Dispatch #5: Psychic Hellscape
When it's good it's bad and when it's bad it's bad
I meant to write in June, and now we’re halfway into July. How did that happen? Wait, I know: I didn’t have childcare until late June, when my in-laws drove to LA to help, and since then I’ve been spending my work hours reading my novel class students’ manuscript excerpts and writing critique letters for workshop this weekend. The novel class is a private group that’s been meeting, in one iteration or another, for nearly a decade. A decade! Isn’t that staggering? For years we’ve done a low-residency model, wherein pages are emailed to me on a weekly basis, and then, at the end of the session, everyone turns in a big excerpt to be workshopped in person, over a two-day marathon. We have these long, deep discussions about everyone’s work, and we break for lunch, and we have wine and coffee and sparkling water, and it’s soul-fulfilling and inspiring. Over the pandemic we did it via Zoom, which wasn’t the same, but was still good because the conversation illuminated so much for all of us, about character and scene and pacing and on and on.
That said, the critique letter writing is laborious, my head hurts from the effort, and every time I think, I cannot do this again. And then, we meet for workshop, and I have such a terrific time with these smart, talented, funny, and perceptive women, and I think, Let’s do that again! I didn’t study novel writing at Iowa: what I have learned about novels is from reading, and writing my own, and from working with these writers. So I can’t stop, not ever.
The truth is, these past six or eight weeks have been pretty brutal for me. I’m fine, I’m fine [insert privilege paragraph here] but, still, it’s been brutal. Something happened that I’m not willing to write about yet, or ever; though perhaps I’ll try my hand at autofiction and, I don’t know, FSG will finally love me—or, barring that, I can read my story aloud to my future therapist.
On top of that trauma/stressball, my novel has been on submission. Since right after Memorial Day. Actually, no, before that—for four weeks before that, my agent and I waited to hear from another editor who had wanted to read the rewrite. So, my book has been out in the world since early May—which means this bullshit has straddled spring and summer! I plan to go into elaborate detail about the submission process for my paid subscribers (because it’s full of drama and humiliation, and you have to pay to watch that show). All I will say for now is that Time’s Mouth remains unsold, albeit in a sort of limbo where it might sell any day now. Or not. So I can’t fully grieve yet. Or celebrate. I am just…waiting. It’s terrible.
During this process, my essay about how I don’t play with my kids was published in the New York Times Magazine’s Letter of Recommendation column. The publication was a true career dream come true for me: I have been pitching this column since 2014! I always got a no, or, more often, no response whatsoever, and so to have my pitch accepted (by my former colleague at The Millions, and fellow Los Angeleno, Ismail Muhammad), was exciting. I wrote the essay, and rewrote it, and edited it, and edited it again, for editor Raha Nadaff, who was insightful and helpful, and who pushed me to be better, more open, and forthcoming, and to make connections I hadn’t thought about before. In the end, I felt proud of my work. My essay! In the New York Times Magazine!
Innocent little me assumed that having a big shiny publication would help me as I weathered my book submission storm. It would be a thrill, I thought, and a necessary little ego boost.
Oh what folly! How could I forget that publishing anything on a big stage is truly a psychic hellscape? No ego boost is ever necessary! When it’s going well, it’s hard. When it’s going badly, it’s hard. Attention is just as tricky and upsetting as no-attention; believe me, I’ve experienced both.
And when you’re writing about your own life, it’s even more intense. I expected negative feedback in the comments section online, so after the first day, I didn’t read them. I knew what they would say, and I was correct: that I shouldn’t have had children, that I was neglecting them, that I was a bad mom, and that I was missing the best part of parenting. What I didn’t expect was to receive emails about my article, telling me I was a narcissist, or that I should stop writing and start playing. And, excuse me, ma’am, but did you know, 90% of incercerated males weren’t played with as kids? I received comments on my Instagram that told me CPS should take away my children. That I was a sad person. That I was “raising the sociopaths of the future.”
Of course, this feedback is laughable. My children are well-adjusted, beautiful, unique, loving, and interesting, and my relationship to them is healthy. It was evident that either the haters didn’t read my piece, or didn’t read it closely. To be clear, I’m okay with someone disagreeing with my point of view; I’m not okay with people shaming others for their parenting choices.
And yet. We (or I) underestimate how hurtful trolling comments can be, how insidiously they get into your brain and your heart. After my [trauma/stressball] and in the midst of novel submission hell, receiving such hatred and unconstructive criticism took a lot out of me. I cried in my car a couple of times. I felt skinned. I was glossy as a newt.
For the record, I did receive a lot of positive feedback, too, which was lovely, though it was yet more attention, and attention is never what my Leo rising brain imagines it to be. It’s thickety and strange. I want it, and then I don’t, I feel weird, and I want more, and then none, and then more, and then I feel bad.
Future Therapist and I have a lot to unpack here, don’t we?
My stress and vulnerability got to be so bad that I did what any sane person would do…I made a doctor appointment to have my horribly itchy hemorrhoid looked at. (You didn’t see that coming, did ya?!) And then I emailed a Crossfit studio near my house to get a personal trainer. I wanted to sweat out the thickets, the rage, the part of me that felt as flimsy as cardboard.
First, did you know that some hemorrhoids can be as big as golfballs? I did not! Don’t worry, mine is small. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed like my doctor thought it was cute: the hemorroid itself, or that I was complaining about it so much. Or both. Like, Aww, look at you and your itty bitty hemorrhoid, aren’t you guys so sweet and delicate? She prescribed me a steroid cream.
Agree or disagree: For most problems, a doctor wants to give you a steroid cream. (I admit, it has been helping. Should I get a pin that says ASK ME ABOUT MY HEMORRHOID?!)
Next, I went to the gym. I get three trainings and then I can join the classes. So far, I’ve done two of my three sessions, and today, at my second, I nearly expired. I have learned thus far that I can indeed sweat so much that it’s dripping down my back, a new sensation for me. I’ve learned that dead lifting and doing anything with a barbell is awkward and counterintuitive to a person who has done mostly dance-adjacent workouts. Also, I’ve never exercised without a mirror, and, man, is that a challenge. I’ve learned that I’m more flexible than most people, and you know my squat is killer because my booty is big. I was correct that it feels good to be strong, or to be working toward being strong.
The anxiety, the rage, the vulnerability are still here, humming beneath everything, but I’ll be okay. I’ll write some autofiction and it will be cathartic. I’ll eventually do a single pull-up. I’ve got the steroid cream, whose presence alone is a comfort. The haters have moved on from my “controversial” parenting article.
If I don’t sell my book, I’ll write another one.
I can’t do that again. Let’s do that again.