'Now That Hell Is Over, Can I Build a New Life?'
Shortcuts to the future rarely work. Slow down and reckon with who you are instead.
Over and Above #14 (1964) by Clarence Holbrook Carter
I am a 31-year-old writer living in Minneapolis, and in the last year, my life has fallen apart—in a mostly-good way. When the pandemic hit, I was working a poorly paid, uninspiring job, trying to make a declining relationship work, dealing with a lot of anxiety and depression, and struggling to find time to work on my craft.
Pretty much everything has changed since then—my partner and I broke up, I started anti-depressants, quit my job, and started an extremely well-paid contract gig that runs through this summer. The pandemic has given me time and space to get a better sense of who I am, and how much time I’ve spent trying to take care of and please others. I think I really needed all this disruption to zoom out and put my life onto a course that’s a better fit for me, and I’m thankful for it.
That’s not to say it’s been without its stressors. After I broke up with my ex, she began to see our relationship as really harmful, and has been telling people I’m a manipulative asshole. I spent most of the summer doing a lot of self-inquiry and healing around the parts of that relationship that weren’t healthy, and how I contributed to them. I’ve lost friends, and it’s hard to even tell where a bunch of my enduring relationships are at given the weird distancing and isolation of pandemic life. The murder of George Floyd threw my city into chaos last summer, and while I’m proud of how we’ve fought for change, it’s been exhausting to be a part of. My contract job is directionless and confusing. On top of that, my creativity has been really fickle—some months I’ve been on a creative tear, and others I can’t seem to make anything at all. I have a great support system, a wonderful therapist, and good brain meds, but man, Polly, it’s been a loooot.
Originally, my plan was to work this contract job through the end of the spring, then take a year-long sabbatical (!) to focus on my writing and building more creative discipline. Lately, though, I’ve been really nervous about the idea. My mental health has been so up and down that I’m worried stepping into a place of only being accountable to myself could be dangerous. Like, am I actually going to sit down and write every day, or am I just going to have a nervous breakdown *thinking* about writing every day on top of everything else that’s chaotic in my life? When I made this plan, I was like “YES! This is my time to thrive, to become a real adult creative, to start building a new life for myself.” But with the insanity of this last year, I’m worried I don’t know how to move forward into something new. The pandemic doesn’t help obviously—time seems to be moving so quickly and so slowly all at once. Everything’s changing, everything’s standing still.
Polly, how do you build a new life when your foundations are shaky? How am I supposed to come out of this cataclysm and fly towards a new life when most days I just feel like a cocoon full of slimy green goop?
Dear Something Clever,
In order to write something clever every day, without a deadline, you have to murder clever in cold blood. Because clever is a people pleaser. Clever wants to dress cool and pass out clove cigarettes at the party and do a strip tease at the after party. Clever quotes the cool novel of the month in the hopes that you won’t notice that lately, clever can’t pick up a book without being seized by the urge to text someone or tweet or check the latest news.
I say all of this having courted clever for a big chunk of my writing life. Chasing clever around is like manipulating your partner to get what you want instead of sitting down to discuss what you both need. Fixating on clever is like obsessing about someone who’s unavailable. Clever is the realm of quick fixes and that rapidly-evaporating satisfaction that never sticks around and leaves a headache in its wake.
I know this is really reading too much into your words, but you gave me this placeholder for a moniker (Something Clever) and then I was supposed to fill in the blanks. And maybe that’s how you are with people, too: You work very hard to please them, but after a while you get resentful and then you sort of shut down or disappear in plain sight.
Going full blast into your creative future and your emotional future means slowing down and doing the work yourself. It means resisting the temptation to settle for cleverness or shortcuts or escapist urges. You have to show up every day and accept whatever you find.
There’s a lot of personal reckoning involved. It sounds like you’re already starting to see that. And look, I’m not casually typing out that observation from on high. I’m telling you this in the wake of my own reckoning, one that involved the same ups and downs that you describe in your letter. I’ve wondered over the past year who I could trust and also whether or not I was really, truly trustworthy as a friend. I’ve been haunted by a kind of neurotic self-awareness that, for brief stretches, caused me to audit my personality until I felt paralyzed. I’ve dealt with concrete physical challenges with surprising stoicism and courage, but I’ve allowed tiny, unimportant slights to make me feel like a big heap of shit. I’ve repeatedly had to move away from any urge to blame, and move toward a deeper reckoning with who I am — which includes the warped lens of insecurity that often blurs my perception of reality.
Meanwhile, I’ve been writing a column, a book, and two newsletters. That was possible because I’ve learned that I have a habit of turning on every creative initiative I take, so any “This was a terrible mistake” feelings should be taken in stride or just ignored completely, in favor of enjoying the work itself. I’ve also befriended a bunch of people who are very good at getting shit done without overthinking it. Observing their behavior has taught me how to proceed in the world without getting tangled up in my own misfiring wires. I’ve also learned to embrace a firm schedule that includes a solid chunk of writing every day without fail. And finally, I’ve figured out how to pursue rewards and leisure and satisfaction every day, every few hours, so I don’t get burned out.
A few years ago, I didn’t have these elements in place, and I was less productive, less happy, less relaxed, and more prone to blaming outside forces for the rough spots I landed in. Over the past year, I’ve come up against so many goddamn snags that if I listed them all, you’d spit coffee all over your computer. I’ve had days and weeks when I really struggled, and it was tempting to fall into old patterns. When I landed there, I thought a lot about the people I know who don’t get stuck repeatedly or repeat the same laments in a constant loop. (My husband and I are both complainy looping bitches, just to be clear. I am not writing to you from some sterilized uber realm of golden gods eating leafy greens on magical thrones.) These people don’t spend a lot of time picking apart the obstacles in their paths. They just go around them. Sometimes they’re a little avoidant, absolute, pragmatic, efficient, dismissive, simple – or they sound that way to slow, loopy freaks like me. But. They get shit done.
It is very important to know people who know how to get shit done, Something Clever. Very. Important.
That said, artistically, you have to nurture and embrace utterly different impulses. Remember what we said about the quickie manipulative shortcuts of CLEVER? If you want to write things that other people connect with and enjoy and embrace and even love, you have to take a slow, honest path of reckoning through the deep, dark woods. I sense a real commitment to the artist’s life in you and not some quick entrepreneurial impulse, which is why I say all of this. You need to build a sustainable relationship to your creative endeavors. This means understanding what you love. This means reading and studying works that inspire you. This also means leaning way into the disastrous discoveries of the soul that will humble the hell out of you and make you hate yourself -- a lot, sometimes!
It’s slow. You cannot put all of your eggs into one creative basket, either. You’re a multifaceted person, so you need to experiment a lot. And you need to learn to delight in whatever you find in yourself: haunting deficits and unexpected patches of brilliance alike.
Now, if you’d said to me, “I am going to spend the next year growing beets, mountain biking, starting a support group for people who suffer from x, and writing a novel and some essays that I hope I can submit for publication”? I would say, “Yes, do it, all of it, every day.” I would have faith that you could pull it all off, because you have a very complete and comprehensive vision of how you want to balance your energies and structure your life. Your plan would reflect an understanding that busy people get shit done, and know how to juggle, and also recognize how much human connection and physical exertion and leisurely hobbies feed creativity.
Instead, what you’ve told me, essentially, is that you need a break from working. A real break. If you had a real break, maybe you could write. Maybe. But it’s scary to think about not being able to write. You’re not sure you trust yourself to get shit done, or to overcome the negative voices that will arise in your head once you begin with this All Eggs In One Basket, Something Clever Goes Here plan.
To be clear, your fear that you won’t get anything accomplished IS NOT a sign that you won’t get anything accomplished! No, your fear is a sign of some self-awareness and maturity around how you react to mounting pressure. What you know about yourself is that if a clock is ticking down and you’re angry at yourself, you will retreat into a state of teenage-like resistance and you will refuse to work hard. You might fire up the bong or get distracted by something out in the world. You might try out a new game or fall in love. You’re a person who believes in self-indulgence, religiously almost, and you’re also someone who has a tendency to punish yourself for not adhering to your very idealistic vision of how you should be.
Dude, don’t look at me like that. It’s all in your letter. If you want to succeed at this plan, you have to lure that resistant teenage self who expects quick rewards (and will throw a fit if he doesn’t get them) onto a slower, more sustainably productive path. You have to map out different types of activity you’re going to engage in, some of them physical, some of them relaxing, some of them focused on connecting humbly with others. You might have to keep a part-time job that you do *after* you finish your creative work in the morning. You probably have to restructure your life around which hours of the day you’re the most productive. And you can’t put way too much pressure on yourself.
You have to get out of the mentality of “I’ll fix everything in a year” and move into a mindset of “Here’s how my life will feel really good over the next five years.” In other words, you have to create a life that is built around enjoyment, connection, acceptance, compassion – enjoyment in your work, connection to your work and to others, acceptance of your very normal human flaws (and others’ flaws) and compassion for a world full of flinty, aggressively confused motherfuckers who don’t always see you and your big heart that clearly.
You’re also flinty and aggressively confused and you turn your back on your big heart often, right? Those are the times you get manipulative and act like an asshole. There’s a lot of insecurity underneath the surface that needs to be addressed if you want to be a writer and a non-asshole. I’ve been there, and it takes hard work. Just don’t stop recognizing and trusting your big heart.
You have to make your path a spiritual one (ugh) in a way: You have to be pointed at delight and satisfaction, milking each day for new understanding of yourself and others, squeezing your best ideas onto the page and believing in them BEFORE you send them out for approval from others. You have to build a little church around your efforts, and love those efforts even when they’re twisted and inadequate and sloppy.
You also have to make your path a practical one: You have to seek out people who get shit done, and imitate them until you’re just naturally getting shit done every day.
If you have the money for a year off, I’d spread it out over five years and do contract work part-time, personally. I think the one year plan is sort of a quick fix that’s likely to freak you out and wake up your bratty teenage self, and the next thing you know you’re playing Zelda at 3 am like it’s your job. Having some paid work and small blocks of writing time will serve you better, as long as you maintain the “I’m going all in!” mentality around it. Personally, I find that the more I juggle, the more I accomplish. As long as I’m exercising enough and sleeping enough, I can juggle a lot without getting stressed out.
Shifting gears rapidly throughout the day is such a useful skill, too: Project 1, exercise, Project 2, short walk, paid work, reading, leisure time. (I never write down lists, btw, because that stresses out my inner teenager! I just go with the flow, follow my creative whims a little, and stay off social media while keeping my overall picture/ goals in mind.) Shifting gears a lot might also prevent you from entering that overthinking, pressure-filled realm of “How will I manage all of this?” Any structural choices you can make to avoid anxious looping around dread or resistance are a good thing. Treat everything you do with unconditional positive regard and acceptance like a good Mommy. Feed yourself what you need, and stay grounded in the small joys of your daily life as much as possible.
I used to be the queen of cleverness and shortcuts and also punitive amounts of work, and I had that “I WILL DO NOTHING BUT WRITE!” plan many times when I was younger. It never worked. I’ve always accomplished more when there were other responsibilities pressing on me. I also work hard to resist BIG LIFE GOALS THAT WILL TRANSFORM ME INTO A MORE MAGICAL PERSON. I have plans and schemes and ideas burbling around, but my emotional focus is on today: What will feel good today? What do I want to make? What’s being asked of me and what part of that can I do without losing myself or my passion for this moment?
That’s how I trick my resistant, bratty teenager into becoming less of a shallow chainsmoking thief who wants what she wants when she wants it, and more of a patient worker, a listening friend, a helpful colleague, a good student of the world, a curious scientist, a grounded, open artist. Always remember that the good life doesn’t circle around cheap thrills or transforming into someone better than you are right now. All you really want is fun and the truth. Every day is about working hard and also relaxing, sometimes at the same time. Every day, you will feel humiliated and also proud. Every day you’ll feel more fragile, but you’ll also feel more brave.
All of these things go together. Clever can’t see them that clearly, because clever is in a big hurry for a fix. Fuck clever. Find the truth. Move toward the truth. Face the truth. Embrace the truth. That’s where the fun is.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to share this column with a friend who’s taking on a new creative challenge.
Yep, this is the one (not that there haven't been plenty of others, mind you). Thank you.
WOW! Heather, I felt like you were writing this to me. Hard truths but very necessary. I did have a question about this, "I’ve also learned to embrace a firm schedule that doesn’t change from day to day based on my whims." —how did you do that? How do you do that without making lists? Without your bratty teenager saying, "I don't wanna, let's just check Instagram or listen to that podcast, instead."? How to balance the "what will feel good today?" with the consistent structure of getting things done?