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hu cares | grateful all the time
Today, I’m going to write about nothing as a way of reclaiming the right to write about nothing. When a writer isn’t writing, that’s writer’s block — the assumption is that you’re artistically constipated, and there’s an entire industry built around the promise of writerly laxatives. Sign up for this writing course! Buy this book of prompts! Hire a coach! But lately I feel like my issue isn’t an inability to write, but an inability to hit publish. I’ve lost the conviction that I have anything worthwhile to say, and I’ve been trying to trace when, exactly, I lost that conviction.
Was it 2022, when I got myself banned from Twitter? I rarely had anything worthwhile to say there, and by the end, I’d leaned into just shitposting. But let’s be real: did any of us ever have anything useful to say there? If I think back on my time on the bird site, it’s a blur of snarky tweets about the day’s villain, trying to figure out who people were subtweeting, and favoriting posts from writers and creators I like because I like them. In retrospect, the site provided two main things for me: distraction and backpatting. Only once I was off Twitter did I realize how often I mistook “engagement” for impact, for encouragement that what I was doing was good or important or worthwhile. If you’d asked me at the time, I would’ve told you that of course fifteen retweets and thirty-five likes doesn’t mean anything in real life! But boy did it feel like it, and some days, that was what kept me going.
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Or was it 2021, when it seemed like the huge body of reporting on COVID made no dent whatsoever in people’s readiness to latch onto disinformation? So many of us spent months interviewing people who are sick, the medical professionals attending to them, the scientists working to understand the virus, and the public health officials creating policy; we agonized over how best to explain the science, how to make sure people’s stories were heard. All much easier work to report on these things than to live them, I know, but it’s still frustrating to see the outcome. People grew so tired of hearing about COVID! Editors grew wary of assigning more COVID stories that no one would read, especially with their dwindling freelance budgets. And would that piece reach even a tenth of the people as some deep-fried Telegram meme with some unhinged conspiracy theory I refuse to give further credence by repeating?
Or was it 2017, when I decided to make it official that I would write to pay the bills? Before that, I had the luxury of pursuing only pieces I cared deeply about; I could spend eight months on an investigation for an insulting fee, but being published in a well-known magazine? Exciting! That all changed when I became a Professional Writer. They say if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life, but there’s only so much love that can mask the fact that you’re still working. Try as I might to love what I do, it’s hard to keep that in perspective when people me send insulting, threatening, or belittling messages. (As Phoebe Bridgers recently said while interviewing Olivia Rodrigo: “Behind every woman is a bunch of really scary emails.”) That part doesn’t feel like work — just a personal attack.
I know, of course, that everyone has something to say. On my good days, I still believe in the power of journalism to inform and make change. Even on my bad days, I can recognize that some of my favorite writing is about nothing, but that writing about nothing can be about everything — and that if the right person finds it at the right time, it can be transformative. (If you read The Catcher in the Rye at 14, you know what I mean. And if you were so evolved at that age that you found Holden annoying even then, please don’t tell me about it.)
So now I’m trying to figure out: what do I want to say? How do I want to organize my time, my writing life, my life life? Do I want to spend my life writing? I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent episode of Grist’s podcast Temperature Check in which former journalist Nate Johnson describes why he became an electrician. I’ve been hanging out in subreddits for carpenters and DoorDash drivers. I’ve been browsing Craigslist jobs and taking it all in, thinking about how different my life could be. I could walk dogs. I could take a $120k “family manager” position, or become an apprentice to a model train builder. I could reach out to some guy who teaches you how to flip cars fast which is *definitely not a scam* but you need to make sure your wife is on board before contacting him. I could apply to be a Taylor Swift reporter.
I am, of course, waffling on whether to hit send on this message, which I fear reads too whiny, too angry, too navel gaze-y, and maybe it is. But aren’t so many of my favorite things?
Riding your bike after dark, when no one is on the road and you own the entire city.
Serial Production’s The Retrievals. An impeccably researched and infuriating story of women who underwent IVF that raises big questions about how the medical system treats women’s pain and what restorative justice should look like.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. I wanted to live in this universe forever, and I love authors who write friendships with the same depth and intimacy as any romantic relationship.
Ordering a single pancake for the table at brunch. (Thank you, Ansley.)
I went to my first psychedelics conference, I talked to one of the first people to have a legal psilocybin session, and I wrote about microdosing for The Washington Post.
I’m reporting a feature for High Country News with the support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
New York friends: I’ll be in the area in mid-November for a Kavli Conversation at NYU.
In no order, personal highlights and lowlights since I last updated: I went to Ecuador, I rode my first century, my dog had surgery, I did an Enchantments thru-hike, some friends got married and other friends came to visit, I crewed a couple pals for Race Across the West, I’m learning to skateboard and I’m really bad, and after a lifelong aversion to mushrooms I have made peace with them. Oh and half of my hair is blonde now.
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