Back in the very early 2000s, when I’d first moved to Chapel Hill I went to a show at an adored, now-long- gone venue. I can’t remember what band was playing, but I know that I ran into a guy from my writing workshop Nothing Fancy State University there. This felt remarkable at the time because, save one single, solitary exception, I did not keep in touch with a soul from NFSU, probably because my connection to campus was almost non-existent (at best, a memory of the turreted administration building looking lonely and Hopper-ish at twilight as I tried to appear lonely and Hopper-ish smoking a cigarette on the to the parking lot, at worst, an endless, skittery, nicotine-stained anxiety dream). The only classes I reliably attended there were workshops, and the only people I ever really hung out with outside of class were other writers in my workshops, and that guy at the show had been a good writer and kind of cute in a soft-spoken, scruffy, thrift store golf sweater way that could have easily turned into crush territory when I was twenty-one or so.
But when I saw him at the show, it took me a minute to recognize him out of context. We were maybe five years and forty-five miles from our class together but to me it felt like light years and several geological eras away in the distance. By the time I summoned up his name, the only thing I could think to ask him was what he was working on. He looked at me, confused, for a minute and was like, “Oh writing? Are you asking about writing? I mean, I don’t do that anymore.”
I remember not knowing how to respond. I probably just drifted away on a speedy “Cool catching uo, dude.” Because twenty-six year old me could not imagine how a person could just quit writing. I mean, what the hell? Assuming that not writing was a thing I might be 100% set on doing, I wasn’t even sure it was physically possible to stop. Even if you’re without laptop or a typewriter or a notebook, you’d still be making stuff up in your head all the time. You’d still just be trying to remember it all so you could jot it down the next time you get close to a pen, right? Right?
A few weeks back, a friend I hadn’t seen since well before Covid approached me when I was out, exchanged pleasantries, and told me how sorry she was I’d quit writing. This was news to me. And because I’m afflicted with neurotic bees for brains, I had to go through several swarms worth of worry, trying to riddle out whether she seemed disappointed or relieved, like maybe this was a gentle way the world was letting me know I should quit. And then I realized it had been a while, I’d written dribs and drabs, nothing like normal, nothing like productive, nothing like I’d ever considered healthy, non-asshole writing behavior
“I guess I’ve been really busy with work,” I said. It sounded reasonable because it was true. And I do write for work, but it’s not the same kind of writing so it doesn’t always really feeling like writing.
What I didn’t say to her was that I wake up every morning with the same goal—to write—the same plan, and I’ve pretty much spent most of the last ten weeks doing anything but ( I mean, yesterday I made a Tik Tok video. It took me two hours and I immediately took it down, but I mention because when I say anything I mean truly anything) because I don’t have the focus, I don’t seem to have the will. I am distracted by anything, everything all of the time. I mean, like, I’ve color-coded the dresses in my closet. I’ve staged photoshoots of the color-coded dresses in my closet. I’ve wasted hours spreadsheeting places I’ve eaten breakfast in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I’ve doom-scrolled. I’ve doom-slid. I’ve doom-shuffled. I’ve cried over Instagram videos. I’ve spent literally weeks—weeks—shopping for a plain white linen button down shirt, and hours talking myself out of buying it. I have used filters on Hair Styling websites to try out all the hair colors of hair dye. I’ve made an appointment to tell my hairdresser I want to go plantinum blonde. I’ve canceled the appointment (I do actually want to go platinum blonde again. I have no idea why I have such a hard time expressing this. It’s not because I have misgivings. It’s also another procrastination thing). I have read way down into the embarrassingly deep back catalog of things I have written and not finished. I’ve procrastinated hard. Like, I’ve procrastinated so hard that it’s, like, a lifestyle now, man. And given the state of the world and my life and everything it would feel totally justified, I could feel totally justified, if I would convince myself that it’s what I wanted to be doing. But I’m pretty sure if it were, I wouldn’t feel so crappy about it all the time.
A lot of people, maybe even most people I know are having a hard time right now, and many of them for much more immediate and profound reasons than I am. Some of this is coincidental. Some of is probably a natural part of aging (most of my “young” friends are standing at the edge of 40 Welcome you to middle age, millennials). But a lot of this is the world right now.. Even if you’re off the grid, even if you’ve been subsisting on a media diet of kittens and morning beach yoga, the background noise is always there, like that Judy Garland Christmas song on a lonely winter night waiting to obliterate you over the PA while you pump gas or wander innocently down the pasta aisle at the supermarket.
It’s hard to complain about over-procrastination and lack of focus because it feels like a thing I should be able to fix. The same as the shopping too much, eating too much, drinking too much, lounging too much, talking too much, moping too much, too much, too much that has defined too much of my last two years. For a while, it seemed prudent to give myself a pass. Global catastrophe, yadda yadda. But if global catastrophe is going to be the permastate, it might be advisable to retain a modicum of self-control. Asteroid’s probably not going to hit tomorrow and all.
But last weekend, I drove home in a spectacular sunset in my often-spectacularly beautiful hometown, unsettled by the peace that came with realizing things aren’t getting better, or at least not getting better in any meaningful way anytime soon.
“My suspicion is that we’re going to look back on this moment and realize that it was a high point, and that we’re probably not getting back to this for at least ten years,” said a friend of mine, on an otherwise beautiful Monday evening three nights later, as we sat on the deck drinking beer under limbs gently unsettled by summer breeze. “I think we have a long hard road before things really turn around, and there’s no guarantee they will.”
She sounded resigned, but not hopeless. She’s not some conspiracy theorist or a radical idealogue. She’s a smart, well-educated person who has a bad feeling about this, which is more or less the same bad feeling that I’m feeling, that everyone else I know is feeling, that is making every single teensy, weird ass bullshit thing that happens feel like just another thing we’ve lost, maybe forever, on the way down to wherever it is we’re going.
This is some bleak shit. I know that. For all my (inappropriate) morbid jokes and lazy slides into fatalism and armchair catastrophizing, I am not really a cynic or a pessimist by nature; I just played one in the 1990s (although I still think your favorite band is overrated). It is as hard for me—maybe even harder—to swim around in these waters than it is for, say, my mother who likes to describe herself as a “bluebird person,” which is to say, would rather not go deep when quantifying or qualifying the pain of the world. Choosing to tune that shit out most of the time–hell, all the time—doesn’t feel like a terrible survival strategy . The long view right now feels particularly miserly on the happy endings. And that’s probably the nicest thing I can say about it. I don’t begrudge anyone who chooses to spend their days in brighter rooms. Especially now.
About a year ago, I started telling everyone I was supposed to write a story about Courtney Love. To be clear, “supposed to” is kind of misleading. The only person that assigned me the task was myself. The only person holding me accountable was me. The only person who even wanted it written was me.
I got the idea listening to a podcast about songs that hadn’t actually gotten around to podcasting about “Violet,” a song that still feels twice as heavens-ripped-open-and-roared-through cataclysmic now to me as it did through the tinny speakers of my jury-rigged car stereo back in fall of 1994. I figured the song was a good jumping off point for talking about grief, fame, hair bleaching techniques (a motif!), whether authorship matters as much as performance, Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, Marlon Brando, and that some people have life stories too impossible to be anything but real. And, how sometimes refusing to quit can feel like the most furious and radical act. Screw anyone that thinks you will.
The day I started writing it, I got dragged online and wasted some time (days? Weeks?) feeling indignant about it. Did I deserve it? Maybe. Then, a couple weeks later a publication I wrote for twenty years ago exhumed an old review of mine to chide me for it. Did I deserve it? Probably. I was an idiot then. And all of that scorn might have put me in a better than usual headspace for writing about Courtney Love, a woman who spent much of her career illuminated by the flames of the stake she’s regularly accused of tying herself to. Sometimes it’s so exhausting to try and change the script that you might as well just play the part. You believe in witches, kid? But did I put any of that to good use. No, I did not. Did I put any of that to any use? No. See above.
When people ask me about why I’m not writing anymore, they’re not asking me about the Courtney Love piece, no matter how many times I’ve mentioned it over however many gin and tonics in the last twelve months. But it’s became a thing for I’ve lingered on whenever I opened up my documents. I want to call it a symbol, but it was honestly more of an excuse. Last week the same podcast that had inspired me to write the Courtney Love bit in the first place got around to doing an episode on Courtney Love. They managed to make most of the salient points in a breezy hour long format. I felt, and you’ll forgive the irrational grandiosity of this, like I was off the hook.
I’ve spent some time thinking about what to write about and how to write about whatever I’m writing about now, in this place. And hereI’ve given you 2500 words or so on the topic, without even addressing the whether. Like should I even? I don’t have ae satisfying answer to that one either, and neither do you. Talking about the whether of writing feels inextricably bound up in the whether of living.. That sounds melodramatic, but like I said up top, I really don’t know how to stop. I really don’t know what else to do to fill my time that will feel satisfying unless I win the lottery and have the money and leisure to spend all of my hours throwing parties and traveling and arranging for people to travel to parties that I’ve travelled to throw.
Both of my little sisters are having their first children in a few months. It’s weird and sweet all at the same time. And on some level, I recognize that it’s on me to get out of my wallow and on with the program. It’s a shitty thing to hoist your bleak on people whose timeline still only moves in one direction. So I’m going to have to adjust or re-strategize. I’m going to have to find something to hold on to, even if it’s just the idea of my nephews hands when they cross the street whenever they get around to start walking. You tell yourself whatever story your need to keep from getting lost in the abyss, and maybe you end up writing it down because it feels like purpose and idle hands just order more dresses you don’t need off Instagram.
At least, no one will have to ask why you quit.