Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Eat two custard-filled doughnuts and call me in the morning.”
So, this is going to sound so dramatic and stupid and of-course-you-already-know-the-answer-to-this-why-are-you-even-asking? But I’m confused and I want to talk about this with someone. I moved to this cold, Midwestern state from the South (which I loved, but didn’t want to stay in for career reasons) two and a half years ago for law school. I left partially to get away from a bad relationship. A couple months in, I met someone else in law school. Things moved very quickly. I’d had bad luck dating here before him—the one guy I tried anything with had a premature ejaculation problem (more on that later). Long story short, things between me and him are AMAZING in bed. Fireworks. Two weeks later, he’s asking me to be his girlfriend. Having finally moved on from my toxic ex, I said “yes!”
Slowly, warning signs start emerging. He gets upset about me going to a football game with my new friend (remember, I’m new in this town and trying to make friends, and so every time a new friend asks me to do something, it’s a big deal to me). He yells at me one time so much that I break up with him (and then he begs me to get back together, promising he’ll be better). I made him go to therapy after the yelling incident. The therapist (preliminarily) diagnoses him with bipolar disorder. He tells me he’ll get treated, etc., we get back together. Of course, he stops going to see his therapist. After a few good months together, I have something tough happen in my personal life which throws me for a loop mentally. He continues to be weirdly possessive about time I spend with friends. I never even thought about cheating on him, btw, but it wasn’t really other guys he was jealous of, just me spending time with people other than him in general. In the middle of all this (in March, after we’d been together a little over a year), he proposes—with my grandmother’s engagement ring, which he got from my parents. Did I mention the sex was amazing and despite all his problems I really love him? I say yes.
Flash forward to July. He breaks up with me (in what I think was a bipolar episode—he also called me a cunt and called the cops on me for no reason—need I say more?). I fall apart and move in with my aunt and uncle, who live in town. I put my life back together. Unfortunately, we have a class together this semester, so I have to see him twice a week. I’m friendly to him because that’s just how I am—I can’t hold a grudge, no matter what the person has done to me. I start dating other people and seeing my friends more and getting back out there. Montage, activate! All my dating attempts just crashed and burned. The first one was a premature ejaculator who tricked me into meeting his parents on the third date. Then I had a one-night stand who was super-awesome in bed, but you know, one-night stand and all, so I never called. Then my best girlfriend here (who has her own boyfriend drama and ex-drama) made out with me at a party after asking me to go pee with her (I thought girl-code “do you want to pee?” really meant “do you want to pee?”) and told me she had “never felt this way about a woman before.” I’m horrible, but I hooked up with her a few days later just to see if I could be into women. (She’s gorgeous, funny and smart. Maybe?) I’m not. We’re still friends though! Then, I fell into bed with a friend of a friend on accident because he’s super cute and was laying in my lap. After we had sex, and I didn’t cum, I asked him if he would go down on me and he told me he “doesn’t go down” on women. What?! Never sleeping with him again. Then, this guy at a coffee shop hit on me and I thought “Here’s my romantic comedy moment! This is it!” So we exchanged numbers, he’s super cute and a writer and smart and funny. We sleep together and he’s not good in bed and super sweaty! I’m starting to think, “What is up with these Midwesterners? Are they all crazy and/or bad in bed?” Anyways, around this time, my ex is really trying to jump my bones, and having not had a proper fuck in months (since the one-night stand), I think sure, why not, I know he’ll be good in bed at least.
So that brings me to where I am today. I’ve been in therapy for months to deal with the fallout of this broken engagement. I had my grandmother’s engagement ring made into a necklace to symbolize a new beginning. All my friends and family would disapprove of us getting back together, as would his (so he tells me). But the sex is sooooo gooood. So we’ve been basically secretly back together for a couple weeks now. We say “I love you,” spend the night together all the time, etc. I know, I know. But the sex is soooo gooood. I know the right answer here is, be strong! You’ll find someone else eventually! But obviously it’s not that easy, since I’m writing to you. Anyways, tonight, after he convinced me to go buy weed from my downstairs neighbors, who neither of us has ever met before, but we know they must sell weed because we can smell it (did I mention one of the problems in our relationship was his pot addiction?), he suddenly got “sick” and had to leave—with the joint, which he said would settle his stomach. I tried to convince him to stay, but he was adamant. It made me feel like shit and like, “What am I doing?”
Which leads me to writing to you. I know I’m too emotionally attached to be playing this Russian roulette. He also does nice boyfriend-y things like shovel out my car when it gets snowed in. But my therapist, friends and family would all say “Are you crazy? Get rid of this asshole!” But I also can’t talk to them about how I need to get laid and everyone else here sucks in bed. So how do I move on from this toxic relationship and either find someone else to fuck or get to the point where I’m okay with not getting laid for a while? I’m also super busy in law school and with work and don’t really have time for dating, and it was nice dating him in that sense because we both got each other’s schedules. Also, part of me (I know this is irrational, but bear with me) tells me, “You’re 26! You’re too old to be starting all over again. Just stick with this guy who is smart and hot and good in bed and wants to marry you. Who knows if anyone else will?” Saying that out loud is hard, but there. I said it.
So what is wrong with me? Why do my relationships end up like this—huge toxic smoldering craters? And what should I do now? For what it’s worth, I really do think he loves me. Also, I’ve tried waiting longer to sleep with someone, but then the same problem still occurs, just later on, when I have more invested in them emotionally and it sucks more to break it off. People have mentioned to me the concept of “Teaching them to be good in bed,” but blegh—I’m just not that patient and part of me is like “If it clicks, it clicks right away.” The physical part of a relationship is very important to me, I don’t want to have to compromise on that just to be with someone who’s emotionally stable! I don’t know. Tell me what to do.
Needs Some Good Lovin’
Here’s what’s wrong with you: You’re careless and you don’t give a shit about other people. Your bluster barely conceals your extreme insecurity. Because you’re sure that there’s something ugly about you (deep down inside, something that means no man will ever truly love you), you pretend that you’re everything you wish you were—carefree, tough, superior to the mere mortals around you. You’re busy and impatient and all you really have time for right now is the Really Good Sex. If you have to extract that resource from a confused bipolar guy with anger issues who once ground your sense of self into the dirt, so be it.
Don’t worry, though. Many, many women I know went through the same kind of blustery, self-hating nightmare phase at some point. It’s a wild, lonely rollercoaster ride of grandiose, needy, judge-y, sludgy narcissism. Most of us are humbled at some point and we slowly recognize that all of the chaos and bullshit around us is caused, in part, by our own self-centered, dodgy behavior.
You’re using the quest for good sex as an excuse to act like an idiot. The truth is, you’re only interested in men who aren’t interested in you or who have major problems. You are physically repelled by men who have the ability to focus on you. This makes some of them nervous, and they’re bad in bed as a result. The second you start accepting yourself, warts and all, you’ll be able to let other people in more completely, listen to them, accept them for who they are, and fall in love in a meaningful way—and the sex will be better than anything you’ve experienced so far. (Even without the love, most of those fumbling guys are going to be far more dexterous and self-assured in a few years. Mark my words.)
But you’re not there yet. Not only do not need to be having good sex in order to survive, YOU need to NOT be having sex at all in order to survive right now. Call your therapist and set up an extra appointment and tell him/her everything, immediately. Talk about the sex. If you can’t do that, consider finding a new therapist with whom you feel comfortable discussing sex. And once you’re done talking about how all-consuming and important good sex is to you, then I want you to try very hard to talk about the other stuff: Who you are, what you want, and how you feel about yourself in that moment after you fucked your crazy ex and now he’s absconding with the joint you secured for him.
Age 26 is a great time to start all over again, actually. You’re well ahead of the curve here. You don’t really have a choice either way. Your ex has serious problems. Right now he’s a possessive, bipolar stoner. In a few years, without treatment, he could easily become someone who’s abusive, who can’t hold down a real job, who cheats on his wife, who can’t stand to spend time with his kids, who crushes everything beautiful and good he sees. This guy is bad news, and the stakes will only get higher as you get older. You’re not helping him by staying with him, either—you yourself are fucked up, and you’re making it more likely that he’ll continue to spiral downward.
Take a break from drinking, smoking pot, and sleeping around—or the sake of clarity, for the sake of circumnavigating those smoldering craters from this point forward. You’ll be able to loosen up soon enough. For now, though, you need to unearth the stuff about yourself that scares you, the stuff you hate, the stuff that makes you suspect that you’re doomed to chase assholes for the rest of your life if you want to be loved. Once you sift through these dark fears and insecurities—and it’ll take a while, so be patient—you’ll emerge with a better sense of who you really are, and you won’t mind if other people see that person clearly.
Because it’s not good enough to be loved for being a smart, sexy, spontaneous cipher. It’s not good enough to seduce someone into being fixated on this pretty illusion you’ve constructed. Read this if you want to know what that superiority complex of yours will look like in two decades. Wurtzel has been humbled (and her honesty about that is rare and fascinating), but she still can’t let go of the narcissistic compulsions that landed her there in the first place. (See also: Who can?)
Like her, if you want to maintain romantic illusions about what a rare and colorful bird you are, against a backdrop of dull miscreants, you can do that indefinitely. But you won’t be happy in love until you’re loved for who you really are. And that’s not possible until you figure out who the fuck that is, and you love that person. I know that sounds like old news, and it sounds difficult, and it makes you feel vulnerable and sad. Feeling humbled is good, it will take you down the right path. Let your vulnerability lead you. Every bit of terrible you dare to feel right now will pay off in happiness down the road.
I am a person that wants to write for a living, or at least I think I am. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m cut out for it and may inevitably fall to my doom if I try at it, constantly asking myself “What the hell was I thinking?” and working in retail. I have become extremely pessimistic about ever becoming successful at the only thing I love to do. A few weeks ago I submitted an article to a website similar to The Awl, but I’m pretty sure they rejected it (I’d like to think it didn’t send since a little caution sign popped up next to it in my outbox, but who am I kidding?). This killed any confidence I may have had and now I’m frantically searching for the right answers and random signs from God.
I’m not finished with college yet, so I haven’t committed to a Creative Writing major or anything like that. I am, however, transferring to a 4-year university next semester and would like to know the truth about the writing business before I fling myself into its potential death trap. I have big dreams growing inside even bigger dreams, and at this point I have no clue what to do with them. Should I toss them or follow the slightly delusional path toward becoming what I’ve always wanted to be? And could you be painfully honest?
Dear Scared Shitless,
Being a writer is as torturous as you make it. Most writers prefer to make their lives extra torturous with torture cherries on top. We like to suffer (a lot) and when we’re not suffering, we like to talk about how much we were just suffering a little while ago. We like to get worked up over bad reviews, editorial rejections, half-finished outlines, half-baked ideas. You name it, we can work our fucked-up little heads into a real stew over it. Not only that, but if we’re reasonably good at what we do, we also tend to edit and rewrite and toss out and re-edit our shit over and over again. This means that everything we produce spends a lot of time in this Not Quite Good Enough state, during which we writers feel that we, too, are Not Quite Good Enough. If there’s one definitive feeling to being a writer, that’s the one. (Read this if you want to know what all of this ego-driven compulsion will look like in two decades.)
It’s like we’re in training to be depressed most of the time, if you think about it. Pushing ourselves to improve our work, choosing increasingly difficult writing tasks, reading the best writers and comparing ourselves unfavorably to them. Why not start each day by stretching out your insecurity, then move on to self-hating calisthenics, followed by a marathon run around the same frustrating, repetitive running track in your head, until you’re genuinely anxious and pissed off and sad? Ironically, once we’ve achieved our target state of total self-pity and outright panic, that’s when we start to look for a way out. That’s when we frantically search for the right answers and random signs from God.
Writers are masochists. Don’t be fooled by those pleasing interviews on Poets & Writers, in which some serene-sounding scribe lays out the soothing yet productive patterns of his or her existence. (“I awake at five a.m. and write for four hours straight, then take a ten-mile walk among the blue jays and cardinals of my country estate…”) Patience, faith, optimism—these things are tough to generate, even when you feel sure that you’re meant to write for a living. Sure, we’re lucky that we can write, that we’re not begging for a cup of dry rice at the side of the road. That doesn’t stop us from sometimes wishing that we could do anything in the world but stare at the blank page, wondering what the fuck our empty heads have to offer.
So I could say, “Writing is great if you can manage it correctly, if you can be a good boss to yourself and keep yourself on a schedule and edit yourself carefully and question your own assumptions about your work and write for long hours every day, without fail.” But it’s extremely difficult to pull that off consistently. I have stretches of success with it, punctuated by torturous self-pitying downward spirals.
You’re not even out of school yet, and you’re already eating yourself alive over this stuff. Or, as Wallace Stegner once put it in a letter to a young writer like you, “You would like to be told that you are good and that all this difficulty and struggle and frustration will give way gradually or suddenly, preferably suddenly, to security, fame, confidence, the conviction of having worked well and faithfully to a good end and become someone important to the world.” With admirable humility, Stegner adds, “It is the sort of thing I felt myself at your age, and still feel, and will never get over feeling.”
So, get used to this feeling, because as a writer, it will never leave you. If you’re lucky you’ll have a brief respite here and there, but generally, being a writer involves more than a little panic and self-doubt over the years. (Or, it involves writing stuff you don’t really want to write for a salary.) But right now, you’re blissfully immune to such pressures. You can enjoy the luxury of being in school, of trying new things and sometimes failing, of experimenting and making a few mistakes. Rejection isn’t personal, so try not to stew over it. It means nothing, and you should never, ever slow your pace just because you suspect that some editor somewhere doesn’t absolutely embrace and adore every single word you commit to the page. No matter how good a writer you are, you aren’t so good that you won’t have to work very, very hard. Not only that, but the second you’re great at one kind of writing, chances are you’ll want to try something even harder (because you crave more torture cherries, I guess).
There is no sign from God that will change your fate. If you’re looking for one, that tends to mean you’re not writing enough, and you simply need to get back to work. As K.C. Constantine wrote in another letter to an aspiring writer, “[W]riting is the gig.” You either want to spend your time writing or you don’t. If you love to write, then keep writing. Write a lot. Don’t question it every few seconds. Don’t scan the publishing landscape for notions of how you should package your unique voice (and thereby make it less unique before you’ve even finished the writing). Just do the work. You’re not some magical Rumpelstiltskin who can spin gold out of words. You’re just a person who likes to write. You can either continue to write (a lot) and improve (while taking the many, many rejections that await you in stride), or you can choose a slightly less torturous, more practical path. Most writers have day jobs – and some have day jobs they absolutely love, day jobs that prevent them from freaking out every few seconds about the gas bill.
Did you follow up with an editor at that website, by the way? You should do that if it’s been a week and you haven’t heard anything. Did you pay close attention to the kinds of pieces this website publishes? Did you match the tone and the length of the pieces they publish? Does your first sentence make an editor want to read more, or does it start out with something that presupposes an interest in the narrator, like “I’ve always thought that cows were the world’s most awkward animals.” Or “What’s the deal with all of these shows about cops?” As a writer starting out, you have to edit your work until it’s better than most of the other stuff published by that website or magazine. And if you’re not doing all of the above, then you’re just being naïve and sloppy. That’s ok. We’ve all been there. But don’t expect magic until you’ve done the work.
Every writer, young and old, humble and exalted, needs to be reminded of that almost every day: Just write. Forget magic and answers and signs from God. Just keep writing. Enjoy the writing itself. Because even when you’ve written something beautiful, it’s unlikely that you’ll be rewarded with fame and glory and big piles of cash. And even if you are embraced and adored, you’ll start at zero again every time you sit down to write a new book. You have to cultivate your faith in yourself and your love for writing, almost like your own private religion. You have to savor the process. If that sounds awful (or just impossible) to you, you might want to consider another path. But here you are in school, with lots of time to try your hand at it, more time than you may ever have again. Why not just try?
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 Alex T.