The Experiment Begins
Photo by Adrian Collins Photography
The diving board of my childhood pool was rough under bare feet and still stiff at the end, though it had borne the weight of countless jumps. The water swallowed me with minimal splash--I was proud of my clean dives. At the bottom of the pool, I flipped and lifted my legs so that I sank down to a sitting position, staring through stinging eyes at the water's skin, a barrier between this world and the world above. I enjoyed those moments when all sound was muted and alien; this was solitude, I thought. Then a story idea (now forgotten) struck me, and I shot upwards. I had to write it down.
Other than the pool, my favorite place as a kid was at my desk. The legs were painted white, the surface a very light, shiny wood. The chair was also wood, with a hard seat that made me shift from side to side to quell pins and needles. I wrote in spiral notebooks of all sizes, with stories reflecting my age and reading habits: when I was seven or eight and reading Goosebumps, I wrote stories of giant eyeballs and evil Venus flytraps and ghost cats. Ten or twelve and quickly leaving Sweet Valley behind in favor of Dean Koontz and Robin Cook, Patricia Cornwell and Mary Higgins Clark, I wrote about teenaged girls solving crime through their wits and telepathy. Fifteen and swapping genre fiction for Literature-capital-L, I started writing a novel about God--how he chooses those who die and what would happen if one day, he didn't make that list: what would have stopped him, and what would those people do with one extra day?
Meanwhile, I wrote in journals about my own life. They were event-driven at first--the weekend's mall excursion, the glance from a crush that suggested--please, please let it suggest!--that perhaps I was worthy of being wanted. Then about emotions: how I felt about desiring and being desired, weeding through the Catholic guilt to determine who I was okay with being versus who the church said I should be, venting frustrations at my parents, at their protectiveness that often made me feel left behind by my peers. When I went to college, I opened a new Word document, and that became my journal, where besides events and emotions, I wrote about thoughts--opinions I was forming about books and religion and capitalism. I wrote about the philosophy concepts that most gave me headaches in class. I tried to write myself to a place of understanding. And if not understanding, then something else, something I couldn't have predicted when I first settled my fingers on the keyboard.
Someone asked me, around that time, why I wrote. The question surprised me, I guess because I had long since stopped asking it of myself. Why do you eat? that person may as well have asked. Why do you laugh? Because I'm hungry. Because something's funny. Because those things are life itself. That's how writing to felt to me, though it's a deceptively simple answer.
In "Why Do I Write?" Alan Shapiro gives a better one--or, rather, refers to a better one:
“So the work itself always entails frustration and failure; it can damage our most intimate relationships; its public rewards are illusory at worst, fleeting at best . . . So why do it?
“Elizabeth Bishop provides a possible answer in a famous letter to Anne Stevenson. Bishop writes that what we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. We write, Bishop implies, for the same reason we read or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here, right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration. It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self, because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making; your identity–the incessant, transient, noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appetites, and interests–has been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness. In that extended moment, opposites cohere: the mind feels and the heart thinks, and receptivity’s a form of fierce activity. Quotidian distinctions between mind and body, self and other, space and time, dissolve.”
This, which I first read in grad school, resonated so deeply with me that I carry it in memory as a sort of talisman, a reminder on the days that I dread writing, or fear it. To write is to both lose and find oneself in creating, and though I think it begins as an inherently selfish endeavor (I, at least, write out of compulsion for that total immersion of the experience), we hope it will end in something far greater.
This is all a long way of saying that, for as long as memories are clear, writing has been an inseparable, irreducible part of who I am. I never doubted that I would be A Writer--that is, I would write for a living, not only for a compulsion. And I have. After college, I worked for People magazine and then for myself, piecing together an income through freelancing for magazines and newspapers, writing marketing content and editing books. I installed Quickbooks and learned how to track time and invoice clients, most of whom paid, though not very much and some not at all. I found Round Table Companies in 2007, through an ad on Craigslist, my favorite, if dubious, spot for throwing my name in an opportunistic hat.
The job was a two-week turnaround proofread of a manuscript that had just been completed. It was a dream: fair and timely compensation on a project I enjoyed and to which I felt I had contributed in a meaningful way. Afterwards, the company's CEO, Corey Blake, wrote me an email I'll never forget: "In your most perfect and brilliant world, what would you be doing? How can I be of support to your dreams as a writer, an editor?" I joke that at first I wondered if this was a Ponze scheme, or he a serial killer--my skepticism may not have been that dramatic, but my four months as an independent contractor had jaded me enough to doubt such benevolence. Still, I told him the truth: that in an ideal world, I'd be working on (and getting paid for) writing my own fiction. In this world, I was beginning to love helping other people tell their stories. It felt like a service, one I was proud to be able to offer.
Over the next eight years, RTC was a stable source of income, a surprising impetus for personal growth, a constant intellectual challenge, and a joyful home. I went from working twenty hours a week for the company before grad school, to twenty hours a month during grad school, to eventually full-time afterwards. One project at a time, I became a twenty-six-year-old executive editor, a title I probably didn't live into for another two years.
To say I was devoted to RTC is probably an understatement. I, who had never in my life woken up before seven if I didn't absolutely have to, started voluntarily setting the alarm for four a.m. I'd make coffee and settle back into bed with my laptop, enjoying a few quiet hours of editing before the emails started and I needed to shift into manager-mode. I loved every part of what I did--interviewing clients, coaching writers, reviewing drafts, even creating timelines and overseeing development schedules. My days were full: four or five hours of interviews or conference calls, an hour or two of project management, several more hours of editing. I lived alone, so I was happy to make RTC my life in this way. A quick lunch of leftovers, a dinner of Tostitos and wine, a Skype call with Adrian, then my boyfriend, who still lived in his native Sydney--I fell to bed exhausted but content.
Then two things happened. Thing one: toward the end of 2013, I realized that when people asked me what I did for a living, I was responding, "I'm an editor." This was the first time in my life that saying "I'm a writer" felt untrue. It was untrue. I wasn't writing, for myself or anyone else. Not even the lifelong compulsion drew me back to my computer after ten- or twelve-hour days on it. I wasn't even reading anything that wasn't on our editorial roster! I voiced my sadness about this to Corey, who immediately offered to support me in shifting my schedule enough to write another client book. Last year, I wrote that book, for a client who gave me an astounding amount of creative freedom; it was a salve on a wound I'd only just discovered, but it couldn't heal it entirely.
Thing two: Adrian moved to Texas last March. He proposed, and by May, we were married with a puppy. Adrian knew my schedule well. We often Skyped on those four a.m. mornings, since it was before he went to bed in Australia. We'd Whatsapp throughout both our workdays, the tail end of mine overlapping with the start of his. We had long conversations about the books I was working on, the stories we, as a company, were sharing. Often, the seventeen-hour time difference worked in our favor; or, rather, my schedule's favor. I didn't need to finish work at five p.m.; he'd only just arrived at his desk and wasn't expecting anything from me but witty text banter, maybe a few flirty photos (filter, filter!). When he moved, of course, that changed. For the first three months, he couldn't work, and even when he started, work was slow. I often couldn't have lunch with him because I had phone calls, and some evenings, he'd bring me a snack of chips and guacamole with a glass of wine. He was always the one to cook dinner (and, okay, that hasn't changed). He met this major transition and the loneliness that must have come with it without complaint. At least for awhile.
Eventually, we started talking about a wild thing called work/life balance. I agreed that I needed it--but the company needed me, and that felt more important. Dimly, I started to realize that balance wasn't just about me. It was about us, him and I. At the end of the day, he got the dregs of me, vapid with exhaustion. It wasn't that I was working eighty-hour weeks, the way this probably sounds. It's that for the hours I was working, I was entirely present. I gave all of myself to every part of my job. All I had left for Adrian was some half-hearted conversation during dinner and a body to sit next to on the couch afterwards. We connected more deeply when we were thousands of miles apart.
Enter my dad. My keenly observant, wise, generous, entrepreneurial dad, who had been rebuffed for lunch or dinner more than a few times over the last couple of years, and who saw Adrian's mounting, though quiet, frustration, along with the fact that I hadn't worked on my own fiction since grad school. Last November, my dad offered to employ me for one year. The employment would be exclusive--no freelancing around on the side--and would include (a) writing my own book and (b) helping my mom finish hers. For a month, he added, he wanted my mom and I to go to Maine together and write. (Maine, he is inexplicably sure, will be the source of much writerly inspiration.) This was something he would love to see happen before he goes, he said.
My dad is perfectly healthy, in no position to be phrasing things as a dying wish--but still. I met what was undoubtedly an opportunity I'll never have again with a combination of gratitude and grief. RTC, by this point, felt like my baby. It felt like something I'd helped build. I was still needed; I couldn't fathom stepping away. I didn't want to. I was actually angry about being forced to choose between two things I loved. (I know. Poor me.)
Broaching the subject with Corey and Kristin, who had been with the company nearly as long as I, felt like delivering news of a death: I cried, Kristin cried, and Corey's silence cut through the line and into my already guilty heart. When Corey said he wasn't sure he wanted to do this--"this" being RTC--without me, I thought there was no way I could take my dad's offer.
A few weeks passed before I could decipher what I actually wanted, apart from guilt or fear or obligation. Was it to continue building the career I had been devoting myself to, with people I loved and for causes I believed in? Or was it to take a risk on myself, to see if I could actually succeed as a writer of my own work?
One afternoon, Adrian and I went for a ride on his motorcycle. The helmet was too big, and the still-warm fall wind forced my head to the left, where the city gave way to chartreuse fields and roaming longhorns, streetsigns for Somewhere Ln., and storefronts tempting passersby with antiques and pickles. I started daydreaming, the way I always do when we ride, only this time I found myself daydreaming of writing--sentences scripting across my mind the way they used to. I let myself wonder what it would be like if I actually went home and wrote them down, if I actually explored where they might lead. I wondered if I still had it in me, or if I ever did. Maybe I'd find that I'd been fooling myself all those years, thinking I was talented. Maybe I was better off never finding out, telling myself an edited story of why it had never happened.
That was when I decided to do it.
I hope this blog will serve as a chronicle of this very limited time in my life. I'll talk about the writing process and challenges, being my mom's editor, books I'm reading, and how this change impacts my relationships. I won't lie: I'm still pretty full of self-doubt. But you'd have to be crazy to waste an opportunity like this, so I'll be doing my damndest not to.