I went out for a drink last night with a very respected editor who is also a very respected writer. (I had cold-emailed him and he was really very kind and generous both in agreeing to and then throughout the hour and a half we ate cheese together.)

I wanted to ask him about how he made it all work. He said first and foremost I had to negotiate not working five days in the office. At least one day at home.

I felt a little bit better, because I’ve done that.

And then … he didn’t articulate this, so I don’t want to falsely quote him, but the meaning of the more oblique thing he said was clear to me: put your own stuff first. I.e. that day you’re not working in the office–do what ya gotta do. In the morning, before you answer work email, do what ya gotta do.

“I consider myself to be a full-time employee of [the publisher he works for],” he told me.

Because it is true–you don’t turn OFF being an editor when it’s not 9-5. So … it’s not amoral to take blocks of time out of the 9-5 for yourself.

This was a fortifying conversation.

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I made a mistake a few days ago that threw me through a loop. (I thought I had done something I hadn’t, thereby failing to prevent a problem that escalated to involve many other people. The problem itself wasn’t my bad deed, so really my guilt here should be a lot less than it is, but my side of the street isn’t clean either because if I’d been more vigilant I would have caught it before it escalated.)

It’s been four days since I realized what happened, and just now I’m starting to emerge from the cloud of terrible bad feeling. I am very, very bad at dragging myself out of a funk when I have made a mistake. I honestly think the biggest help this time was coming to this blog on Thursday (I haven’t been here in a long time) and encountering the decisive element quote, which I had posted on my profile page and declared was my religious creed (a now-dead link, incidentally). I had forgotten the quote, and looked it up to reread it. Since Thursday, I’ve looked it up and reread it again about ten times. I’m posting it here in case maybe some day it will help someone else.

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

–either Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or Haim Ginott, the internet cannot tell me which for sure

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the struggle

Is this a thing for everyone?

Writing creatively catches me up in a depressive fever. There are times (although not exactly often) when I take joy in the act of writing and when the things that I have written make me feel proud and/or good about myself. But usually I am living in a shadow of recriminations, self-doubt, and stress that I’m spread to thin and not doing anything right. It puts me in a pretty constant black mood, easy to irritate or inflame but also guilty about my irritability and questioning whether any creative project is worth the negative effects my attitude has on people around me as well as myself.

This emotional storm was one of the reasons I stopped writing two years ago when I went on a self-imposed hiatus. I have definitely felt good about the fact that I’ve gone back to writing these last five months. The hiatus made me sad and the novel I was trying to write then made me sad (or maybe a bigger, more malaise-y kind of upset than sad) for going unwritten. Now I’m sad that the fact that I’m writing it doesn’t mean it’s any good, and that I’m not doing it justice.

I’m not sure how much of it is to do with my job–maybe the fact that my job in particular is hard to juggle at the same time a creative writing endeavor, which creates a sense that I’m not doing either well. Or maybe better to say it creates a terrible resentment toward my job if I prioritize that over my writing, and a terrible guilt toward my job when I prioritize my writing.

I have often come back to the having one’s cake conversation in my head. I have a job I love and that I’m good at. It’s something I still want to be doing in 20 or 30 or 50 years. Which is why throwing it aside to focus on a creative project just seems … foolish, selfish, short-sighted, privileged, silly. Especially when the project is of extremely questionable merit. But how much of that is because I’m not applying myself whole-heartedly or doing right by it? Am I actually missing my true calling?

No one can answer this question for me. I know that. I can’t answer it for myself, although I really need to try harder to do so.

I am curious though if other people go through this. My co-worker told me a few days ago that he never had these kinds of feelings; he never doubted that he would have a novel published someday. I asked him what the key to finding such confidence in sense of purpose. He snorted, told me to quit my job, sign up for an MFA, and spend two years reading and thinking about craft. I know he didn’t mean it the way I took it (he may even have been being facetious), but to me it sounded like a reminder that I didn’t deserve to write a book, because I hadn’t paid my dues to the process–which honestly resonated very deeply. It is something I have often thought about other people who think writing a book is an easy thing, a hobby.

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pot of coffee

A week at work during which I let myself get overrun by my own emotional stress. I can’t control that I react emotionally to challenges at work. I think that’s a function of the kind of personality that gets into my kind of job, and which is by job description pitted together/against a bunch of similar personalities.

P says I need to step back and unwind; he is worried about how tightly wound I have been for several days. But I can’t; that doesn’t work. (I tried in good faith.) The only thing that works for me is winding tighter and blasting through the bad feelings. If I’ve worked really hard I can cut a lot of fear and self-recrimination and irritation off at its knees. I can say to myself, “at least I did my best.”

Not quite mid-day on Saturday yet but so far the weekend has been an entire pot of coffee and 3 hours silent work. I paused to write this so my eyes would refocus; now I’m going back.

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plugging, plugging away.

Don’t know if it will ever be any good, but it’s nice to have something to say.

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Ellis Island

I went to Ellis Island today for the first time. I took advantage of our summer Friday, left work a little after two, and went down to Battery Park (I had to walk; the subway wasn’t running) to get in line for the boat.

I cannot explain why someone as obsessed with immigration history as I am has never been to Ellis Island before. Anyway. Now that “never have” is part of my past.


I did like that I had to endure some very small discomfort (walking from the broken subway in uncomfortable shoes) in order to get on the boat. Obviously my discomfort was nothing at all, compared to etc etc. But it seemed like a worthy part of the homage.


Most of the people got off at the Statue of Liberty, which was the first stop. I was sitting on the top deck, sunning my white white legs as we waiting for the boat to fill up again before heading off to Ellis Island. Eventually, a group of eight vivacious tourists sat in the seats on either side of me. I got up to move so they could all sit together, which struck up a conversation.

Guess where they were from.


My main interlocutor, Paola, asked me why I spoke Italian. (By the way, I speak about 20 words, and not very well, but Italians are really generous about this, I have found.) I don’t know why, but what I answered was, “My family is Italian.” (Ok, I do know why I said that–it was the only thingĀ I could think of to say in Italian.)

Paola did not then ask why my Italian was so bad. Instead, she asked me where my family was from. I told her Calabria.

“Calabrese, they are a very jealous, envious people,” she told me. (Later she would tell me Ligurians are really tight-fisted, mano cuso, when she found out my boyfriend’s family is Genovese.) “Calabrese always want to know what other people have so they can be jealous. But you probably already know that.”

I laughed. I did.

She reached over and rubbed my wrist. I wasn’t the write color to be Calabrese. Bianchissima.

I admitted I was only half. “Mezze,” I said, artfully. She nodded. I got ambitious. “Ma il cuore e Italiano,” I said.

This was the best thing I said all day; it made her very happy.


As for Ellis Island itself, obviously I cried a lot wandering around. But I didn’t read anything I didn’t already know.

Which was nice, actually. Because it means I’ve been reading the right things.

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the problem

with not blogging everyday is I’ve become a much worse writer than I used to be because I don’t practice everyday anymore.

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