I had a cool revelation a couple months ago, while flying back to California after visiting my family for the holidays. I was writing about my intentions for 2015. My list included several things I have long resolved to resolve– “cut down on chip intake” and “stop being late all the time” (no relation)– as well as fancier etheric goals (“BE light!”).
But the one resolution pulsing insistently inside of me, in that deep down place? Write a book.
I’ve been going back and forth about writing a book of essays for years now. When I’ve been in a good rhythm, I’ve worked on it at least once a week; other times, like in recent months, it’s been in stops and starts. I’ve made some progress, yes. But I’ve also been doing a whole lotta other stuff too: working, hanging with friends, taking classes, having existential crises, the usual young adult goings on. Possibly all of these have been crucial to helping me get to where I am now. But I’ve also had this creeping feeling that I’ve been tiptoeing around something inside of me. Moving, but not quite sure in which direction. And not very fast.
But sitting in that cramped middle seat with no elbow room (where I was assuredly not moving), it occurred to me, What am I waiting for? Some guarantee ? Someone to scoop me up out of this small in between space and say, You! We want you! Do it! We’ll publish it as soon as it’s done! All your time and energy WILL PAY OFF!
Well, obviously, that would be awesome. (If any of you have connections like that, I mean, don’t be shy ;)) But it was clear. All these thoughts and stories and ideas that I want to share? It’s time to share them. I have endless notes and quotes, baby essays in various stages of development. Gathering them has felt good, but the time to do that feels done. No one is going to swoop in and give me the ok. It’s on me to foster this little something inside of me.
Even so, I had to take a moment to dig deep and ask myself, Can you do it?
For really real?
As usual, I hit upon the list of “you suck” reasons making me think I couldn’t. Reasons that have floated through my head for years and settled and hardened inside of me. I’m not ready yet. I’ll never make money at it. The critics are gonna hate me. What if no one buys the book? What will all my friends, family, random people I don’t even know– say when/if they read it?
All concerns that essentially boil down to: If I do this, I might be killed by it. I may just die.
But despite these feelings, I could tell– in that flash moment– that they were feelings. In spite of their promise of potential annihilation, it was also starkly obvious: they were not the point. The feelings might have been real but they were not true.
What was true true was that I wanted to write a book. And not only that I wanted to, but to my surprise, that I could.
That I would.
I felt a thrill at my own power. So much so that I nearly (!) threw my arms wide and practically belted the people sleeping on either side of me. The book, my book! The joy was that goofily, gloriously clear.
The difference between thinking something and knowing it, then really knowing it and doing it, can be subtle but so great. This is something that my fellow writer friend Meghan and I were discussing when we got together over the holidays. Meghan’s enthusiasm and knowledge of all things nutrition-related is encyclopedic and has earned her the title of “Food Guru” among our friends. This particular afternoon, she shared a little nugget of wisdom that has stayed with me since. Reflecting on her own stop and start journey to repair her gut, she introduced me to the concept of “Half-Hearted Healing.”
“I think most healing happens in a half-hearted way,” she said. “You keep feeling sick and tired until you get sick and tired of being that way.” She described how sometimes she or the people she works with will start a cleanse without completing the full sequence. They might feel incremental changes, she says, but they don’t reap the full benefit. “For most of us,” she said, “the concept of change is so out there, that we can’t do it… Instead we get back to the same lessons, and think to ourselves, ‘How many times do I need to hear this?’ And the answer is, however many times you need to hear it until you can change.”
I feel the same way about this recent revelation. It feels like all of these years of wanting to write a book but circling around it were half-hearted attempts to do it without really doing it. My recent move to California, with its ongoing work of getting grounded here, has felt like additional circles upon circles.
However, I think going home for the holidays and being with my kooky little familia contributed to my recent shift in perspective. Like most families, they are a wealth of writerly material– by turns heartbreaking and heart mending, often hilarious and consistently supportive. They’ve been with me through all the ups and downs of school and life and recently, the move and the seemingly endless search for a job.
Being with them reminds me of what it was like to be a creative young person growing up. Knitting hats and making mix tapes, or forever stowing away to journal in my room. I found some of my old stories and was genuinely surprised by the honesty of what I’d written at 14, 17, 19 years old. Have any of you gone back and done this? It’s kind of shocking to discover how as a young person, you could come straight out with the truth in a way that later, as an adult, you learn to finagle or finesse. (When you get older, the danger seems to be that “truth” can become something more reasonable, but perhaps less true.)
I was thinking about this as I later traveled to NYC to visit one of my best friends. Mer is a renaissance woman– a singer-songwriter, actress, and solopreneur who has been in the city continuously redefining herself since college. She comes from a family of performers who were way outside the norm of suburban Florida cul-de-sac living. They were a huge novelty to me growing up, and I was delighted when they adopted me into their troupe and brought me to their shows. Her mom Jane used to facilitate massive sing- a- longs when she took us to visit South Beach on the weekends. I’d be sitting in the back of the van with Mer, her sister Chloe and our best friend Monica, all of us belting Rent!, Ani, or whatever was currently popular on 90s radio (Chumbawumba anyone?) at the top of our lungs. The Morin trio especially would be adding layers and subtleties to create a full-on concert effect. Mimicking them and trying to hold my own tune in the process was how I learned how to harmonize.
So I had to listen when Mer addressed my existential concerns in her kind but no-nonsense way. “If you want to make writing your priority, then you have to make the distinction between having a survival job and a career building job to bring in money,” she said. “You need to have a whatever job so that you have time and mental energy to write. Ok then. Make peace with it. Get your Dad’s voice out of your head. As long as you’re paying the bills, who cares?” It helped that her hair was looking fabulous– a newly pixied shock of platinum– and that we were having free brunch at her husband’s fancy Tribeca restaurant as she said so. Both seemed to seal the deal, in that risk big-win big New York kind of way.
It was a shift for me, because I had been exclusively pursuing jobs that would be a good “return” on my education, i.e. the investment that my family (especially my dad) has made in me. They were positions in nonprofit grant writing, fundraising, social work. All well and good, important. Jobs that would have built towards financial stability, legitimacy, and advancement. Jobs that would have PAID OFF.
And yet… They seemed pretty all encompassing, energy wise: constant email, working at night, being on call. In a second interview, I had one manager even tell me that she wanted to make sure that I was really committed to the position and not just doing it until I “published my book.” My first reaction was to be stupidly flattered, since I hadn’t mentioned writing one. But then I caught myself and thought, Fuck that. Like I need to decide between being an artist and good at my job.
But then again, maybe she had a point. Maybe there was a reason that I was regarding every position I applied for with a certain amount of, Oh man, I hope this doesn’t hurt too much.
So here’s the amazing thing. Since deciding to make writing a priority, I have been feeling so much more energy and focus. Not only that, but I think I found a job that will allow me to survive AND advance in some useful skills, while also giving me the flexibility and energetic freedom to write on the side. It starts in a few days, so we’ll see, but I’m hopeful.
I also made a plan with another friend, Áine, to get up early a couple days a week and write. Being creatures of the night, the idea of becoming birds of the morn is BIG for us. But we feel pretty clear about it. If we want to progress in our writing, telling ourselves that we’ll get to it after work is just not going to cut it anymore. Besides the fact that we’re generally exhausted later in the day, the competing longings to binge snack and watch Netflix are sometimes just too great. We are only human.
So prior to that first morning, we said we’d text each other, make sure the other was up, and then write for at least half an hour. To my surprise, we actually did it. I rolled out of bed as soon as my alarm went off. It was like my subconscious had been preparing for it. Granted, I proceeded to sit like a zombie in front of the computer for the next two hours (while my inner critic voice had apparently made coffee hours earlier), but still. I kept typing. Áine did too. We called it a victory for night owls everywhere.
That same afternoon, the day before my birthday, I drove to Stanford to hear Cheryl Strayed speak. I had been on the fence, since it was an hour away and I didn’t have a ticket and I was sleepy blah blah blah. But clearly it’s pretty lame to complain about driving to Palo Alto when Cheryl walked the whole PCT and wrote a badass book about it. So I decided that go I must. In my nerdy zeal, I arrived three hours early. So I chilled at the campus cafe and pretended to be a student for a while, grateful that for once there was no overdue paper hanging over my head.
An hour and a half before the show, I gathered groupie style with close to 20 others, forming a line in front of Cemex auditorium. By the time the ushers opened the doors, close to 600 people lined two adjacent buildings. That’s how much people love this woman, and with good reason.
Cheryl was even more wow than I had even imagined: hilarious, beautiful, and warmhearted to the point that calling her by her first name feels like it rings more true. She was thrillingly authentic and so fucking smart, talking about her ambitions as a writer with confidence and passion. She made no apologies about writing from memory, and also gave us counsel to be both brave and kind when writing about others. Of the many quotable things she said, the most striking was when she talked about how her workshops were filled with people who have been waiting their whole lives to “get permission to be who they really are.”
“Not only do I give them permission,” Cheryl said, “but I let them know…They never needed it in the first place. Looking at me,” she said, and I felt the tears come– “some of your might feel like your heart is five times bigger in your chest right now. You’re seeing something in me that you see in yourself.”
Listening to her honesty and just straight up guts, I was overcome. By wanting to write as she’d written, with that amount of zeal and fierceness. I could feel that stark sparkly thing inside of me, what stood where the hardness had fallen away. My book. Or as Cheryl writes in her unforgettable essay, “Write Like a Motherfucker,” that full-on “second beating heart.”
So I hope that if any of you out there are on the fence about something, going back and forth between real life concerns and true life dreams, I say attend to the real but choose what’s true. As I’m learning, this means you will probably have to choose what’s true over and over and over again. Even sometimes when you’re barely awake.