“I think I’m trying to reconcile the need to write and have a deadline with the need to be a human? And right now, the human is winning.”
That’s DebatableUnclaimed BaggageSave the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest.The AtlanticFortuneHarper’s BazaarMarie ClaireNew York MagazineNew York TimesPublishers Weekly
Sari Botton: I wanted to interview you for this series because now and then, lately, you text me and say, “I think I forgot how to write.” But the next thing I know, there is evidence to the contrary—like, you’ll have a big piece in . And you have your third book, That’s Debatable, coming out next June. I want to understand whether it’s just garden-variety writer anxiety and self-doubt, or something else.
SB: “Something” like . . . a global pandemic and political unrest?
Oh my God, I’m creating something. This is so fun
Okay, you know how to do it
SB: What was your old process that you loved? How did you used to tap into “that quiet space?”
SB: Well, your life has also changed dramatically in the past few years, which would also affect your writing habits.
SB: You also left the city and moved upstate.
SB: It’s kind of amazing how easy it is for us to be hard on ourselves and how hard it is to step back and gain perspective on all that we’re juggling.
Save the DateI was doing all of this work. I just didn’t know it
SB: Oh, I definitely feel that way. There’s been so much shocking news, out in the world and also in our own families. We’ve had three Covid-19 deaths in our family. I feel like I now live in a constant state of fear and anxiety. And there’s this added level of doubt about whether I’m writing enough or in the right way (as you said before). On the flip side, if I throw myself into my writing, I worry that I might forget to worry about other more important thingsor I’ll start to feel as if the writing is pointless, given the state of the world.
How come everyone is doing it faster and better than me? How come everyone else has all these great book deals? How come everyone else has all of these bestsellers?
SB: Social media doesn’t help because there’s comparison going on nonstopbut we need social media because we’re isolated. You seem to be spending less time on social media. Has that been a conscious decision, in terms of being able to focus better on your writing?
JD: Well, spending less time on social media hasn’t actually, at this point, made me write more. It was more of a conscious decision in terms of thinking about what I’m putting into the world, why I’m doing it, and what I’m getting back from it. I feel in some ways like there’s been this big lie put forward about social media, in publishing and elsewhere: If you spend time there, it will give back to you. You will sell books, you will get followers, you will gain attention and/or power through your followers. When really we’re just all giving to the tech bros who own these companies our best ideas, our thoughts, our daily whatever—they’re just getting more power.
But even if you don’t believe that . . . everything you spend time on, well, there’s somewhere else you’re not spending time on, and I feel like the time I was spending on social media had a definite diminishing return. I wanted to take those thoughts inward and see what I would do with them and also just have more quiet time away from the increasingly loud and panicked and often not very nice voices online. I mean, that said, I still tweet sometimes—but I’m trying to do it when it feels like a moment of organic joy or fun rather than a moment of pain or a moment where I’m trying to get something. I will also say that Twitter is like an ex-boyfriend: You know you’re over him when you stop thinking about him at all, and that is so very freeing.
SB: It also seems as if you’re being more selective about the journalism you’re taking on. You’re putting your energy more towards books.
JD: I think that that was always where I wanted to go. I do also have an editing gig that provides me some stability financially, so that I can pick and choose what I do want to work on. If I start to worry that I’m not writing enough articles, I remind myself that I’m still writing books, I’m still putting sentences together—still doing something that feels like a good in the world.
SB: It might not provide the same kind of instant gratification, but maybe it’s more satisfying in the long run.
JD: Books take a longer time, but that’s not a bad thing. Also, the longer you work on things, the better they tend to be.
SB: Speaking of which, you said that you recently pushed back a deadline—you were supposed to get a draft of your new novel to your agent in January and you told him you wouldn’t. What was that about?
JD: I had a conversation back in October, maybe, with my agent, where I was trying to set up a schedule for writing a new novel (trying to force myself to do it, I guess) and I was like, “Be very mad at me if I don’t deliver this to you in January, okay?” And because my agent is very nice, he humored me and was like, “Yes, I’ll be very angry.” Of course, I knew he wouldn’t be . . . but I felt like I needed that pressure. Then, as I got pulled into different directions and something just kept stopping me from working on this novel and we approached December, I was like, nope. I’m just not gonna.
In fact, more recently, I think, nothing I’ve been doing in terms of pressuring myself has been working. What if I tell myself I am not allowed to work on fiction until the New Year? What if I can save up that energy and harness the joy that way? Around that time I also started working on something new with a friend, but it’s a screenplay, so hey, I’m not breaking my rules!
I guess I’m just trying to listen to myself, even when confronted with those inevitable feelings that I am probably very lazy or irrelevant or never going to write another book again. I mean, so what? The world is a very big place and there are lots of things to do that are worthy, and maybe I just need this time and . . . all of the other things you tell yourself. I think I’m trying to reconcile the need to write and have a deadline with the need to be a human? And right now, the human is winning. And even though I’m struggling with it, I’m trying to be okay with that and just let myself be. For now.
Sari Botton is the author of the memoir in essays, And You May Find Yourself...Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo. She is a contributing editor at Catapult, and the former Essays Editor for Longreads. She edited the bestselling anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NewYork and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. She teaches creative nonfiction at Catapult, Bay Path University and Kingston Writers' Studio. She publishes Oldster Magazine, Memoir Monday, and Adventures in Journalism.