A note: Donations this week go to this fundraiser to support the AAPI Community Fund. Sending support and love to my friends in the AAPI community.
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about ego. This came out of conversations with friends about being at home by myself this past year and somehow getting work done in this mix of stress and isolation. Millions of people did the same, got up every day, did the work, by themselves. Whatever kind of work it was. Of course, I realize living with someone doesn’t guarantee support, but for the moment, this is for the people on their own. My people. The solo artists.
Having an ego is important in terms of driving your work any time, but especially in long-term projects, I think, when there is a year or two or three spreading out before you on the horizon before you will see any kind of recognition or potential reward. It is hard to start again every day, and believe that your work is worth it, that you are worth it, worth the time investment, the hours, days, months.
And then to have to say that to yourself early in the morning in a quiet home? White noise from the street outside. Coffee brewed as you like, sure. But just you, whispering, “You can do it.” We hopefully have people in our lives to support us, but still, we must count on something regular within us to keep us going. That steady ego.
And yet here is the tough spot: always, always, we have to balance that ego with humility. Because that’s the thing that opens you up to the world and your creativity in a more fully realized way. So you have to love yourself and trust yourself, but also question yourself. By yourself. Every day. In order to do your work.
I mean I don’t know about you, but I ate a shit ton of potato chips this year. Phew.
Anyway, I was thinking about all of this because I sent off the final, approved version of my book on Monday to my editor. Done and gone. Wondering how I wrote this goddamn book in the midst of a year like this. And realizing it was my ego that carried me through. Which surprised me although it shouldn’t have. Writing a memoir is all about questioning what you know about yourself and then presenting those findings to the world. What else could I have relied on but a strong sense of self to take me to the end?
Then I sat down and thought about a few other things that surprised me during the process of writing this book.
For one, I didn’t realize how many times I would have to reinvent this book over the course of its development. I always had the same storyline — what else could it be but about me? — but I had to crack the code of how to tell the story. I thought I knew how to write about myself, represent myself to the world. I’ve been writing personal essays for nearly two decades. But, in fact, I had to find the exact right version of myself to show to everyone, and I didn’t land it the first, second, or third time. There were so many possible versions of me, and truly possible versions of any book. It blows my mind to think about it.
I learned also that leaving out certain stories or details that feel important about your past is OK as long as you’re arriving at your emotional truth. I wrote thousands upon thousands of words about one breakup, ripping it out of me. I wrote the story in three different ways, one where I was the bad person, one where he was the bad person, and one where we both were bad people, and all of those variations were true. But also, the real truth was that neither of us were bad people, we were just in a bad relationship, and I was surprised to learn that maybe it didn’t it matter at all if I told the whole story so long as I arrived at a few honest sentences. Which I did.
I was surprised also to learn that I was still in pain about some of the things I was writing about. That the trauma had lingered. I wondered more than a few times when it would feel better. I still do. I don’t believe writing this book “healed” me, and I had no expectation it would. (Not even really sure we ever get fully healed, but that’s a whole other story.) There was no catharsis moment. But it helped me to organize my thoughts and feelings about certain events, and that can only be helpful on this grand path toward feeling at least a little bit better.
To push it a step further, Ashley C. Ford, author of the forthcoming memoir Somebody’s Daughter (which I have heard is astonishingly good — John Green called it, “wrenchingly brilliant.” — and which you should pre-order right now) told me this: “If I could say I learned anything from writing my memoir it’s that no matter how much you’ve ‘dealt with your shit’, writing a memoir will remind you have a lot more work to do.”
And finally, I was really surprised by how much writing this very newsletter helped me during the development of this book. Every week I had to force myself to document what I was thinking about, where I was at in the process, and present it to this rag-tag community of writers, many of you who have been with me since we started #1000wordsofsummer 4 (!) years ago. At home alone, but still with all of you, once a week. My accountability partners. It did not even occur to me to show up and say, “I didn’t get any work done this week.” I knew I had to report back that things were in motion.
Finding community has always saved me in the past and will carry me through till the end of many projects to come. Thank you for being here with me this year.
When we finish a book we are bleary-eyed and weary. We never want to see those pages again. There was a weight of those words in us and now it is gone and if we touch it again, it feels almost as if we will be trapped carrying it again forever. But still, if we pause a second, and think about the lessons we learned, it might just lend itself to a more complete idea.
I won’t miss it now that it’s done and over, not the way I miss characters from my novels here and there as I have with other books. Partly that’s because I still get to (have to?) live with myself every day. The character doesn’t disappear. But also because I am happy to be done with writing about my past, for now. I want it to be sealed inside those pages.
Be good to each other.
You are reading Craft Talk, 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).