Welcome to No One’s Watching Week, the time of the year when the readers are away, and your tireless editors have run amok. For this week only, Atlas Obscura, the New Republic, Popular Mechanics, Pacific Standard, the Paris Review, and Mental Floss will be swapping content that is too out there for any other week in 2015.
I hesitate to call myself a writer. The term feels valid only on those occasions when someone publishes what I have to say. Between those moments, I feel like just another office drone who scribbles ideas for essays before bed and spends her lunch break reading the day’s tabs.
Perhaps for that reason, Twitter, to me, is mostly a boon. It’s where I gather with fellow lovers of books and criticism (literary Twitter), cinema (film Twitter), politics (angry Twitter), and alcohol (Twitter). But gathered here, too, are real writers: editors, journalists, academics, critics, novelists, screenwriters, producers, directors—all paid to do full-time the things I want to do. Every few days, consequently, I’m visited in person by various incarnations of my writerly fiends. These hellions inspire envy, fear, admiration, dismay—a recipe for creative paralysis. My pitches start to smell like stale bread; my interests feel like they've been flattened into well-researched and thoroughly arid “long-reads.” The old question rears: Why write at all when what you have to say has probably already been said and in a manner far more eloquent than what you'd planned?
Sometimes, indeed, it can often feel as though the numerous psychic afflictions of the aspiring writer are self-sufficient beings of their own.
In the 18th century, Carolus Linnaeus crafted the modern system of classifying creatures in the natural world. I’m bastardizing his methods to create a taxonomy of writers’ enemies—from inner ghouls to outward competition.
RISE AND SMIZE: Good morning! Time to wash your teeth, assemble breakfast while checking Twitter and—oh. Look. There it is. An insightful, well-written essay you didn’t write. On a weekday, by the time I’ve settled at my desk at work, nearly a dozen pieces of great writing have been making the rounds. Tyra Banks may be an erstwhile supermodel-reality show host, but in this matter she is helpful. To fend off a.m. fears, smize (i.e. smile with your eyes)! Let no one see the envy, despair, and copious sweat.
The “HEY, YOU STOLE MY LINE!” Fairy: A cousin to Rise and Smize, HYSTMLF (pronounced hiss-ti-melf) is a sprite determined to torment via essays on subjects you care about deeply. The Boxcar Children, 1970s avant-garde Indian films, tea rituals, being clinically depressed in Los Angeles: on all of them, someone beat me to the punch. “And even if they haven’t”—(HYSTMLF whispers in my ear)—“they’re about to.”
GREEN LANTERNS: Let’s say you want a break from the endless tabs of essays and short stories, all written by other, better writers. But the Green Lanterns—editors, mentors, friends of these good writers—will light the path (you’d previously hidden under the brambles of your own insecurities) to the essays you were avoiding. The promotion, the guidance, the networking: these are useful to writers who are trying to break out. I trust the well-wishers when they promote good work. But am I also pea-green with envy just thinking about their editorial perches? Why yes, yes I am.
THE PROLIFIC PRODIGY: TPP’s, for short, possess one or more of the following traits: employment at Venerable Institution (the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Important Publishing Houses, Respected Literary Magazines, etc.); consistent bylines in Vaunted-and-or-Hip Venues (the Awl, Granta, Electric Literature, the Atlantic, Respected Literary Magazines); a large social media following; the blue checkmark of Twitter verification; upwards of 10 retweets on a typical Medium post; and often—worst of all!—a kind and humble personality. I'm not even allowed to begrudge you! You're too nice. And I hope that your fingers fall off.
THE SATYRS OF MOUNT OUTLET: Like its cousin Olympus, Mount Outlet stretches far beyond human sight into luxurious billowy clouds. The work its satyrs produce is sharp and daring. Vast networks of bloggers, freelancers, and even reporters churn out viral but self-aware listicles, personal essays that make me cry more than they should, and short stories so good I’m inclined to simply put my pen away. On Twitter, their satyrs (editors) trade barbs and witticisms with the speed of a Gatling gun. A poor peasant like me may approach the foot of the mountain, but my tattered, unworthy scrolls and I will soon turn around and head home.
THEY CALL ME A PUBLISHED AUTHOR: What it's like to be a real writer—that is, someone who’s published a book or more, someone who attends over three dozen publicity events per year for their most recent work, someone who writes blurbs for the covers of forthcoming books, someone who mentors TPPs, someone whose signed copy even I would line up for. They have succeeded. There’s a very real chance I will not.
GRAMMAR GREMLIN: In grade school I was known as the Red Pen Queen. Classmates brought me their persuasive essays, research papers, and book reports, and when I was done with them the papers looked like the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones. But in writing my own pieces, I struggle: AP Style doesn’t use the Oxford comma, but isn’t that just a great piece of punctuation? How many gerunds am I racking up? Have I ended sentences with prepositions? What if my title isn’t punchy enough? What would my 9th-grade English teacher have to say about all these run-on sentences? Are these even run-ons? William Shatner had a nightmare at 20,000 feet; I have mine at 1,500 words.
CURSE YOU, CURSOR!: You know the feeling. A pitch, a first sentence, a character’s face suddenly comes to you, maybe while you’re driving, or washing the dishes, or riding the subway. You smile—the second you enter your apartment you’ll sit at your desk and let it pour out. Fast-forward to that exact scene: The cursor blinks. And blinks. And blinks. It judges, silently. It makes the empty Word document flash like a neon hotel sign from a 1940s newsreel of New York City. Each blink is the snide tapping of impatient fingers. Your memory has failed you. The idea couldn’t have been that good if you forgot it already. Shut it down. Maybe you should apply to law school after all.
NOW I AM BECOME REJECTION, DESTROYER OF HOPE: Every writer since the chap who penned Genesis has dealt with rejection. And sometimes rejections can be good: A kind editor will tell you what works and what doesn’t, and that you’re welcome to pitch again. But for a while—anywhere from five minutes to five days—the rejection feels like it’s stamped on your head. Your co-workers know about it. Your therapist knows about it. Twitter is likely whispering about it. You feverishly gobble chocolate, purchased in bulk from Costco. As a college professor of mine put it, a rejection is worse than losing your man. She was talking about a page-one re-write of a teleplay, but the principle stands.
By this time last year, I had no plans for New Year’s Eve. A friend canceled at the last minute, but I got gussied up anyway and walked up Wilshire Boulevard. People were wrapped around the block just trying to get a drink at the Line Hotel. I crossed the street to check the menu of a warmly lit diner. I turned around and stared, again, at the hotel crowd. Stilettoes, Warby Parker glasses, metallic sheath dresses, sharp suits, general joy. My black sweater and skirt felt wrinkled, littered with lint, in comparison; my lipstick cheap and my hair limp. It felt, again, like confronting the ghouls I’ve taxonomized here. I don’t think I’m a part of that world—at least not according to the ghouls. But I’m not going to stop staring 'til I find a way to get in.