“It’s taken me fifty-three years to be able to understand how to say what I want, or say who I am, or say what I believe.”
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Sari Botton: A few months ago I tweeted about how exhausting it is to constantly hustle as a freelancer—how I’ve been hustling my whole thirty-plus year career, and it never stops, and I’m so tired of it, but it’s the only way to move forward with everything I’m doing. You replied and said, “I would love to chat about the hustle.” And so I thought, We’re roughly around the same age, I believe. How old are you?
SB: Let’s talk about what it means to wear many different hats. You and I both have lots of different kinds of output. We’re both multi-hyphenates. I have freelance writing, I have my three newsletters, I have a new book out, I lead workshops that need to be publicized. You do all different kinds of things too—articles, books, comedy shows, videos. For me, part of that is just about survival. Some of my work I do just because I just need to make a living; I wouldn’t do a lot of it if I didn’t need to. Is that also true for you?
Another Dimension of Us
SB: I totally feel that. I’m afraid to turn anything down, ever.
SB: I think there’s something to that. Our parents’ anxiety got carried over. But I also think there’s a harsh reality behind it. I saw something recently suggesting that Generation X got screwed out of bigger, more stable opportunities because boomers wouldn’t retire. They kept hanging on. And then the millennials came along and got hired. I was like, On some level, I feel like I never got my chance to have the career I was supposed to have, or that I was aiming for. Although I was also aiming for several different careers, because if I want to be a writer, I also need to make a living as an editor and teacher. But maybe there’s something to the idea that there wasn’t room for us Gen Xers.
SB: Yeah, I have that feeling too. Sometimes, if somebody younger is writing about something I’ve written about in the past as if it’s this idea, I will post the old related piece of mine on Twitter. But then I’ll feel embarrassed that I did that. But I often feel that way about posting new work too. Generally, I feel uncomfortable constantly promoting myself. But if I don’t, how will I keep going and getting more work? I mean, nobody else is going to promote my work for me. How do you feel about that? Does it feel icky to you to constantly be like, “Look at me here! Look at me there! Buy my book!”
SB: What is your book about? It’s a YA novel, right? And is it about why swimming is good for you?
SB: Yes. I loved that place.
SB: Oh, awesome. That sounds amazing.
SB: I used to ghostwrite new age books. Talk about gigs you take on just because you need the money. I ghostwrote for Horst Rechelbacher, who founded Aveda. It started out as a really kooky book, more of like a service-y memoir. And then while we were writing it, Estée Lauder bought Aveda and we had to make it all about, like, how to make curly hair look nice using Aveda products.
SB: But at first, while we were writing it, he was like, “I will tell you how to have the kind of orgasm that will make you feel like you are in a new world,” which I guess is a kind of astral projection? And then suddenly, after Estée Lauder bought the company, all that kind of thing had to be edited out and replaced with beauty tips. I also ghostwrote one for a psychic, called , about how to cast spells from your bathtub. Then I applied to ghostwrite a book for a palm reader, but she took one look at my palm and was like, “No, you hold on to things for too long. I can’t work with you.”
SB: So, you’re always promoting different kinds of things. Tonight it’s a sketch comedy show at Joe’s pub and soon it will be a book. Is it both a blessing and a curse to be both a performer and a writer? And who is ever going to have enough time to only work on the one thing that they love?
SB: I think about perception a lot too. Sometimes you have to move away from the things that peg you as someone you don’t want to be seen as. I had a piece here on Catapult recently about what I wish I knew when I was starting out and all the bad advice I received early on. Some of it led me into a nine-year stretch of working only for trade magazines—business magazines that cover particular industries and are only read by people in those industries. It took so much energy to change my perception in the world. I would go on interviews at Condé Nast and the HR people would say, “Oh, you’re a trade writer.” It takes a lot to redefine yourself. I love that you found that corporate gig with PricewaterhouseCoopers, where probably your name wasn’t on any of that copy. So you were able to sustain yourself with that work without having it interfere with the perception of you as a writer and performer and artist.
SB: My former neighbor on my floor in the East Village!
RuPaul’s Drag Race
SB: I also think that our generation is obsessed with authenticity. I know that I prefer messiness. I prefer when you can see the real person behind the art. With some younger people, it almost feels more like artifice than an authentic presentation of themselves. But you know, we’re also trying to appeal to not only our age group with our work. We’re trying to sell to everybody. And we are competing with people who are a lot more polished than we are. So that’s a little bit of a challenge.
So, are you at all daunted about going out with this new book?
MA: Oh my God, I feel like a hurricane’s coming and I don’t have all my supplies yet. It’s coming out in January, and I have to start to do this. I have to up my social media presence. I have to make a plan. I have to be posting three times a week. Carrie Seim, who published her YA novel Horse Girl with the same imprint I’m at, Penguin Workshop, gave me some advice. She said, “You know, press doesn’t move books. Do your press, of course. But what moves books is grassroots contact. Getting on Facebook and talking to all the mothers of kids you know.” Contests too. It’s a lot. I’ve got to start. I’ve got to get my sandwich board on my body and go out there and peddle this book, which luckily I believe in. I believe in the product. I’m very proud of this book. It’s from my heart. So I’m happy to do it, but I’m very daunted about it for sure.
SB: That’s a great attitude to come out of the gate with. From the time I got out of college, I have been hearing the words “you need to build platform.” Not a platform, but “platform”—this general category of thing. I’ve been obsessed with trying to build platform. For so long I was building platform but not creating. But despite all the platform I’ve built, I feel like I still have a hard time being seen and known for what I do. And if people do know who I am, I’m kind of old news. It’s gotten more competitive, with more people vying for fewer and fewer spots, like a game of musical chairs. Do you feel any of that?
MA: I do. I guess one example of that is this manuscript that’s out with editors right now. My agent, Kent Wolf, was like, “Pack a lunch and stay hydrated because it takes forever for people to read things now.” And we had to line edit this draft. Kent and I were working really closely on the drafts of this book. And he’s like, “This is how it is.” You’ve got to get it super tight for people to even read it. Gone are the days of smoking hash or taking speed and sitting at a typewriter like William Burroughs. You’ve got to Mary Lou Retton–land that book in an editor’s lap perfectly. Because there are more people, and more product, and there’s less time, there’s less eyeball space. Less money.
SB: It’s good that you have a good relationship with your agent, that your agent believes in you and is willing to put in that work. What is this book that’s out on submission?
MA: It’s a book that I started in 2010, maybe 2008. It’s science fiction. It’s about a girl who lives in an alternate universe who’s looking for love. It’s a virtual world that was created here, but she doesn’t know that she’s in a virtual world. Her best friend’s dating a butterfly. She’s very old-school—she likes humans. So she’s just longing for love. And she doesn’t know who her mother is. I’ve been chipping away at this book for fifteen years. It’s very weird. Hopefully someone will be interested in publishing it.
SB: Is it for adults or for young adults?
MA: This is very adult. Maybe a little controversial-adult.
SB: My last question for you: Do you ever feel like Mike the performer is competing with Mike the author, and if you had to choose between them, which would you choose?
MA: Yes. There were, like, two months when I had Los Angeles longings. I don’t think I have the steely resolve it takes to be an actor. I love being onstage. I love performing. I’d love to act more. I feel like I’m finally good at it after all these years. But that whole game scares the shit out of me. My friends who are actors, they are really in it. You have to be really in it to do that.
SB: That’s a whole other game of musical chairs, like totally pro-level musical chairs.
MA: I am much better and more confident hustling my writing than hustling my performing. I don’t know why I perform. I just like to do it. It’s fun. To me, it’s all about communication and trying to find the right vehicle for the message or the idea that you have. I learned a lot about writing from performing, just in how to be concise and find the right language. But during the pandemic, my stand-up comedian friends, like Marga Gomez and Ophira Eisenberg, they were virtually out there, doing weekly Zoom shows. It’s built into their systems to express themselves that way. And I think it’s so impressive. I was more like, I think I’m gonna go write a book now.
SB: In a way, maybe the pandemic freed you up to shift in that direction.
MA: It might have finally been the quiet time that I needed. I didn’t have to say yes to a million things.
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.