What happened when I tried to write another issue of my personal newsletter
I haven’t written in a while. I got married (!) traveled abroad in a pandemic (!) and have been suffering from an overwhelmed brain, like just about everybody else. But the truth is there’s a reason bigger than any of those -- I think perfectly legitimate -- excuses. Writing is fucking hard. And for me, writing anything that’s personal is especially hard. I’m rather introverted in the first place, and for the last near-decade, it’s been my job to write about other people and remove myself from the story. But during the few times I’ve written something more personal, I’ve enjoyed it, and learned new things about myself, so it’s a muscle I’d wanted to train.
When, after procrastinating for weeks, I finally sat down in September to write the next edition of this newsletter, any inspiration or motivation I had quickly evaporated. I watched Love on the Spectrum with my mom instead. I didn’t have a deadline or the pressure of an editor waiting for me to produce something. It was easy to put it off. But guilt kept gnawing at me and I started complaining to my husband that I didn’t know what to write about. The ideas I had banked didn’t seem all that relevant to the pandemic, and a “news hook” is yet another writing habit I’m so used to. “What do you mean?! Write about our trip to Poland, the town we went to and the book you were reading about it! You seemed obsessed?”
Ah -- an assignment! That my brain could understand.
Over several pained sessions, I wrote a long saga about how I found out about this one book, what it was about, and why it was so good. (It’s called a History of a Disappearance, and it’s a nonfiction account of the life and demise of a small town in Poland’s Lower Silesia. I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, especially since it has an award-winning translation by Sean Gasper Bye).
Reader, I wrote a book review. A form that I’ve successfully attempted in the past, one that I’m reasonably comfortable in. I tacked on two paragraphs at the end about how going to the actual location was a surreal experience, and I gave it to my husband, Misha, to edit, since he’s a great editor (as long as I ignore some of the more colorful vocabulary he likes to insert in my sentences). But I had a bit of a pit in my stomach. I knew what I wrote wasn’t great, nor was it what this newsletter is supposed to be.
Misha’d never say that the draft was bad, but I saw the confusion on his face at what he was reading. “It needs to be more about you, about what you took from this trip and book,” he eventually said.
I knew that he was 100% right. I also knew right away that piece should be scrapped. As a writer, you know when your work is worth fighting for, arguing with your editor, making the necessary changes or re-writes. This one just wasn’t. I didn’t have more reflections than that one or two graphs, I didn’t want to invent something that wasn’t there, since I’m allergic to that kind of fictionalizing. The book was extremely well-done and captivating, the experience was surreal. But that was it, that’s all I had to say.
Still, I took it pretty hard. I failed my assignment. I doubted myself, my abilities, my life choices. In short, I was dramatic about it. I have a lot of free time these days.
But then I went for a walk in that delicious October sunlight, soothed myself in the most fall-loving-basic-girl-way-possible, with a sugary ginger cookie and chai latte, sat on a bench in the park, and decided I’d write this, a meta-reflection.
I’ve heard many times now from a variety of sources, be it books about writing, or articles about the joy of being bad at hobbies, that it’s totally okay to fail or wobble, and that it may be even good for you.
It’s humbling, obviously. It’s also freeing. I was so mad that I wasted my time writing this book review that no one wanted. I was inefficient, something we’ve learned to think of as a sin. But throwing it out completely felt like a little rebellion against that cult of productivity.
I also did take something from this experience. I do wish I had slowed down a bit during that trip, to reflect, to not crowd out my thoughts by snapping photos, planning the next day, or looking at my text messages (or, let’s be real, Instagram).
Be bad at something. And be nice to yourself about it. Maybe something will come out of it, but if it doesn’t that’s totally okay too. 🤷
Aside for History of a Disappearance, here are a couple of other books I read recently that I loved:
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet: everyone has already told you to read it, and so will I
My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksandar Hemon, a writer’s autobiography -- and his parents’
Wild by Cheryl Strayed: I’m about a decade late, but this is truly an amazing piece of writing, and great pandemic escapism
Newsletters to subscribe to:
Read Like the Wind, a fantastic newsletter about books, where you’re sure to find some great recommendations
Rojospinks Monthly, thoughtful reflections from a great writer (and my former colleague)
Twitter threads to check out:
One that shows how excellent Miley Cyrus is at doing song covers
One with a list of delicious-sounding tea recommendations
A particularly good pen
Recipe to try out:
My friend Karolina sent me this recipe in Polish, and it was so tasty and simple I translated it so that more people could enjoy it.
Vegan corn chowder by Marta Dymek of Jadłonomia (I am decidedly not vegan, and still thought this was amazing):
2 ears of corn
1/2 of a small cauliflower
5 sun-dried tomatoes in oil
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika (I used plain old paprika)
A couple of tablespoons of oil from the sun-dried tomatoes
1 bunch of chives (or scallions, honestly)
1 quart of plant-based milk (I used oat)
1.5 cups vegetable broth
Large pinch of freshly-grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Scrape the kernels off the corn with a sharp knife, dice the sun-dried tomatoes, cut up the cauliflower into small florets, and the leek into slices. In the bottom of a big pot heat up the sun-dried tomato oil. Dump in all the veggies and all the spices except for the nutmeg. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
While that’s cooking, cut up the chives or scallions and set aside. Add milk to the vegetables and cook for 15-20 minutes, until the cauliflower softens.
Add as much vegetable broth as you’d like, depending on how thick you want the soup to be. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper, 3/4 of the chives or scallions, and mix thoroughly. Serve garnished with the chives.