Hi! I’d ask how you’re doing but I’m finding that question increasingly difficult to answer, so I won’t burden you. It’s so strange that my life has never been simpler (in a practical sense) and yet harder to parse (in every other). I’m finding it impossible to write about directly, so today I’m going to write about a more evergreen crisis: being alive!!!
I dedicate this newsletter to this absolutely random cover of a Drake song that I’ve been listening to. Apparently it’s somehow related to Tik Tok but I refuse to look up how or why.
One answer to how I’m doing
Last weekend I spent 15 hours on a piece of writing, and every single minute hurt. The thesis was murky, the words weren’t coming, and by the end nearly every sentence had been moved, rewritten, and deleted several times. I knew I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to write it, but I pushed hard until I was, or thought I was, and the result was—I can see now—the editorial embodiment of a wince. I sent it to the editor for fear of missing my deadline.
A couple days later she replied. She “liked it a lot” and just had a few edits, like that I should change the thesis, which to me meant changing everything. I agreed with her completely and told her I’d send a revision in a week. The thought filled me with dread. I set it aside for a bit and worked on something else and it sucked. I wrote another newsletter then scrapped it, tried again and then scrapped that, too. Nothing was flowing, but wasn’t that how writing worked sometimes? Didn’t I say just a few weeks ago that you have to push through the hard part? I was definitely pushing.
A few ideas that ran through my head in the wake of all this failure:
What if I can’t actually do this?
What if I let people down, including myself?
What if I never solve the irritating, mercurial puzzle of when I can and can’t write? Will I be at the whims of my moods forever?
I always think of moods like this when I’m feeling down—like they’re something separate from me that I simply have to deal with rather than the only way to experience life as a human being.
I took a few days off from editorial work. I had stress dreams about writing, which always involve me trying to finish a piece in my bed and continually getting it wrong and starting over and over. I did not relax during these days so much as feign relaxation, like when you lay very still and close your eyes in the hopes that it will lead to sleep. (This might be the best description of quarantine.) Every time I had an interesting thought I would think, I should write about that, and then I would think, but what if I can’t? And this happened so often that THINKING became a trigger for self-doubt, which is so absurd it’s funny.
And then I woke up one morning, opened the cursed document, and realized I needed to scrap the whole thing. The deadline for the revision was that afternoon. Figuring out my new thesis was difficult, but the right kind of difficult, and then the words finally came. It wasn’t easy, but it didn’t hurt. I finished the new piece in five hours. It was miles better than the first one, clearer in its thinking and more emotionally direct. I filed it on time.
How could the same person take 15 hours to complete a shitty piece of writing that almost kills them and then one third of that time to complete a better version with almost no turmoil a week later? I could call this inconsistency an occupational hazard, but I think it’s much broader than that. Because I experience the same variation in my ability to do anything, like be funny or act boldly or open my mail. The problem is, what I want from myself, or maybe what I ask of myself, is consistency. And that keeps running up against the fact of my humanity, and I keep having to reckon with the idea that my feelings aren’t math equations for my thoughts to solve.
When I started that first draft last week, I knew on a gut level that I was burned out and unable to think clearly. But instead of listening to that, I applied a lesson—that sometimes you have to push through—that wasn’t relevant to the situation. I pushed and pushed because my mind and body were telling me something my conscious self didn’t want to hear, which is that I needed to back away.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these “gut feelings,” or the intelligence buried under our moods. They’re the instincts that don’t necessarily line up with our more intellectual frameworks, which is why following them can feel risky or chaotic (backing away from that piece, in the moment, would have felt like giving up). But when I think back to times I’ve dared to follow a gut instinct, they map almost perfectly to my most cherished decisions. Not just big ones, like moves and breakups, but even tiny ones, like haircuts and conversations with friends.
The inexplicability of the gut is probably why some people talk about it as if it’s mystical. But I think what we experience as a “gut feeling” is simply us at our most honest—proof that some tucked-away part of our brain remembers everything, not just what we want to remember, knows what’s true instead of what we want to be true, and understands who we are instead of who we want to be. It’s unencumbered by fear, insecurity, and pro-con lists. Listening to it means trusting our subconscious knows something our pragmatic mind doesn’t.
I’ve been wondering if moods can be an extension of our guts, and if they can serve as honest insight into our needs in the same way. When I feel lazy, for instance, I so often fight it, and whenever I lose that fight and spend all day doing nothing (while also feeling guilty for doing nothing), I wake up the next day feeling doubly energized. It’s as if my mood knew something I didn’t. So what if I had just trusted that my laziness wasn’t a moral failure but a signal worth listening to? What would it feel like to be the type of person who just indulged my own moods and trusted they’d ultimately serve a purpose, even if that purpose wasn’t immediately obvious?
I’ve always resisted that sort of outlook because it robs me of my emotional calculator. It’s hard to let go of my instinct to fix myself when the opposite has so often shown me a path forward, or been celebrated. But it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that taking care of myself means knowing when to push versus trust, fight versus surrender. So many modern schools of thought seem to want to nudge us toward one or the other—perhaps it’s hard to market something as squishy as “it depends on the situation, who you are, how you feel, and what you need.” Or maybe it’s just hard for me to accept that kind of hedging when it doesn’t come with a set of rules.
This messy duality reminds me of something Jenny Odell wrote in her book How to Do Nothing about our modern world’s obsession with growth:
“In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative…. We do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way [as expansion]. But we should.”
That point stuck with me more than any other in the book (which would be a good quar read, by the way). I was glad to be reminded of it when Nick Martin quoted it in his New Republic piece, “Against Productivity in a Pandemic.” He quoted Odell to point out the sickness of pushing to be productive right now; but I’d argue the duality applies to quarantine, too. The question of whether to be productive depends on the situation, who you are, how you feel, and what you need.
This might register as too wishy-washy to be satisfying, but it can be comforting, too, to realize you don’t always have to work so hard—that an instinct can trump your intellectual interpretation of it. Or that your interiority doesn’t have to feel like a calculus proof if you’d occasionally rather it resemble my cat’s fur blowing gently in front of a heater. A little unpredictable and disorderly, but ultimately much more enjoyable to be around. I think you can just trust yourself sometimes.
That’s my takeaway from last week’s bout of writer’s block.
10 Recommendations in the Form of Confessions
1. Last week a single tear fell down my cheek while I was on a walk. It was from the cold air, but for a minute I pretended it wasn’t and it felt good. It then occurred to me that I hadn’t had a good cry since all this started, and what did that mean? A couple days later I read “We Are Living in a Failed State” by George Packer for The Atlantic, and when I finished I sobbed in my bed for five minutes, making up for lost emotion. (The sob wasn’t completely sad—you’d have to read it to the end to understand.)
2. I finally watched The Joker and really liked it. Is this a crime?
3. This artistic critique of Caroline Calloway got my mind off the pandemic for 15 full minutes.
4. The other day I showed Avi this planter and he was like, “$75 dollars for a plant pot?” And I had to confess that the planter I actually wanted was $260, not that I’d ever buy it. We got neither because our plastic planter that is the unfortunate meeting point between gray and brown is perfectly functional and our money is needed elsewhere.
5. That said, we did both buy two Champion sweatshirts…each…last week, because our homewear was lacking and our house is freezing. They are “reverse-weave,” which my brother informed me is the best weave and I agree (it’s very heavy, feels vintage). We’ve been wearing them ever since.
6. This Pitchfork piece by Jeremy Larson about why listening to new music is hard (and why that doesn’t mean we should avoid it), made me consider re-listening to Fetch the Bolt Cutters, although I haven’t yet.
7. I recently dreamed that I went to a hairdresser, told her to “improv my hair,” and in the end looked like my cat attacked me with scissors then gave me aughts-era highlights, which may be related to the fact that, per this Vox article, everyone is having weird dreams in quarantine.
8. I recently made this Bon Appetit cookie recipe after consuming five White Claws.
9. I’ve had “Teenage Dirtbag” stuck in my head for days. Also wondering if this is a crime.
(This cover is good.)
10. It took me two years to finish Gabriella Hamilton’s memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter, and I didn’t really care for her restaurant, Prune, the one time I visited it, but her recent piece in the Times,“My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore?” was gripping and poignant. (And I loved the book, too.)
That’s it. I’ll leave you with this recent photo of me and my cat Bug, taken moments after I discovered a place in my apartment I hadn’t yet stood.
You’ve got to take the novelty where you can get it.