Lots of people let fear of the unknown or of abject humilation thwart them. I’m not one of these people. My willingness to leap, assuming that I’ll land, if not on my feet then some place better than where I currently stand, is one of my superpowers.
So it was pretty much a total Marya move when I quit the best writing gig I’d ever had. For two years, I’d been writing a weekly column for Voice Media Group, the nation’s biggest alt-weekly franchise, the one that publishes Village Voice, L.A. Weekly and New Times. My liquor-drenched tales of South Florida nightlife were a hit among the readers of New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
As a home-turf writer, my job was to add local color and levity between the hard hitting news and the raunchy sex ads of Back Pages. It sounds like an easier job than it was. No one wants to hear about any ol’ average night-on-the-town. They want to read epic bar adventures they couldn’t or wouldn’t have themselves. In me, readers wanted a modern-day female Hunter S. Thompson.
Since I own no shotguns and avoid LSD, I doubled down on the whiskey and smart-talk. I quickly ran into another problem: a real epic is hard to achieve when one has no self-destructive urge and wants to keep her day job. (I’ve been working as an English professor for nearly 20 years). Plus, a night of drinking that’s worth remembering usually can’t be remembered.
My editor made it clear: I better get to writing snappy copy or I’d be out of a job. What does a writer do when there’s nothing to write about? She creates something to write about.
On my beat among the bar flies, lounge lizards and club kids, I was a provocateur. I’d prod randomly selected patrons with barbed quips and ludicrous and loaded questions, trying to get them to say something worth quoting. Or I’d instigate a story — like the time I asked a cowboy to prove himself and then wrote about being lassoed in the parking lot. And at the computer, I was a sort of Dr. Frankenstein, stitching together unrelated pieces — quotes and anecdotes — as a coherent whole. Then I’d use a cocktail of sarcasm and description to bring the thing to life.
About half way into this two-year gig, I wondered what the hell I was doing. This wasn’t art. This wasn’t why I studied writing. I began to resent my editor and the confines of the column: I had to sound younger than I was to appeal to a target demographic and I couldn’t fold my real-life challenges (such as being a non-custodial parent or coping with the recent death of my father) into the narrative. I felt like a phony. And when I kept at it for another year, I started to think of myself as a sell-out.
When I quit, it was with the intention of keeping my motivations pure and writing something more valuable and less disposable than a column in a free weekly rag. But once I no longer had a clear audience or rhetorical situation, my writing foundered. I wasn’t sure what I was writing or who would want to read it. Without an editor waiting for my copy, my sense of urgency diminished.
As a columnist, I had been writing and publishing 1500 words a week, which is about the number of words a person needs to write if they want to write a book in one year. But after I quit New Times, did I write a book a year?
I didn’t even finish one book in 8 years. I moved to California. I wrote and published a few essays. I wrote and performed a couple of stories on stage. I solved the drinking problem that was encouraged by a job that picked up my bar tab. Mostly in the post-New Times days, I experimented with new forms and ideas and expressed a lot that wasn’t published or performed.
And then recently, as I’ve set out independently as a blogger and writing coach with a forthcoming book, I started to kick myself for having been so foolish as to give up my power — my platform! Even if I had the time and energy to start all over again, what were the odds I’d make it far as I had before when I was younger and boozier? Why hadn’t I realized how good I’d had it?
And then, because writing is how I process things, I started writing this blog post. Honestly, I couldn’t figure out what I had to say about my experience. Was I trying to say something about the importance of structure (one of the subjects of my Practical Magic for Writers workshop)? Was I offering a cautionary tale? A lesson about appreciating opportunities? Lowering expectations? Letting go of the glory days?
I felt like I’d screwed up somehow, but I wasn’t sure how I could have done things differently. Should I have recognized the power of a “personal brand” and a “platform” sooner?
I mulled it over for several days. Then one night as I soaked in a hot tub of salty water, it hit me: things were good at New Times just like they are when a kid lives with her parents.
At the magazine, I had other people’s expertise and resources aiding me in my success. My editor taught me a lot about storytelling and about voice. I learned how to compensate for boring plots with punchy dialogue and colorful character sketches. I learned how to marry poetic description and sarcasm.
I didn’t have to worry about finding or narrowing a topic or finding the right “home” for a piece. Neither did I concern myself with a suitable structure or finding an interested audience. All of these were provided for me, and I took it for granted much the way a kid takes a roof over her head and three squares a day for granted.
All I had to do was submit my copy and then a team edited, illustrated, laid out, and printed the thing and got the whole magazine into newsstands and online. And I got paid every week like clockwork.
But I also paid a price: I had to keep meeting someone else’s expectations. I couldn’t really express myself or experiment, which is to say, I had been right (oh, how I love being right!): I hadn’t been a real artist — I was just fleshing out someone else’s vision (this part I didn’t love at all).
Maybe it was the epsom salt at work, too, but the realization helped me relax into a self-acceptance. I realized that I had just experienced some growing pains…some of the same challenges a kid faces when she goes out on her own. With fewer resources and less experience, I would be likely to have a hard go of it for a while. Which is exactly what happened.
I hadn’t screwed up; I’d grown up.
Today, I also realize something else: Maybe it’s not called a “leap-of-faith” because we believe that we are going to land on our feet but because we know that being airborne will allow us to expand — to grow, to take a new shape and discover new space. We take a leap because we have faith in the value of experience. And, if we survive, it gives us something worth writing about.
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