Tuesday, July 12, 2016
"I don't know where I'm going!"
A girl is standing on Bedford Avenue next to a gentleman of some nature, her phone in front of her face. Her finger swipes down repeatedly on the screen as if trying to find herself on a map.
It was an interesting phrase to hear as I walked past them toward the L station from Greenpoint, as it perfectly summed up my day.
A big, if not arguably the biggest, part of my job is to pitch articles and photographs to various publications. Once they're accepted, I then get to write or photograph (or both) whatever topic I've submitted. The weeks where I have to do this, though, are often quite taxing. Not because coming up with ideas and sending emails is difficult, of course, but because it can feel as if my ability to pay my rent and all of my bills rests within a single email to an editor or even a subject at a given time. It's stressful, spending sometimes literally hours on a website to understand their content only to have the ideas you've spent all this time on, sometimes days at a time, get unanimously rejected or not even acknowledged. This is the nature of the beast, of course, a thing that every writer deals with all the time. It's a life I chose and ultimately I'm happy to be living it and making a living doing it. But that doesn't mean that some days I don't want to kneel in front of my computer and pray to Moses or Jesus or RuPaul or whoever runs the universe for this pitch or that pitch to be accepted. Because often, if not most of the time, that is what I want to do and the sole fact that I am in a coffee shop surrounded by people with interesting tattoos and sneakers is often the primary reason I do not end up doing so. Please just let this go through, I think to myself instead. Please.
Today was one such day, in one such week. I spent hours agonizing over a food website to make sure my pitches were tuned in to what they might want, and ultimately I think I made some good decisions. I submitted them around 5pm, so I imagine/hope I'll see sometime later this week. I left the coffee shop once I finished this task to head to Word Bookstore in Greenpoint. The event tonight was "Ask Polly Live" where "Ask Polly" advice columnist Heather Havrilesky of New York Magazine's The Cut would be discussing her new book, a collection of her column entitled "How to Be a Person." Heather's column has developed a cult following, and soon the bookstore will be flooded with 20-something women all seeking their own interaction with Polly. Joining her would be two more very well-respected writers, Meghan Daum and Kate Bolick. I had even studied Meghan Daum's work in college, when a professor assigned her delightful essay "Music is My Bag" for a class. I was excited to be in a room with so many inspirational writers at once.
As is my MO, I arrived early, mostly to peek around at the bookstore--I lust after books in a way that most certainly lacks sanity; the Louisa May Alcott quote "She is too fond of books and it has addled her brain" always blares in the back of my mind whenever I enter a bookstore of any kind, and I am often left wondering to myself how to pick just one to take home. Shortly after perusing the stacks, I felt the back of my throat close up the way it does when it is trying to suppress water from spilling out of my eyes, my tongue springing to the roof of my mouth to hold my jaw closed. I was surrounded by ravishing cultural critiques, essays, and histories by celebrated authors, memoirs in hardcover by people perhaps a decade younger than me, anthologies I would have longed to contribute to bearing the names of writers I know on their covers. It was no different than any other trip to a bookstore, really, but today I internally prayed for an article about breakfast food to be accepted to a magazine. How was I supposed to go downstairs now and listen to these giants talk about writing? I felt an inch tall. I wanted to run out of the store, find a stoop to sit on, unhinge my tongue from the roof of my mouth and release saltwater down my face in fits and starts until I couldn't breathe. Breakfast food.
"I don't know where I'm going!" indeed.
But I knew I was just feeling sorry for myself, and I certainly wasn't going to turn around and go home after I had gone all the way to Greenpoint. "Suck it up," I thought to myself. "You will learn something and it is important for you to be here to listen to strong, smart women who once were where you are talk about writing."
And listen I did. To Heather Havrilesky's deliciously sharp, confident tongue that mirrors her worldly, tell-it-like-it-is "Ask Polly" column; to Meghan Daum's advice to celebrate one's comfort zone--but to go deep into it and not stay on the surface--because "the things that work are the things that feel authentic to you" and the trouble starts when you force it; to Kate Bolick's celebratory "courage of her eccentricities" and "This is the cake I bake!" a personal manifesto for self-acceptance encouraging those who don't like your cake to visit another bakery. They made me think about the writing I want to do and why I don't do more of it, about emotional truth in writing, about the steps I need to take to get where I want to go. They can seem like daunting steps, of course, but they are required if this is what I want.
I got the most hope, though, from a story Kate Bolick told about Heather Havrilesky, when she discussed one of the first columns Heather did something like 20 years ago. One of the first. 20 years ago. "Oh!" I thought to myself. "I have time!" It seems like a 'duh' point to say so, but of course nobody who has been at anything for 6 years has mastered it. In another 14 years if I don't have my shit together then we can worry. Maybe in 14 years, if I just keep doing what I'm doing but also make the changes I need to make, breakfast food and all, I will have a career like one of these women. The event ends and they are milling about, but I don't have the guts to say hello and I love your work and you inspire me like I normally would. I am unfortunately still hearing breakfast food in the back of my head, simultaneously feeling dwarfed by their accomplishments and knowing how far I still have to go, while trying to think, based on their advice, how to grow next.
I go to leave the bookstore and by the door is Heather, who is signing books for a long line of young women. They say things to her like "You changed my life," and "You saved me," and she smiles a true, genuine smile to each of them and says thank you. I press the door open and her eyes meet mine. I have noticeably not been in the line of the tiny bookstore to come face to face with her before now. "Thank you for coming!" she says. I can only manage a nod and a half-smile before exiting, but I think, thank you.
I walk past McCarren Park, chasing twilight as the sky quickly turns from lavender to heliotrope to navy back to the train, when I walk past the girl whose face is in her phone. "I don't know where I'm going!"
Me either, I think. But I think that's okay.