small successes and the chance to keep going

Sticker graffiti of a woman with a blank face sitting cross-legged; part of one knee has been removedThere’s a way not to be broken that takes brokenness to find it. – Naomi Shihab Nye Good morning, good morning. It’s warm outside, warmer than it ought to be in February, but I can’t complain about it because the cold has been a struggle the last week or so. It’s true that February is always when the winter blues start to hover, or just the frustration, the weariness — do I really have to put all of these clothes on just to take the dog on a walk again today? But the moon is a full brightness behind the clouds and the light changed sometime earlier this month, so I’ve begun to imagine what spring might feel like, have begun to think about the garden, can start to let myself imagine what the yard will look like when it’s not just covered with snow and ice and mud.

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In just a couple of weeks, I’m going to turn 50. This fact has been filling me with dread for a few years. But not for the reasons I, as a woman, am supposed to dread aging.

My life has changed massively over the last couple of years — we left San Francisco, I set my workshops down, and I took a job working so far from the creative life I’d dreamed of that I got to the place where I couldn’t even see that dream anymore. In the mid-2010s, I had three years of almost being able to touch what I really wanted — a life just leading workshops, just fed by writing and writing groups. At least, it felt like I could almost touch it. Living where I was, though, and at the time I was living there, I believe now that it was never going to be possible to achieve the kind of success I was reaching for — unless I started hustling in a completely different community, one with a lot more money to pay much higher prices, or offering primarily individual sessions, rather than groups. And though I tried briefly to follow both of those paths, I ultimately couldn’t do it — leading “creativity” groups with techies wasn’t what I was drawn to at all, nor was individual work.

My passion was focused on what happens when groups of queer women, groups of survivors, groups of folks who’ve has their words pushed aside, pushed under, pushed back down their throats, came together and gave each other their words, their writing, their brilliance and their appreciation. And I cared about that more than I cared about getting rich or cashing in on Bay area tech dollars.

Unfortunately, I also spent about fifteen years constantly stressed about whether or not I was going to be able to pay my bills each month. That stress, as so many of us know, takes a physical and psychological toll. I couldn’t stand it that money was my focus — that’s not where I wanted my attention to be. But I was caught in  the viciousness of Bay Area economics at the beginning decades of the 21st century, which rewards certain kinds of innovations and dismisses others.

That’s not the thing I want to write about right now, though. I’m so tired of writing that story.

I’ve been working on a long essay — this growing. amorphous thing that’s about burnout and rage and money and hustle culture and pyramid schemes and grief — and maybe I’ll be able to finish it sometime soon. Every time I return to it, though, I get pulled back into the times I’m trying to describe, into the shame, the grief, and mostly, the exhaustion: the memories of how hard I worked and how hard, I came to understand, I was going to have to keep working just to keep my head above water. At some point, in my mid-forties, I realized that I was never going to be able to stop hustling if I continued to live in the Bay Area as the writer I wanted to be.

•§•

What I wanted to get to this morning is my fear of turning 50 — not because I’m afraid of aging, afraid of wrinkles and crepey skin and all the things we’re taught, as women, to be afraid of as we age (and that we’re supposed to spend a lot of money and effort on fixing).

When I was a little girl — I think I’ve written about this somewhere before — I discovered that it was a job, people could have the job of writing books, and I wanted that to be my job. And then a lot of stuff happened on my way to becoming the person I had imagined I’d grow up to be.

I spent my twenties both writing obsessively and also feeling like I didn’t deserve even to breathe, and so I went to work for a domestic violence organization, to give back, because survivors are supposed to “give back” as soon as they can, right? (What is that about? Why are the perpetrators not falling over themselves to apologize for living and surviving? They are the ones who caused the harm — the ones who actually have a wrong to attempt to right.) This work was both profoundly fulfilling and also rage-feeding, just to be present every day with women who were being hurt by men who said they loved them — every day there were more, and I’d wake up knowing each day that this was not going to be the day that we’d get no calls, this wasn’t going to be the day that no woman got hit or yelled at or shamed or raped by a man who she still believed, somehow, loved her.

I left that job and went to school for my MA in Transformative Language Arts and also found Amherst Writers and Artists (thanks to a coworker at that DV organization) — these two led to Writing Ourselves Whole. They also led to a 300+-page thesis that I didn’t know how to edit and never got published. 

By the time I was in my 30s, I had hundreds of pages of stories and essays, but many of the publishing houses that put out the books I loved had gone under, or didn’t want a collection of short pieces by a writer they hadn’t yet heard of — so I needed to get published more in order for them to want to publish my work. Hm.

I kept trying, kept submitting my work, kept writing. I also started leading the writing groups, and took part time jobs to pay the bills. I spent my thirties and early 40s hustling. Hustling — it’s the only word I have for it now. There’s nothing new about hustle culture — any artist Of A Certain Age knows that. We’re meant to hustle ’til we make it, and then we can tell the stories about our hustling and how hard we worked and how bad we wanted it, and we can be inspirational and encouraging and also know that there’s success at the top of that hard-climbing, broken-rung ladder.

Every essay about failure is written by someone who found success. I didn’t fear failure in my thirties, even if I grieved. In my forties, though — in my mid-forties, when I saw 50 start to creep up on the horizon, I began to feel afraid. You’re not supposed to let yourself even contemplate the fact that you might not Make It — that’s what all the gurus and coaches and internet empowerment leaders say. How does that saying go? You can’t allow yourself the luxury of a negative thought.

I was still submitting my work, had written now 500+ pages of a novel and wanted to find a home for it — I’ve been working on that one since 2009 and shopping it for about five years, maybe more. We listen to the Colson Whiteheads and the other successful writers who tell us how many times they submitted their Great Work before an editor, a publishing house, decided to take a chance on it. And the truth is that after twenty-five years of putting your work out in front of strangers and asking them to help, asking them to want it, and having them say no, you can get fucking tired.

In my mid-forties, I went back to school for an MFA. I’m not entirely sure, now, that I can explain why I did that, as it left me even deeper in debt. But I came out on the other side with a project I was proud of, a “speculative memoir” that, also, I can’t get anyone to buy. At what point do you stop fighting that negative thought? The one that says, You’re not good at this and it doesn’t matter that you wanted to be a published author when you grew up because that little girl you were then didn’t know that she/you wouldn’t have what it takes to make it.

The adult comes into the room (in my head) and says, gently, And before you went back to school, you sold one book you are really proud of, and that is a real thing that sits on people’s shelves and even lives in some libraries. You became the thing you wanted to be in that moment, as soon as you held that physical book in your hands. And then you sold another book that didn’t come out in physical form but still matters! And then you published a third book that goes along with the first one. That’s not nothing. It’s more than not nothing. You do have what it takes. Somewhere inside yourself, you know that. And you write about things that are hard for a lot of people to deal with — things they are afraid to deal with — and so they don’t know how to hold your work. That doesn’t mean you aren’t a good writer. It means you have to keep going, because there are people waiting for your words —as you are waiting for the words of other writers who are struggling to get their work out there into the world, into the “marketplace.”

Ok, ok.

There’s so much more I want to do, as I begin (I hope) to emerge from this place of burnout and silence. This life is not an easy one — and “making it,” for most of us, doesn’t look like a huge book contract or tv rights or a deal with some streaming service or becoming an influencer for most of us. Maybe it’s just right if “making it” looks like is small successes and the chance to keep going, to build connection and community with others fighting the same or similar fight, who have been told that their voices are Too Much and they are too scary and their writing is too weird and they should just try and make their work look like everyone else’s so that readers will be more comfortable with it. But we who are too much know that we can’t do that. 

I will pick up the reins again and I will keep going. I am still just writing, as I remember reading once in an essay about women writers when I was at the beginning of my journey. We don’t all succeed the same way. Sometimes success looks like the opportunity to get up and write again today, again today, after almost 30 years of getting up and writing nearly every day. That’s actually pretty amazing (I’m saying that to myself).

Maybe a book contract will come. Maybe I will be able to add more books to the shelf, next to Writing Ourselves Whole and Write to Restore, or virtually next to Night Hands. Maybe I won’t. What I believe now, though, is that it’s ok to stop hustling every now and again. Quitting doesn’t have to be forever. It can be for a moment, a month, or a year or two. Sometimes we have to let our hearts heal — that’s what I’ve needed to do. The pen is always there, next to the notebook, waiting and ready for us to pick it up and begin again, again.

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