Leaning into the Awkwardness
The other day, a friend’s beautiful big white dog passed away. All day I thought about her and her dog. The sky was so gorgeous, and I took a walk, and there were incredible clouds and bursts of light and I rounded one corner and it was so beautiful my eyes welled up, and I thought: Oh, I just want to feel things right now. In the evening, I left a purple orchid on my friend’s front porch.
Alison said that deaths during the holidays are a little easier. “The world is all slowed down and there’s more room to grieve and think,” she texted. The next day she brought me two pieces from a chocolate pie she had made. It wasn’t even my dog, and I still got pie.
Anyway, it’s been sort of a quiet, muted, emotional weekend here, delicate and loving, with the blue skies growing fainter each day. Wearing socks to bed and finally waking up in the morning to fifty-degree weather. Today it’s raining and I don’t even mind. I’m not sad; it’s just the holiday season.
I sent a new chapter to my first readers last week and they all thought it was good and interesting, on a path, even if there was work to be done on it. I was encouraged. I know what I need to do next. The goal, as I’ve mentioned before, is to be able to show enough of this new novel to my editor before my memoir comes out in January. I want her to know what the direction of the book is – and hopefully like it and have some helpful thoughts. I won’t be able to focus on it for a while once the memoir comes out because life just gets really distracting. But I want this secure feeling about what I’m working on to take with me as I head out into the world and do that other job of being a writer.
I’m not really writing this weekend, except for this letter (although I can never really tell if it counts as writing), but I still make myself think about the book first thing when I wake up. Five minutes of remembering and thinking about one problem I need to solve or one task at hand. Even if you have to hit the ground running every day, I hope it is possible for you to claim five minutes of quiet for your brain. For me, it is the same as doing a few yoga stretches or lifting some dumbbells. I don’t know how much good it does in the end but also I don’t want to know what my life looks like without it. That little bit of work makes it possible for me to go out in the world.
Because I am an awkward person in real life. Even if I can somehow manage to say the right thing, inside I feel uncomfortable — unless I know you well. And even if I know you well, I will sometimes still wonder later on: Did I say the right thing at that moment? Not to mention the objects I drop, spill, break, when I swing my hands wildly when I’m making a point. Not to mention when I trip and fall. Not to mention when I laugh too loudly. Not to mention.
There’s this famous writer I’ve met twice now who I have banned myself from ever speaking to again, because every time I talk to her, I say something stupid and am mortified. I’ve met her at different literary festivals, when I was dressed up and should have been on better behavior. Don’t even ask me what it is that I actually say – I just know I’ve been dumb in the past. After the second time I said to myself, “Two strikes, you’re out.” I just will never speak to this person again in my life because I don’t know how to handle myself around her. (Don’t worry, she won’t even notice I’m gone.)
There are days still when I feel like I want to crawl out of my skin, but it is less so lately because I am older, wiser, etc, and I am prepared not just for my own weirdness but the possibility of weirdness in others. I live in a small city where I know many of my neighbors, and it has been good for me to face the way I communicate and interact with the world. I was so shy when I first moved here, I just waved hello and walked on in my own little dream world. The dream world of the writer: a beautiful place to hide from your own perceived social failings.
Not all writing is mired in awkwardness but mine is. Whenever I write a chic character I think: something bad must happen immediately, because there’s no way I can possibly sustain this. James Baldwin’s writing is not about awkwardness; his writing is cool and collected and tragic. Deborah Eisenberg’s stories are just a string of awkward hearts hanging from a line. I think awkwardness is funny and I treasure it in others. Just because I don’t like when I do it doesn’t mean I don’t understand its appeal. I hate that I can never talk to that famous writer again but I still enjoy telling that story about myself.
Leaning into the awkwardness has value, I have learned. Questioning yourself, assessing, possibly adjusting, making small improvements. Understanding your imperfections and the imperfections of others. There’s a bounce-back-ness to it all: I fucked up this moment in the conversation, but also, I can just keep going. And once I figured out that most writers were awkward, it made so many interactions easier in the professional realm. Oh, we’re all weird, I thought. I don’t need to take this so personally.
The most helpful thing about my awkwardness has been creating a system to tend to it. If, early in the morning, I think about my work or touch the pages even just gently, I have a better shot at being the best version of myself. My interactions will go a little smoother. I will wear my skin with more confidence. Because I did the thing that I am best at. And confidence combats awkwardness, or at least the sense of it.
The writing I do gives me the feeling that I’ve made something good happen that day and that I have a skill and a reason for being, and it makes me stand a little straighter, and represent myself in a specific way. The days that I don’t do it, or if I feel disconnected from it, I sometimes wonder what I have to offer to another person or in a conversation anyway. Even with all the years I’ve spent, and all the things I’ve accomplished, every day is a new day to earn the right to be proud of myself.
Five minutes in the morning. A small sense of pride. I just want a shot at happiness like everyone else. And I want that for you, too.
I hope you are having a good holiday season. See you next week.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to 826 New Orleans.