No One Else Can Feel It For You

only you can let it in

It’s so weird, and frankly kind of embarrassing, to recall that I spent the second-to-last weekend before [gestures vaguely] all this on a retreat, trying to write and also to think about what I might be able to do, over the coming months, to make writing, and my life in general, feel a little easier. My plans involved reducing the amount of time I spent on freelance work, acquiring a bit more childcare, and exercising more frequently. And, well… it turns out that sometimes, two out of three is bad?

I was probably due to lose my freelance job at some point this year, and obviously there are many people in much worse straits, so no major complaints there. And I actually have been exercising a lot, although I’m not sure it’s a huge net gain once you’ve factored in the loss of the kind of almost-passive exercise that one gets simply by moving around New York City, a thing that I no longer do.

But. But! Instead of acquiring more childcare, as intended, I (like nearly everyone) lost what childcare I did have, a now-unbelievable-sounding forty-plus hours a week, most of which was provided free of charge by the city in the form of public kindergarten. Technically, of course, my daughter was still enrolled in school through the end of last month. But despite her teachers’ heroic efforts, and notwithstanding the once- or twice-daily live sessions that she (usually) deigned to attend, it was really more like private kindergarten. By which I mean that she was alone, with only me to assist and motivate her, and I’m not sure I was especially great at it.

I am far from the first to observe that this period has felt very much like a second maternity leave—not since my daughter’s infancy have I spent anywhere near this much time with her. In some respects, it’s been better: I’m tired, but not can’t-form-new-memories tired, and while I remain nervous that everything that’s going on right now might mess her up, the potential consequences are mostly a lot more nebulous and remote than, like, crib death. In other ways, it’s worse: While my first maternity leave was, like this one, unpaid, at least I got to decide when it ended. Eight weeks after having her, I had already hired a part-time nanny and was inching my way back to work. What’s happening now feels like it could go on for ages.

So, I suppose it was only a matter of time before—plot twist—I started to accept it? Had I known, when I picked her up on March 11th, that my daughter would not be returning to the school building again for the rest of the academic year, and possibly even the rest of the calendar year, I’d have been inconsolable. As it was, I was close, and I was only thinking that this might go on for, I don’t know, six weeks?

But the set-point theory of happiness, as explained by the APA, posits that everyone has their own baseline of “subjective well being…that is generally stable throughout life and that they are likely to return to despite life-changing events” both positive and negative. I think I believe this! Yes, certain things in my life have improved over the last two months (for example, my daughter and I have relocated to a house in Vermont that’s just a few miles away from the nearest swimmable body of water), and I’m sure that’s a huge part of it. But I think it’s probably also somewhat due to my lifelong habit of just being relatively happy.

That habit is, of course, a privilege. It is also, I suspect, a byproduct of the many more concrete privileges I’ve enjoyed throughout my life, e.g. the ability to relocate to a house in Vermont. I’m not exactly immune to the anxieties that so many of us are experiencing—about the virus and our various governments’ utterly inadequate responses to it, about the not-even-creeping-anymore authoritarianism of our current presidential administration, and about the structural racism and state-sponsored racist violence that has recently, finally (I hope) become un-ignorable even to most people who look like me—but those anxieties have felt a little more manageable as of late.

I still miss my friends. I miss my job, by which I mean I miss my very charming coworkers and the money and even, at times, the work, and I miss being able to walk over to Xi’An Famous Foods at lunchtime to pick up an order of spicy cumin lamb noodles and a tiger vegetable salad. I miss karaoke, and meeting someone for a drink, and at least having the option to go out dancing, and a million other things. I’ve been feeling better nevertheless.

But even as I’ve returned, however improbably, to my old self, there are some things about me, this summer, that I hardly recognize. For example: I paddleboard now? I’m not fantastic or anything. But on Friday morning, I rented a paddle and a board and I stood right up on it like it was easy, because it was, and I pushed myself away from the beach full of children, one of which was my own, to a distant part of the reservoir, where I could be alone with only the water and the trees and mountains and the sky, for several minutes at a time.

Maybe this is who I’d have been, before this, if certain other things hadn’t worked out the way I thought I wanted them to, earlier on. (Obviously, it’s not only the paddleboarding.) Or maybe I’m just good at adapting? I don’t know. This feels like a time for asking questions, for being open, and for hoping that, eventually, the answers will come.

Lauren

P.S. Want some more coronavirus-inspired musings from me? I wrote an essay back in March for Glamour, headlined “Will My New Relationship Survive the Pandemic?” (Spoiler alert: It did not.)

Hi.

Somehow, it’s been a year since I last sent an edition of this newsletter. The break was not intentional, but it did, ultimately, become self-perpetuating, in the manner of a cartoon snowball growing ever bigger as it rolls down the side of a mountain. The longer it’s been since I’ve done something, the more perfect I think I need to be when I finally do it again. Which is a non-ideal way to approach writing and also, I suppose, life.

Nobody has been waiting to hear from me. I know that. Even my very few paid subscribers have likely not noticed that they spent the last year giving me money for a product they did not receive, and might in fact respond to this reminder of such by canceling their subscriptions. (That’s okay, if that’s what happens! I get it.)

It’s been a hard year for everybody, but it’s been an especially hard year for me. I don’t know why it’s so difficult for me to say that here, but it is. In person, I can be open to a fault, telling pretty much anyone I meet pretty much anything that pops into my head. But in this format, I feel exposed. There are, somehow, hundreds of you, and this is not what you signed up for. But I guess I might need to say this, just so I can clear the decks: It’s been a hard year. And the reason it’s been hard is that I spent almost all of it in the (still ongoing) process of getting divorced.

Getting divorced is, as you may have heard, terrible*, and I do not recommend it. In fact, I’m not even sure I’d recommend marriage at this point, because getting married increases your risk of getting divorced. In my case, for example, it went from 0% (as an unwed person) to somewhere between 22% (that’s the likelihood, according to one study I found, of a college-educated woman not making it to her twentieth anniversary) and 50% (which everyone agrees is not actually the overall divorce rate, anymore, but no one seems to have settled on a new one). Whatever the exact odds, I certainly never thought they’d apply to me; I never believed that I would be in this position. That is, I guess, a mark of the level of privilege I’ve enjoyed throughout my life, but it’s also exactly what almost everyone would say, I’m betting. Who would get married, if they thought there was a real chance that they’d end up like this?

Anyway: Because it’s been a hard year, I’ve had a hard time writing. I’ll spare you the details, but I don’t think it would be too dramatic to say that I’ve mostly been in survival mode. The vast majority of the professional writing I’ve done has been in the form of marketing emails for a fashion brand, and the bulk of my “personal” writing has been very personal, because it’s been in my journal. Beyond that, I haven’t really been able to accomplish much.

This past weekend, though, for the first time in a year, I had precisely 71 hours to myself in which to write (and eat, and exercise, and sleep…) My parents came to the city to take care of my five year old—and, apparently, to give her a thorough introduction to televised professional golf and MSNBC—and I went with three friends on a soi-disant writing retreat in a small town a few hours north of the city.

Depending on the type of person you are, or perhaps on how much you know about the type of person I am, you either will or will not be surprised to hear that I had some trouble getting into it. My first fifteen or so hours were lost to travel, dinner, and sleeping, and when I woke up on Friday morning, I made the questionable decision to spend a couple of hours on freelance work, which is absolutely not the work I’d gone away to do. Then everyone else got up and it was time for breakfast, and then a coffee run, and by the time we made it to the studio it was nearly one o’clock.

I set up at a desk and kicked things off by spending more than an hour writing in my journal. Finally, at around 2:30 or so, I opened my manuscript, only to be instantly overcome by a wave of transparently Freudian exhaustion. Because someone else was, by then, sitting on the space’s one small couch, I decided to get my sneakers and go on a walk. Which was a good idea except that, by the time I returned, everyone else was about ready to pack it in. We went book-shopping and to another friend’s house for dinner and that was it for day one.

Day two was better, but day three, being the last day and only a half day at that, was worse. By mid-morning I was nearly in tears about how little I’d done, how difficult everything is, and how ill-suited I am to my chosen profession. Deep down I knew, of course, that any writing goal I might have set for a long weekend away from my normal life would necessarily have been both too ambitious and not ambitious enough, whether or not I met it. When you’re trying to finish a novel, any given three-day period is going to be a drop in the bucket. But when I expressed this, my friend E. suggested that I take a break to write something short, noting that in having gone a year working on a novel without actually finishing or publishing much of anything, I’d been doing only the hard part.

So, here it is. When I started working on this, on Sunday morning, I felt deeply un-confident. Right now, I feel slightly less so. Like, it at least seems possible that I’ll finish this and go back to my novel and feel a bit more capable? So I guess in that sense it has helped.

When you go through something like what I’ve been going through (again, leaving aside the details!) it wears you down. Which is the problem with the metaphor at the beginning of this letter. Like, yes, the tasks I need (or want) to complete have seemed to get bigger and bigger, and more and more impossible. But maybe the real issue is that I’ve been the one rolling downhill, and, completely unlike a snowball would, I’ve been getting smaller and smaller.

So. With apologies to Miley Cyrus, maybe it’s time to start climbing back up that mountain. With apologies to no one in particular (but: I’m sure they’re owed to Katy Perry or Kesha or Kelly Clarkson…), maybe I need to learn to take up a little more space again.

Lauren

*No, I haven’t seen Marriage Story. But thanks to the friends I was away with last weekend, who discussed the plot for like an hour on Thursday night, I now know pretty much everything that happens in it.

How To Retrieve Your Print Job

Last week was my last week, for now, at the part-time job I’ve held for nearly two years. This week, I’m moving on to a different part-time job. When I’m done there, sometime this summer—it’s a maternity leave fill-in—I plan to come back to the first gig. If for some reason that doesn’t happen, I’ll probably have to find another one.

Nearly a decade has passed since I lost my Teen Vogue contract, a slightly belated casualty of Condé Nast’s McKinsey-led 2009 purge. (Belated because they’d held off on letting me go until the day after the release party for The Teen Vogue Handbook, a New York Times bestseller of which I wrote roughly half.) If memory serves, I was fewer than eight weeks into a new year-long agreement when they cancelled it, and they had to keep paying me for several more months, because I’d already done nearly half a year’s worth of work. Which is to say: I wasn’t exactly dead weight. Even after they voided the contract, they continued to assign me lots of stories.

Overall, I’d guess that they saved very little money when they first converted me from a contributing editor to a regular freelancer. But for me, it had a big psychological effect. Suddenly, I became like so many other freelance writers, never quite sure where my next check, or maybe just the check after the next check, was coming from. I love freelancing, but I’m not particularly well-suited to that aspect of it. So, for most of the last nine years, I’ve held some part-time job or another. And for many of those years, I was more than a little ashamed of that fact.

To some extent, the shame stemmed directly from the jobs themselves. True, there have been several semi-prestigious (or at least non-embarrassing) short-term gigs: early on, for example, I did a five-month stint at InStyle.com, where I created a slideshow of Michael Jackson’s “most iconic” looks to commemorate the first anniversary of his death and took a snapshot of an instructional sign that was taped to the wall above the printer and was headlined, “How To Retrieve Your Print Job.” (Of course, I had nowhere to post the picture, complete with jokey, rueful caption, because it was 2010 and I hadn't joined Instagram yet.) But, even as I continued writing for Teen Vogue and InStyle and, eventually, Elle, I earned an increasingly higher percentage of my annual income generating copy for a couple of magazines that were significantly less, um, aspirational.

On a practical level, I was worried that if the wrong person found out that I’d begun moonlighting for a gossip magazine, I might be blacklisted from the other, fancier publications I preferred to write for. (Now, of course, it makes me laugh to recall that I ever thought myself well-known enough, even if only by the publicists of celebrities, to be blacklisted.) But I was also deeply uncomfortable with the content, especially of the first of the two weeklies that I worked for, which was well-sourced enough that at least a few of the negative stories I was asked to write up seemed as though they might actually be true.

Fortunately, I only made it a few weeks before I was taken off the “hard news” beat, because I’d burst into tears while working on an article that would expose a professional athlete’s infidelity. I genuinely couldn’t help it—as I was typing, I kept thinking about how the piece might eventually be read by his wife, a beautiful former pop star. (“He’s the one who did this to her, not us,” my editor said, exasperated. “This isn’t even the first time he’s done it! He got caught screwing their nanny like five years back.”) But the crying, coupled with my congenital inability to go for the jugular, worked out well for me: I felt better about the work once I was relegated to the shorter, lighter stories about various celebrities’ sibling rivalries and birthing plans.

The second weekly I worked for didn’t pay as well, but it was closer to my apartment and, I thought, less ethically dicey, because the “files” I received appeared to bealmsot entirely made up. You know, “Palace Confirms: William & Kate Named King & Queen.” That kind of thing. What I honestly didn’t realize, all through the election of 2016, was that the nasty stories about politicians that ran in one of the magazines’s much seedier sister publications were actually only ever really nasty about one candidate, mine, and in fact were fairly positive about the other. (I know, I know, but why would I have noticed? I never read that rag!)

It wasn’t until a few days before the inauguration—when I saw an article about yet another weekly, one that was reported to be for sale, which observed that it had begun running similarly upbeat stories about our objectively horrible new first family in order to attract, as a buyer, the company for which I worked—that I grasped what was going on. From there, it didn't take me me long to figure out that I, too, might soon be asked to write frothy pieces humanizing a racist would-be authoritarian, and I decided, with only a little hesitation, that I’d rather be fired than do so.

Less than a week later, I was given the file for a feature that described how the First Lady planned to redecorate the Oval Office (never mind that she’d so far demonstrated zero interest in leaving NYC), and I immediately told my editor that I wouldn't write it. Like, until they started running stories that made the Trumps look at least as bad as the Jolie-Pitts, I didn’t want to be involved.

Both my boss and her boss took it pretty well—neither of them tried to argue that my increasingly meager day rate, which had been unceremoniously cut the previous fall, due to the harsh realities of the magazine business, compelled me to create political propaganda for a president I opposed. Instead, they asked one of the other writers to do it. But as the weeks wore on, I began to feel that not working on those stories, personally, probably wasn’t enough; capitalism being what it is, I reckoned that I was worth at least a little bit more to the company than what they were paying me and, therefore, I was indirectly contributing to their efforts. So, to make a long story short (I know: too late), I quit.

Since then, I’ve been working as a fashion copywriter three days a week. And though it’s further, in some ways, from what I originally set out to do with my life, I think I prefer it? I mean, as far as day jobs go. For one thing, I don’t feel like I have something to hide. Obviously, I still fantasize about what I might be able to accomplish if I could spend all my time writing whatever I want to write (or, in darker moods, I wonder if I’m holding myself back with my pedestrian preference for financial stability). But, given the state of the industry that I stumbled into circa the very late 1990s, just long enough before it all went to hell for me to be able to imagine precisely how great my life might have been if it hadn’t, well, I’m doing okay. Like: I think we all know, by now, that I’m not going to retrieve that print job.

P.S. For a less woebegone take on this topic, starring some pals, click here.

P.P.S. Did you see this piece? The working title (in my head) was “Darling Don’t You Go And Cut Your Hair.”

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