the theme of Jami’s novel) is “Jews+ food” and conveniently there’s a scene in my forthcoming book that features Jews + food, at least by default. Other readers include Maris Kreizman, Rachel Fershleiser, Jason Diamond, Rosie Schaap, Beth Lisick and Bex Schwartz. It will be sort of like Jami’s adult Bat Mitzvah, maybe. Drinks are on Tumblr.
I’m hosting a discussion of a new internet-trollery-themed novel The More You Ignore Me by poet Travis Nichols at WORD on July 18, more details as they develop. And who knows what else will happen? Stay tuned.