| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life The Impossible Ideals of the “Writer’s Life”
This was the pact I made with my now and future self: to become the most successful writer that it was possible to be.
The first time I felt God, I was squashed into a Pacific University dorm room. It was a party thrown by a few upperclassmen, thick with the cool kids who weren’t concerned about feeling fresh for the next day’s 9 a.m. craft talk and the faculty advisors who weren’t concerned about being caught cozying up to student poets. The counter was a potluck of liquor, almost-empty bottles of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey and Kraken Rum. I found myself on a couch throwing elaborate hand gestures at a guy from my workshop, trying to impart how a-may-zing his essay was, as he shouted the same compliments right back in a terse debate of adoration. I was a week into my first residency as an MFA student, and I felt as if I’d lived more in this calendar blip than I had in the better part of a decade.
I didn’t know what to expect when I’d packed up enough clothes and snacks and notebooks to spend ten days in Forest Grove, a brief and luscious drive from my house through Oregon’s wine country. Even as I was stacking the trunk of my Corolla, I wasn’t sold on the idea that I could really be a writer. I didn’t come from a family of artists—I was a white middle-class Lutheran daughter raised to believe in a stable job that paid the bills while you chased the superfluous in your spare time. Although I wrote constantly from kindergarten to college, pursuing writing as an occupation felt as realistic as “kitten wrangler” or “craft-cocktail taste tester.” I double majored in business and English to stay sane, but writing went on the Someday shelf.
After I graduated and the soul-crush of the office grind descended, those memories of writing became increasingly appealing to me. I spent several years after college in dead-end office jobs until my former English professor suggested, over lunch, that I get my MFA so that I might teach. It didn’t matter that this was the first time I’d heard the acronym. The faintest whiff of doing something beyond in-house marketing administration was all the hard selling I needed. I downloaded an application for the closest program, ready to aim for a life focused on the only thing I’d ever felt good at.
From the moment Ellen Bass took the theater podium for our first craft talk, I was rapt. The swanlike grace and immovable confidence with which she read her poems left my jaw slack—this was a way of being in the world. My instant enthusiasm was only matched by the totality of my inexperience. If I’d been forced at gunpoint to name a lit journal, I maybe, maybe could have come up with The New Yorker . During my first workshop session, my advisor had to explain to me the difference between a memoir and a novel. My first reading-list assignment, which was expected to contain twenty nonfiction titles that I’d read throughout the semester, was turned in with a single “ Julie & Julia ?” typed at the top.
But it was that humbling experience of starting from nothing, from not having a single foothold in the literary or publishing world, that allowed me to soak up the degree as an osmosis-like transformation. I attended each faculty reading clutching my heart, nodding at the lines that felt especially perceptive. I filled an entire spiral notebook with starred, triple-underlined notes:
SHOW, DON’T TELL!
IT’S THE STORY, NOT THE SITUATION!!!
KILL YOUR DARLINGS!!!!
WRITE EVERY DAY!!!!!
When I headed home after the ten-day residency, these passages became my gospel. They were the wisdom I lived by as I devoured the foundational texts: Bird by Bird , The Liars’ Club , The Elements of Style . They’re what pushed me to write page after page each night no matter how hard my day job tried to wring the soul out of me. Each paragraph, each new essay draft, each exchange with my advisor was microscopically better than the one that had come before it. And the act of doing this work as ritual, as necessity, saved me. There was no longer a question of what I would do with my life.
To compare the girl who entered the program in 2010 to the one who gave the 2012 student commencement speech is to regard two totally different people. The graduate has a Submittable queue consistently packed with a rotation of a half dozen essays; she checks them daily, sending out anew anything that bounces back. After work she jets up I-5 and parks in Portland’s Brewery Blocks, eager to introduce herself to the latest writer on tour. She no longer works for the awful little company that drove her to the MFA as a last resort, but now has a tidy corporate job with high cubicle walls that mark a clear division between writing and work life. Her once mousy, long brown hair is set in platinum Marilyn Monroe waves that, along with the pithy tweets and Instagram Outfits of the Day, have become her author brand.
And from the pulpit she delivered her opus, an impassioned speech on this incredible program and the saving grace of the writing life.
After the flowers and shrimp and photos and champagne, she disappeared into the golden coastal sunset to live out her doctrine. This was the pact she made with her now and future self: to become the most successful writer that it was possible to be. Anything less would be a tragic failure.
Nine years have passed since then and, unless you’re a friend gracious enough to check out this latest essay, you probably haven’t heard of me. My agent is still an imaginary friend. Vogue is only beating down my inbox to renew my lapsed subscription. I’m writing this in summer 2021, a time when all of us lucky enough to still be here are, in some sense, new. It doesn’t matter who we were before Covid-19 rewove our reality—none of us have emerged unchanged. For me, the pandemic was the capstone on a yearslong metamorphosis from wannabe wunderkind through embittered veteran to, ultimately, someplace in the middle. It was a forced pause in the shark-like treading I’d maintained for the majority of the 2010s. By fall 2018, I was burned-out and jaded. The joy I’d found in reading and creating and sharing and listening was gone.
“Take a break,” said my husband, my mother, my therapist, my few MFA friends I hadn’t fallen out or out of touch with.
I didn’t try to explain that I couldn’t. I had to keep working, to fix what I’d done wrong, to come back.
The absolutism with which I embarked on my writing career served me well for many years. There were the AWP conferences reminiscent of that old crowded dorm room, fawning over all the connections I’d made remotely, cartwheeling through the book fair and hottest off-sites and hotel bar and crashing the suite after-parties. The constellation of acceptances that expanded as I honed my voice and narrowed my submissions. Instead of attending every Portland-area reading I could get to, I began to appear on the rosters alongside writers I once doubted I’d ever meet, let alone count as colleagues.
And by and large, I kept the strict promises that I’d made with myself. Each night before bed, I’d make sure I’d written Anne Lamott’s prescribed three hundred words a day; if I hadn’t, I stayed up until I did. I didn’t say no to a single opportunity, flush with the privilege of being able to work a full-time writing schedule without pay if it meant even a flicker of exposure. I wrote weekly columns, edited, spoke on panels, reviewed books, and interviewed up-and-comers, all banking on the chance that it would eventually pay off. This was my tithe, and the church of publishing was ravenous.
By all the measures I set back in school, this practice worked. People who weren’t named on my birth or marriage certificates were sharing and commenting on my work. I’d gotten to know many of my writing heroes personally. My all-time favorite author tweeted out my essays. I was chattering right along with the Great Literary Conversation.
But with each year, something strange was happening. That high-humming ecstasy I’d felt in the Pacific University dorm hall? The more I accomplished, the less I felt it. The buzzing happiness that sent me jumping up and down at my first essay acceptance plummeted with each byline that followed. Instead of being proud of all the days I managed to write after a full office workday and commute and dinner and maybe a few sentences exchanged with my spouse, I hated myself for the nights that the couch was too comfortable and the reruns of RuPaul’s Drag Race too irresistible.
At the same time, little disappointments began to add up. Minor, uncontrollable things I tried not to take personally, reminding myself I wasn’t entitled to anything and that everyone’s writing career looked different: The events I wasn’t approached to participate in. The one outlet that kept rejecting my pitches with the same two lines while enthusiastically publishing my friends’ work. The residencies with such seemingly arbitrary selection processes. What used to bounce off me now lingered, evidence that working hard wasn’t enough. That I wasn’t enough, and never would be.
I didn’t stop to reevaluate that aging notebook full of transcribed rules, to realize that many of those faculty members had breadwinning or childcare-providing partners, or lucrative publishing contracts to complement their low-residency teaching salaries, and certainly weren’t twentysomething millennials taking on sixty thousand dollars of lifelong debt to further a career that paid pennies on the hour. The way was as clear as if it were written: You’re never going to reach your dream , I told myself in the mornings, getting up to supposedly live it.
I wasn’t the only one cut down by this restrictive model of the writers’ life. As time wore on, the members of my MFA cohort continued to grow and evolve as people. They fell in love, came out, moved away, got divorced. Some transitioned into nonliterary careers they truly enjoyed and excelled at, a concept I’d worked so hard not to grasp. They indulged in new hobbies or picked up ones they’d left behind. At first, these fully rendered people alarmed me. Why weren’t they writing? We’d talked about this! Together, between the bygone karaoke nights and subsequent sludge coffees. We were supposed to claw to the top together, legends in the making who would interview each other for Vanity Fair . Why, then, were they giving up?
I wonder what I could have learned from these branching, marvelously variant experiences if I’d given them the respect they deserved. How many friendships I could have kept alive if I’d been open to the idea that what we needed out of life could change. Then again, I know the depths of that stubbornness, and how long it takes to fall to the very bottom.
During the MFA, we had been told by every advisor, industry guest, and alumni visitor how steeply the odds were stacked against traditionally publishing a book, and that the industry was only getting less risk-averse every quarter. But, as with all things in art, we believed that for us it would be different. Six years after earning my degree, I achieved the impossible: In March 2018, I released a collection of essays about food and writing that traced a failed attempt to write a novel.
I don’t wish to go back in time and warn Little Miss Valedictorian that publishing a debut with a small press would not be the ultimate validation she imagined—that, in fact, the experience would turn into one of the most frustrating and disheartening of her life. The story of my book release isn’t a unique one. There is a finite amount of attention, press, and sales a book can achieve without very specific, extremely scarce forces supporting it. Bestsellers are elevated not by merit but by marketing teams and publicists. When you don’t have a marquee publisher throwing their clout and money behind you, or thousands of dollars to hire your own well-connected freelancer; when your galleys arrive too late for the prepress schedule; when you’re the only one holding the megaphone, you’re only going to go so far.
I remember this realization crashing down on me in the Seaside Post Office parking lot, after I’d just stuffed another one of my author copies in a padded envelope to send to a reviewer who had requested one from my publisher but never received it. The past spring and summer, I’d jetted up and down the West Coast on a self-planned and self-funded book tour, taking glamorous selfies with my cover at The Beverly Hilton pool, as if some Big Five accounts payable associate were waiting for my receipts. I was throwing everything I had, emotionally and financially, against what I could not control. More than once I’d make a personal visit to a bookstore only to be told that they’d love to stock the book, but it was on indefinite back order in the purgatory of the distribution system.
In the Seaside parking lot, I fired off another cheerful follow-up email to the reviewer. With the windows of my Prius rolled as tightly as they’d go, I sank my forehead into the groove of the steering wheel and screamed. No matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t strong-arm my fate. For the first time, I understood that I had two choices: I could accept that big-shot stardom wasn’t my destiny, or I could double down on this misery of trying to force it so.
I didn’t know how to grapple with the former yet. But I knew the latter would kill me.
Back home from the hustle of the book tour, I discovered that I was pregnant. We blame the Bend, Oregon, tour stop, the only one my husband was able to tag along for. Children had never been on my list; parenthood seemed counterintuitive to everything I promised myself I’d achieve. I initially planned to terminate the pregnancy, but sitting with the idea of this family did strange, unimaginable things to my heart. Days after embracing the idea of motherhood, I miscarried in my office’s single-stall bathroom.
I spent the ensuing months trying to recreate what I’d once considered a worst-case scenario while simultaneously mourning its dissolution. In January of 2019, my focus shifted toward nurturing a new pregnancy, one that became increasingly complicated. Less than a month before I gave birth, the steadfast day job I’d had since my MFA, which had agreed to an unpaid extension of my maternity leave from three months to six, backed out of the arrangement. It would set an unwanted precedent, my boss of eight years explained. I offered to work from home, knowing there was no way I’d be able to rearrange the infant daycare I’d secured back in my first trimester.
“Our executive team doesn’t believe in ‘work from home,’” she informed me.
My hand forced, I made the only move I had left: I packed up all my shit and left forever.
My daughter Sophie’s six-month birthday was March 6, 2020. At the time, we were just starting to peek at life outside our home, beyond the sleepless drudgery and ecstasy of the newborn phase. I drove us out to Multnomah Falls to hike, where I clumsily introduced myself to a writer I followed on Instagram. We got annual passes for the park and the zoo. After almost a year of not writing at all, I was back in touch with an agent who was interested in my book proposal.
And then it was gone.
This time, my creative hiatus felt permanent. Raising a person and managing my anxiety over whether we’d survive the pandemic were all-encompassing, often-contradictory imperatives. But the longer the months and uncertainty wore on, the less I missed my uncompromising artistic practice. I did not write for days, weeks, months at a time. The further I drifted from the epicenter of that world, the less it defined me. I sat with questions I wouldn’t have admitted before for fear of cursing myself: What if I never write another book? What if I only create what I want, when I feel compelled, for no other reason than I have something I have to say?
Those outcomes no longer scare me as I find myself acknowledging this hard-earned truth: that there is so much worse. And, equally true: There is so much better. I am continually astonished by the joy in practicing the art I love only for projects I’m passionate about, the luxury of writing only what and when I want. I’ve stopped firing off queries for anything I think might pop. The pride I feel in looking back at this year’s bylines—a few essays I’m genuinely excited about—is immense and liberating and true.
I can’t help imagining that younger, prettier, much more energetic fanatic finding me here, drafting my first essay of the year on Memorial Day, in between making a new cocktail recipe and vintage shopping and chasing a toddler around the living room and reorganizing the laundry room cabinets. It’s hard, I know, to loosen your grip on something when you feel that it’s all that you have. But she hasn’t lived the loss and uncertainty that is to come; her mortality is a distant theoretical. I grant her this grace, though I intimately know her inability to concede the same to others.
There are times when I feel fleeting guilt for breaking the vow I made half a dozen lifetimes ago. Like old muscle memory, my instinct to interrogate my drive and belittle my accomplishments takes a spasm of a breath. But there is a hush, now, that didn’t exist before. The vow is impossible. It was a pact made with someone who had yet to exist by another someone who is long gone. And here alone, at last, I can dream.