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.