I’ve been thinking lately about how my writing career, such as it is, came into being. I’m pretty satisfied with the state of my writing life at the moment: with one essay due to come out soon, another in submissions, and a third in progress, plus an ongoing novel, I’m about as productive as I’ve ever been.
I pay a lot of attention to what other writers are doing as well. One of the nicest thing that’s happened to me in the last twelve months is that I’ve joined an email group comprised mostly of women who write for new media. A side effect of this is that I read a metric fuck-ton of essays and articles every week.
One particular theme comes up in those essays a lot—a theme that intrigues me, because I personally can’t relate to at all. People call it different things. Esmé Wang, a writer and entrepreneur whose work I admire a lot, calls it “hustle”, in this fantastic essay for Elle about the effect of chronic illness on productivity. I tend to think of it as the productivity paradox.
“If I’m confused, or upset, or angry, if I can go out and look at the stars I’ll almost always get back a sense of proportion. It’s not that they make me feel insignificant; it’s the very opposite; they make me feel that everything matters, be it ever so small, and that there’s meaning to life even when it seems most meaningless.”
from A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle
The Christmas I was sixteen I wrote a letter to Madeleine L’Engle.
Like most people, I encountered L’Engle’s writing first in A Wrinkle In Time and its sequels as a child, but I went on to read almost her entire bibliography of more than fifty books my junior year of high school.
My favorite was A Ring of Endless Light. I considered it the most important book I had ever read; the intensity of my feelings about it defied articulation. I considered it almost another Gospel. It conveyed the essentials of everything I believed to be true about life, death, God, and the soul with beautiful imagery and simple, transparent language. Madeleine L’Engle was the writer I most aspired to emulate, and her characters were the people I most wanted to be like. The first book I published I intended to dedicate to her.
(Trigger warnings for discussion of child abuse and suicide below.)
For various reasons, I am a person who doesn’t own a lot of stuff. Just for example: I have three pairs of shoes. One pair of flip flops, one pair of ballet flats, and one pair of Batman Converse high tops, which explains everything you need to know about the current state of my right Achilles tendon, according to my podiatrist. I own a bed, a lamp, a small book shelf, a card table, and about 150 books. My car is 15 years old. The most valuable thing I own is my Macbook Air, which was a gift from my literary agent. And while I would like to, say, own more clothes (and therefore do less laundry) I am mostly okay with all of this. When you’re poor and you have to move a lot, minimalism is convenient. But when you’ve lost things you care about, it makes you more materialistic, not less. Everything I own is important to me, because I had to make an effort to keep it.
My books are the best example of this. When I became homeless in 2012 I didn’t have much, but I had a personal library of about 700 books, and giving away so much of it was nothing less than heartbreaking. Every gift of money I got as a kid went into my book collection, every Christmas and birthday, every $20 bill I wheedled out of my parents. My library was to me what a varied and stylish quality wardrobe is to some people, a way of presenting to the world the image of myself that I wanted to project. I often sat and looked at my books and took pleasure in the thought that a stranger walking into my room could get a sense of my personality, my interests, even my abilities, just by looking at my book cases. I dreamed of the day my own published novels would join them. The books in which my name appears in the acknowledgments had a special shelf of their own. Ego and memory and history and sentiment and accomplishment were all wrapped up in that book collection. Disbanding that carefully curated bibliography felt like an act of self-harm.
(The author, age 6, Christmas 1988. The box was full of books. My 3 year old cousin is baffled and intrigued. What do they do?)
On July 8th, 2000–fifteen years ago today–I stopped believing in God. I didn’t think I was going to write about this. I’ve neglected the blog lately, and there were so many things I could have written about instead–much nicer things to dwell on after a long hiatus. But writers don’t always get to choose what they write about. And a damaged writer probably has less choice than most.
(This may or may not be an actual photo of my camp, stolen from a stranger’s Myspace.)
When I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but not any particular kind. I wrote all sorts of different stories as a teenager, and the only goals I had were to entertain myself and to make my friends laugh and flail their arms and demand more.
My first novel, composed at age fifteen, was a magical girl story with heavy anime influences. The main character was an immortal queen whose life was tied to the life of the land she ruled. I was especially proud of the three crucifixions in the last chapter.
(Anime was really fucked up in 1997, just saying.)
Another story followed the adventures of four young women, all thinly veiled portraits of me and my friends as adults, as they pursued successful careers in the arts in New York City. Another was a hardboiled mystery featuring a main character who was basically the Cigarette Smoking Man from the X-Files.
The real headliner of my adolescent writing career was A Society of Like Minds. I started Society the summer of 1998, when I was 16, and I worked on it devotedly over the next two years. Society was a work of historical fiction that reflected my obsession with the English Romantic poets. My characters were all vaguely aristocratic and vaguely scandalous: one had a French opera singer for a wife, one had a mysteriously dead husband, there were rumors of infidelity between sister- and brother-in-law, etc. They all lived together in Florence and had strong feelings about society and God. I am still convinced it is some kind of masterpiece, and I occasionally pour over the old manuscripts with giggling and glee.
(Remember that time Gabriel Byrne was Byron and Natasha Richardson was Mary Shelley and Julian Sands made out with a woman who had eyes for nipples?)
As my last post probably demonstrated, I was kind of an intense 11 year old. Puberty was relatively kind to me in most outward ways: I didn’t go through any awkward new growth spurts (I’d already been a foot taller than everyone in my class since kindergarten) and my complexion didn’t do anything especially revolting. No, for me, the principle change that puberty brought on was something health class did not prepare me for: it was dissatisfaction, with myself, my life, and the way I fit into the world.
Children are understood to be narcissists, and people a generation or so older than me are especially fond of talking about the entitlement of people my age and younger. It’s sort of like the baby boomer generation realized that it was kind of hurtful when their parents’ stoicism prevented them from expressing love and pride and encouragement, so they compensated by saturating their own kids with daily, hourly affirmations of worth and affection. Then, when those kids grew up and didn’t thrive for one reason or another, their parents took it as a personal insult: “But we did everything right! Unlike our parents. I guess we just loved those kids too dang much, and now they’re unprepared for the real world.”
I don’t know. It’s possible that I’m on to something, or it’s possible that I’m attributing my own fucked-up family dynamics to American parenting trends in general. I do that sometimes.