Los Angeles, Writing

On not knowing what you’re doing, ever

I heard from a friend who heard from her therapist that when a relationship ends, it’s a good time to take stock of things: what you need and what you want, things you’re proud of, moments of discord and scenarios to avoid moving forward…you know the stuff. The past few weeks, I’ve found a new application for that kind of psychic rummaging: I started a new job, after three years at a job that I really found fulfilling. It’s got some things in common with a break up, and as such, it’s certainly a good time to hit pause and reflect.

When I’ve transitioned to new jobs in the past, the whole thing sweeps me back to adolescence in a funky way, surfacing questions that tremble with uncertainty, idiocy, and perhaps even hopefulness. I’m back to high school philosophy club, back to declaring my major in college, back to turning everything over in my hands a billion times to uncover its angles. You might say I’m back to not knowing what I’m doing at all. It’s a steeping in the whys: why we have to dedicate our lives to one particular field, for example, when humans are interested in so many subjects. And why success in the creative arts depends on some grotesque social hierarchy of who you know and how can you sell what you’ve got. 

Whys and wahhs. But heck, while we’re at, it’s worth diving into the oldest standby of them all — why working rarely gives people enough money to live a comfortable lifestyle. Society can feel like T. Rex’s “Rip Off” coming on the radio, while a Marxist graffitis “Yikes. Capitalism.” along the highway, ad infinitum. Some pass go, the rich collect $200 (million), and others allude opaquely to ’70s British glam rock and communism in the space of three sentences in a strange attempt to make sense of it all.

But I’m happy to report that while I did have my standard internal screamy “AHHH” moments, this go-around was different. I was able to reflect on what I’ve even been doing at work over the past decade-ish. And this was actually quite comforting. I’ve been fortunate enough to find writing work that’s creative, paid my bills, challenged me in surprising and intellectual ways, and even revealed “business” and “marketing” and “product” issues as truly stimulating subjects (despite the fact that the words “business” and “marketing” and “product” have, at times, made me feel like I’m in an episode of Silicon Valley, and thus recoil). Huzzah! Perhaps I’m no longer a disillusioned, obnoxious teen. And mostly, I’m so grateful for such interesting jobs, where I’ve met wonderful friends — some of which have become the people closest to me — and how much I’ve learned, too. I know many people hate their jobs, and I have rarely felt that dread. 

It seems like one day you wake up and, against all odds, you have something vaguely resembling what they call a “career path.” For me, all of it’s connected by writing. And I’m quite lucky to get a paycheck and health insurance for stringing sentences together, which is an all-too rare thing in this very effed up world of ours. 

Even though it’s pretty sad to leave my former place of work (as if on cue, the NY Times just had an article about mourning your former employer), and even though it’s scary, I’m OK taking the leap of faith, and excited about the prospects of what’s ahead. It’s like starting a new school year. And I’m excited.

***

But this transition has given me more than the 9-5 job stuff to marinate on. The main reason I moved to LA was to reclaim a bit of work-life balance, so I could dedicate more of my free time to writing. And, when you’re in that space, namely that you’ve committed to something, you’ve got to contend with the writerly trap. The trap being your brain, which can become something of a heckler the second you dedicate yourself to something. You stare at a blank page, maybe you type a pararaph, maybe you avoid tackling the work at all because there’s some small yippy chihuahua in the front row saying,”You suck, idiot! Get off the stage!” And the invariable crane around the neck ensues. 

And sure, it’s easy when you finish watching The Staircase and The Handmaid’s Tale in the span of two weeks to feel like you are, perhaps, a bit too lazy. You suspect that there’s something in your DNA, something deep within your guts, that skews unceasingly toward procrastination. And really — why should you be a writer, anyway? What do you really have to say, and what do you really know? So many people are more talented, and more intelligent, and maybe you’re a bit too old to push this old dream forward. You didn’t capitalize on your personal social media brand and the world has moved on without you. And the people you see succeeding, the people who claim to be artists but have instead gussied themselves up in a sales pitch, are playing some game you don’t want to be a part of — and if that’s the only way, why play? They’re not real artists. They have sold out for profit. Not participating at all is to act with integrity.

And oh, how I could keep going! There’s a lot this brain of yours has to say to you. What all this is getting at, to sum it up, is that it’s quite hard to write if you’re a human being. 

The only thing that’s worked for me is to take a breath, and say hooey to it all. You can be kind to yourself, too. And sometimes to be kind, you have to be like, “Yo, brain. You need to step aside right now because I’m trying to do stuff!” I remind myself I’ve taken two writing classes since I’ve gotten here — something I was never able to commit to in NYC — and while nothing is in submittable shape yet, I’ve done more fiction writing the past six months than I have in the last three years. And I have a goal! Imagine that! A personal goal. I’m hoping to submit some fiction to literary magazines by the end of the year. And then, y’know, accruing subsequent silences or rejection slips to add a few layers of thickness to my epidermis. But even to have a tangible goal like that is something! 

And anyway, everyone else seems to feel the same way about their own stuff, too. I hardly believe in talent anymore. Just people who finish their shit. 

***

Because I work from home, and because of the general vibes of LA anyway, I feel like I have so much more time in the day than I did in NYC. That’s not to say I don’t love the NYC lifestyle. That energy showed me I had it in me to work my tuchus off. And I also learned I can squeeze mezcal cocktails in almost any night of the week. But I’m trying to soak up the strange energy of this city while I’m here and see how it shakes things up within me. The slow-as-traffic pace, the vegan avocado everything, the fact that no one here seems to have an actual job except pitching movie concepts to producers in coffee shops.

But there’s a burgeoning fiction scene here that’s really cool, and I’m clinging to the subversiveness of fiction writing in the land of screenwriting, even if that’s really just a psychological tactic to quell the pang you get when you see all the bookstores closing and most people you know don’t read very much fiction. Let alone short fiction! Aye yi yi. Sometimes I think writers are just writing for an audience of other writers, who are writing for an audience of potential agents, who are ultimately writing for an audience of editorial assistants combing through their inboxes, filled as they are at the slowly-going-under publishing houses.

So you lean on the things that make sense to you in a nonsensical world. Bryan and I cooked breakfast the other morning at his place. He put on 70s funk (he is going through an Andy Gibb phase), and we danced around like crazy people as the eggs fried and the turkey bacon defrosted. Afterward we went to the record store so I could grab some Michael Jackson and Aretha (even though, yes, I should have already had both). But they were out of Aretha and the only MJ left was some funky (in the not good way) later-days Jackson 5 album. So instead I grabbed Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life, a Coltrane compilation, and Nat King Cole’s Love is a Many Splendored Thing that was somehow only $2.99, despite the fact that Nat’s voice is sent straight from heaven. The kids today don’t even know. 

I wanted the cashier, a middle-aged white dude in his 40s, to comment on my taste or something, since you always kind of feel like record store dudes are judging you. He didn’t say anything and I didn’t probe into my weird desire for him to be impressed. Bryan and I left, and we drove to my place with the Verdugo Mountains behind us and a wave of cars and palm trees in front. And then I sat down and wrote this thing, which took me far too many weeks to edit, but it made me feel good even just to do so though it’s not going anywhere, and instead ends inscrutably like so. 

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