Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Because your butt does look fat in that personality disorder!”
To continue your dialogue with letter writer #1 a few weeks ago ( “don’t quit your day job,” etc.) and with a dude who wrote to you as “rabbit” way back when about his jealousy of his ex’s new musician boyfriend: I’m an editor at a little-read academic publication; the job is well-paying and provides excellent health insurance, I’m (very) good at it, and my boss is an awesome mentor who respects me and allows me autonomy—basically the jackpot.
Except that I think it’s lackluster and sort of embarrassing. Editing is something that almost no one except other editors—many of whom are petty, martyred, self-aggrandizing rule-sadists I do not relate to or want to be associated with—sees as valuable. It certainly has no cool factor. And worst of all, in my opinion, it involves being on the wrong, crappy, unfulfilling side of the desk. Like, “Those who can’t write, edit.” It seems like proof that, however incisive a critic or writing coach I may be, I’m just not creative (the better thing) anymore. (Before: precocious, English major, won poetry prizes, etc.)
(And—this shouldn’t bother me, but—my boyfriend is an up-and-coming humorist. His career successes involve things everybody can relate to and find cool: awesome jokes, interactions with famous people on Twitter, and, recently, getting offered a job writing for a nationally famous humor publication. He’s living the dream, he’s got proof from the universe that he has talent, he’s actually making stuff, and I am very, very jealous of him.)
Obviously I need to start writing again.
I’ve read Bird By Bird and Writing Down The Bones. People who love me tell me I “have something to say” and urge me to start already. I’ve practically memorized that Ira Glass quote about how if you keep slogging, your taste and output might eventually sort of line up.
But actually thinking about writing something just sends me running for eBay and muffins and neglected home-improvement projects, mainly because of the gigantic internal chorus of gremlins screaming, “YOU HAVE TO SHOW SOMETHING FOR YOURSELF BEFORE ANY MORE TIME PASSES! BY YOUR AGE, ZADIE SMITH HAD ALREADY PUBLISHED TWO INCREDIBLE NOVELS! IF YOU WERE REALLY A WRITER IT WOULD BE LIKE EVERYONE SAYS, WHERE YOU LITERALLY CAN’T SURVIVE WITHOUT WRITING OR JUST GO AROUND LIKE AN ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR TRIPPING OVER THINGS BECAUSE YOU’RE THINKING ABOUT YOUR CHARACTERS, OR AT LEAST YOU WOULD HAVE AN IDEA FOR SOMETHING TO WRITE! UGH.” I’m so worried about writing as a way to trick out/fix my “lame” editor identity that I’m not actually writing.
When you wrote back to the jealous dude, you said: “I think you may be jealous of folk boy, because he’s unselfconscious about his art, however bad that art might be. Do you think you might want to be the guy with the guitar, instead of being the guy who takes the piss out of the guy with the guitar?”
GOD, YES, I want exactly to be that guy! How do I get from here to there?
Dear Red Pen,
Sweet Jesus, yes, I know how you feel. And I would appear to have an established, secure writing career (if anyone can really have such a thing, which, by the way, they can’t). Let’s just admit that writing is an act of extreme arrogance that usually ends in tears and dumped literary agents and piles of excruciatingly vague rejection letters. Writers are choosy beggars, always hoping for high-paying gigs and editors who love them unconditionally and readers who have cash in their pockets. (See also: Pleeeease go buy my memoir right now.) Hell, even the established, well-regarded novelists I know say things like, “I like to take a break between writing novels, because writing novels is pure fucking misery.” See, just reading that fills every ego-driven writer like me with self-loathing because, what, are we trudging through malarial mud in search of a few jugs of potable drinking water, here? No, we’re sitting on our soft asses hating ourselves for not being more genius-like. Cry me a river, chumps.
OK, sure, there are also writers who say spritely, peppy things about writing, but I don’t read their stuff because their writing sucks and I hate them.
Anyway: Muffins, eBay, home improvements. Yes, yes. I like to paint walls, or just purchase interesting shades of high-quality wall paint. I like to buy drought-tolerant plants, and plant them in the yard and then overwater them until they turn brown, which often tricks me into thinking they need even more water. I like to check mortgage rates, and consider refinancing, and then, just when I’m on a terrible deadline, set the refi process in motion, necessitating piles of paperwork and follow-up phone calls in which a busy stranger takes time out of his busy schedule to insult me for pretending like 1099 income doesn’t amount to a crumpled wad of Monopoly money. These procrastinatory activities should be included on one’s online dating profile. Instead of “Five Things I Can’t Live Without,” online daters should instead describe “How I Procrastinate Instead of Living a Meaningful Life.” Because unlike long walks on the beach and a love of roses and puppies and pizza and cuddling, procrastination methods actually do distinguish us from each other. I don’t know that many other people who could waste 3 hours comparing 15-year and 30-year mortgage amortization schedules.
Unfortunately, though, people who procrastinate too much seem to become drought-tolerant over the years. You weren’t tormented by your lack of meaningful productivity until you started dating a writer. Now you feel lame, even though you have a great job with great money and a great boss. We always undervalue what we’re naturally good at.
I can’t really craft the proper long-term plan for you. But I do know what your short-term plan should be: You should keep your job and you should start writing at least two hours a day, without fail, without a single thought to what it will get you.
That’s the crucial part of becoming a real writer: Accepting that the glory will never be glorious enough, no matter what, and that the words will never be brilliant enough. Never. The act of writing itself isn’t really arrogant. What’s arrogant is thinking that every word should be special. Making those words special takes hours and hours of grueling work. And even when they’re special, there is no glory, not really.
We find solace in muffins and amortization schedules because they wash away the ego-driven hunger for life-changing glory that’s just bad for us. When we subordinate our lives to gallons of wall paint and high-maintenance plants, we emerge less prone to self-aggrandizing spirals of self-flagellation. We are less ruled by ego-centrifugal forces.
Fuck us, without our giant stupid egos! This is why I love an existential crisis. Being dwarfed by the gigantic horribleness of death is helpful, the way watching your Leucadendron die (despite your clingy, psycho-chick love for it) is helpful. Maybe I have terrible impulses and shitty taste and no talent. So what should I do? Spend what little time I have struggling to conform to someone else’s idea of good writing? Dedicate my life to imitating other writers? How many unoriginal imitations of other people’s books are out there already? I might as well be a ghostwriter instead. At least that pays well. No. All I can do is write what I write, and struggle mightily to make it better.
You definitely want to write. You know this now, and you can thank your boyfriend for making that clear, with all of his torturous successes. Even if you hate writing and hate what you write, you still want to write. Write that somewhere, on your wall. Own it. Don’t apologize for it. Silence the inner editor. You need to make your own imperfect, crappy, overbearing, effusive writing matter to you. You have to take the worst possible stuff that you can produce—which, when you’re out of practice, is pretty much every word—and adore it like a high-maintenance plant, like a muffin. Try to divorce it from this negativity of yours, somehow. Rip it out of the “I’m lame” realm and shove it into the “I do this because I fucking likes it, that’s why!” realm. Start clumping together haphazard piles of words as a form of procrastination. Save every stupid word. Do it every day, and watch all the shitty writing pile up, and force yourself to love your own awful pseudo-literary excrement.
This is what I’m doing right now, with my mess of a novel, in spite of the millions of reasons not to. (#1,354: Does the world need another novel? Fuck no, it does not.) I have to believe, because I refuse to spend the next ten years sighing heavily over this particular creative dead-end. Writing a novel won’t justify my existence. But I’m happier when I’m doing it, even though I’m constantly stunned by how bad I am at it. Believing in it, in spite of its shittiness, feels worthwhile. As my 3-year-old says when she “uses the force” to open the garage door, “I know I can do it!”
And when you hear a little voice in your head saying “I know I can do it!”, you have to do what I do every time I hear a little voice in my driveway saying “I know I can do it!” (and I see a small person with closed eyes, straining both arms toward the closed garage door). You have to run like hell for the garage door opener—or in your case, the laptop.
I would prefer that my kids believe they can use the force for as long as possible. I would prefer to believe that I can use the fucking force, too. And so can you, goddamn it. So lean into your chosen delusions. Listen to the little voice, and obey it. Make fumbling with your shitty prose another one of your bad habits. Don’t act like the world depends on it, like you’re a loser if you don’t do it. Instead, try to make the process feel more like something that gives you sustenance. Treat it like eBay and muffins. What are you going to do, marry your successful writer boyfriend and NOT be a writer yourself? Behave like a jealous kid every time he succeeds at something? That’s nuts. Thanks to him, you’re stuck. Maybe that’s why you chose him in the first place. You have to become a writer now. You really don’t have a choice. I know you can do it!
About six months ago I met a man unlike any I’ve known before. He’s kind, generous, incredibly smart, funny, handsome, etc. etc. He’s also supportive and encourages me in my goals. I feel so comfortable and at ease with him which I’ve never felt with anyone before. The only problem—I’m 27 and he’s 47. He doesn’t seem or look it to me—he must have stayed out of the sun when he was younger. He got divorced about 3 years ago and has no kids. We love each other deeply.
So not the biggest deal, right? But I have this nagging fear about what the future holds. He’s open to the idea of kids, which I definitely want. But let’s say we have kids in ten years (when I imagine myself ready). Do I really want to make him a father at 57? He’d be 77 by the time this kid is 20! Also, am I willing to potentially be a widow by my late 50s? Of course there’s no guarantee that a younger man would live any longer, but it frightens me, Polly.
I guess my question is, if everything else about this relationship feels so “once in a lifetime” and unique, should I just live with the other stuff? No relationship can be perfect in every way… Are my fears reasonable? Maybe I’m just freaking out because I have this idea in my head of what the person I spend my life with is supposed to be like. But these feel like big caveats.
Dear Much Younger,
Yes, this is where you would expect to find flowery talk about the glory of love, the magic of romance, the fact that age doesn’t matter. And sure, continue to gaze into each other’s eyes. Continue with the good sex and the midnight post-coital snacking. These things shall not be forsaken under any circumstances.
But my honest advice to you is that you shouldn’t commit to someone who is 20 years older than you if you really want children but don’t want to have them for another ten years. First of all, it’s unlikely that your boyfriend will want kids when he’s 57, even if he says he’s open to it now. It’s also unlikely that you’ll be thrilled about raising kids with someone approaching retirement. And even if you are, you shouldn’t be. Trust me. When your second child is two and potty training, and your 62-year-old husband is grouchily complaining that he can’t carry the kid to the potty at night without throwing his back out, you’re not going to be thinking, “Thank fucking God, I married my soulmate.”
If you are intent on having children, these are not irrational fears. These are concrete concerns.
And while we’re being annoyingly practical, let me also say that if you really want to have kids, plural, I would move up your ideal baby-making date to six to seven years from now, given the percentage of 38- to 42-year-old women I know who have successfully conceived a child. Yes, I’m a feminist. I know that the fear-mongering is fucking bullshit. But it would be messed up if I didn’t tell you what I’ve seen, which is lots of failed $30,000 IVF attempts among married urban hipster ladies who took their time.
So let’s be pragmatic here, without extinguishing your raw joy at having found someone special. You should savor this moment. You have lots of time. That said, you also have to promise yourself that you will bail if this man turns out to be a little bit less than wonderful. You have to guard against spending ten years with someone nice who doesn’t turn out to want kids that badly (or even with someone who is great but not really everything you hoped for). I don’t want you to wake up single at 39, wanting a completely different sort of a life than the one you have.
And keep this in mind: 40-something divorced men are generally much more lovable than men in their late 20s. Men get more sensitive and more interesting as they get older. They’re also more anxious to commit, and more excited about being in love. Your boyfriend’s intensity and romantic nature may seem less rare in a few years. Also? Women develop better taste in men when they’re right around your age. We start to like real support, and start to dislike being ignored (enough to actually stop dating people who are indifferent to us). You may find that you’re much more comfortable with men moving forward, whether it’s with this man or someone else. If I had to predict the future, I would guess that you will enjoy a happy two years with this guy, but you’ll both be ready to part ways by the time you’re 29. Nothing wrong with that, either! There are worse things than spending two years with an awesome older man who’s crazy about you.
But anything could happen. Maybe you’ll always be so happy with your boyfriend that you can’t imagine not being with him. Maybe he’ll make it crystal clear that he wants children with you no matter what. Maybe your life together will feel like a gift, every single fucking day. Maybe you’ll decide to have kids sooner rather than later, which isn’t the worst thing in the world to do, despite all evidence to the contrary. I know an older woman who dated a man two decades older than her, and she wouldn’t have replaced him with anyone else, ever. He was the absolute man of her dreams, and always will be. You may be in the same sort of relationship right now.
Either way, you’re young enough to have fun right now and do what you feel. But you’re also young enough to aim high, to imagine a surplus of good men, to go for the life of your dreams. As long as your boyfriend continues to feel like the absolute ideal partner, willing to have kids whenever you’re ready, willing to adjust to your vision, totally dedicated to your happiness, then that’s hard to step away from. I think if the relationship continues to feel amazing and special, you’re not going to be as tormented by the age difference moving forward. But if he’s even a little wishy-washy, or you’re even a little ambivalent, then don’t hesitate to move on. Do. Not. Hesitate. Your age difference does represent a major compromise. There’s no way around it. Try to be smart about that and don’t let the years race by while you accept less from your life than you really want or deserve.
Feeling mortal? Regretful? Blue? Write to Polly. She’ll know what to do!
Previously: Ask Polly: Is He Crazy, Or Am I?
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Laineys Repertoire.