The other day in yoga class I realized I was crying. Not sobbing or anything so undignified, just that very quiet and ladylike kind of crying where you’re going about your business and you suddenly realize “oh, there’s water leaking out of my eyes…” If you happen to be in downward dog when this happens, it’s interesting because the tears drip over your forehead and into your hairline, which is technically “down” but which you are conditioned to think of as up, so it’s like gravity is reversed.
As I hung there, watching tears drizzle onto my yoga mat, I tried to determine the source of the overwhelming sadness I was feeling. My EQ is not the highest, and I’m prone to delayed emotional reactions, so when I feel something, I’m often unsure if it’s in response to something that just happened, or something that happened weeks or months or years ago (which as you can probably imagine my husband loves) and I have to sort through the possibilities.
This day was December 2, which is my dad’s birthday, but he’s dead, so I thought, “maybe I’m sad because it’s my dad’s birthday and my dad is dead.” But it didn’t ring true. My father has been dead for eight years and while I always think of him on his birthday, it’s more a tug of nostalgia than the deluge of defeatedness I was experiencing.
I then considered whether I might be sad because of cancer. This one time I had cancer, and the surgery took place during the first week of December. My cancer friends talk about being emotional around their “cancerversaries.” It makes sense that one’s body might remember and react to that major trauma.
But no, I could feel that it wasn’t exactly it.
And then I thought about my own upcoming birthday. About how each year I inexorably grow older and fatter and less flexible and how the possibility of reaching certain life goals grows more remote.
The tears were falling a little faster. Yep. I was getting to it now.
My overwhelming sadness, I concluded, was not about illness or deceased fathers, or starving children in Venezuela or anything noble. It was, in typical fashion, about me. My ego. My thwarted aspirations.
And the trigger was not in the distant past. It was couple things that had happened that very morning.
The first requires a little background: A few months ago I actually finished a short story, so I did a small round of submissions. Many lit journals these days charge a couple bucks for an online submission, which I’ve come to terms with. It’s about the same as postage would be, it allows them to print a hard copy for their readers and maintain their database. I seldom pay to submit to competitions, but in this case I’d run across an upcoming themed anthology whose topic was so perfect that I forked over the fifteen bucks.
My story was selected for the anthology,and I received a congratulatory email. For some publications it’s a point of pride to offer a token payment, but others, like this one, offer only contributors copies, which, okay, I understand, it’s about as hard to run small press as it is to be a writer. The publishers said they’d be contacting us to get our addresses for our contributors’ copies, and noted they would also offer their writers a certain number of copies at wholesale price – five bucks instead of ten.
A month or so later, I recieved an email saying the anthologies had been printed and providing a link to the “wholesale” sales page. The email didn’t mention the contributors’ copies, and did not ask for my address. I waited a week or two, then wrote and asked about the copies. After several days, I received a one-sentence reply saying, yes, they would be sending contributors copies. The email didn’t offer any details about when, nor did it request my address. After another week or so, I sent a friendly reply, along with my address to spur things along. I received no response.
For some reason, on this morning, I’d thought, “oh, what-the-fuck, I’ll spend a few bucks and order a copy, just to see how it turned out.” But when I clicked on the link there was no sign of a “wholesale price.” I sighed and paid $10 just to have it over with. Then I thought to check Amazon, and saw it listed there for $8.
I felt pathetic and ridiculous. I’d worked a hundred hours on the story, essentially paid to have someone read it and then paid for the product. Not only had I not asked for payment, I’d ended up paying them – on both ends!
Probably due to the decreased self-esteem of the moment, I then broke my absolutely-no-social-media-before-noon rule and opened Facebook.
A friend had posted the latest from the LA Weekly. Once our local champion of alternative topics and long-form journalism, LA Weekly had been purchased by some secret axis-of-evil group who immediately fired ALL of the editors and all but one staff writer. And now they’d posted this ad on Twitter:
Yes, an ad for new “contributors” who want to write, photograph or film about their town for a lark—not money, because, look at the picture – no one is WORKING — they’re just goofing around with their phones and tablets. What fun! Anyone with access to a touchscreen should “contribute” to a publication about Los Angeles that won’t even pay someone to help them spell “Angeleno.”
Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of sympathy for miners and factory workers and old school P.R. people—anyone who’s trained to do something that used to be worth something, and now isn’t. When what you have to offer is worth nothing, it can make you feel like you’re worth nothing.
That might make you angry.
Or it might just make you super-duper-spring-a-leak-in-your-yoga-class sad.
After yoga class, I headed to the library to return some overdue books. This library has an attached coffee shop that sells fudge, and, no surprise, I was in prime fudge-eating mode. Before the woman at counter pared off a slice, she reminded me that their fudge costs $5.99 for a quarter pound. I told her to go ahead and hit me.
Three dollars later, I held my eighth-of-a-pound in my palm and thought, “This piece of 9-volt battery-sized chocolate has greater monetary value than anything I have written in the last two years.”
All my life I have adored libraries and entered them with anticipation. But on this day the endless shelves of books seemed not wondrous, but needy and pathetic, Mystery after mystery, thriller after thriller, memoir after memoir, all begging for someone –anyone — to choose them and give them a pity read. For free.
I was overwhelmed by all the books — not just in this single library but in the world. Millions of books. A Mount Everest of books, landsliding over everything — once revered classics getting squashed under The Hunger Games and Eat, Pray, Love and twenty-seven volumes by Lee-fucking-Childs and every self-published book on Amazon.
Sometimes I beat myself up for not being a great-enough writer, a fast-enough writer, a writer so in tune with the frequency of the universe that my work floats above it all with an angels’ chorus behind it.
But on this day, despite my sadness — or maybe because of it — I was kinder to myself: My lack of value, I thought, is not my fault, it’s just a result of where I’ve randomly landed in the queue of existence. I exist in a moment where there are more books than there have ever been before, more screenplays, more web-series, more magazine articles, more think pieces, more poignant, personal, political or inane observations on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Tumblir/Snap Chat. I happen to be someone driven to write at a time in history when the people who want to read or listen are outnumbered by the people who want to be read and be heard. Everywhere, people are desperately throwing their bottled messages into an ocean of bottles. I am just one of them. My angst is not unique. It is the angst of the bottle-throwing masses.
You know that inspirational quote (I once saw it on someone’s Facebook page)“What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”
A variant popped into my head: “What would you write if you knew it everything you wrote was destined for a fucking void?”
Maybe it was the fudge sugar hitting my bloodstream—but I felt something loosen inside me. You know how a bad situation can cross the line into being so-bad-it’s-hilarious? I crossed the line. My writerly despair was hilarious. I was hilarious.
What would I write if the world was ending?
if all ink turned invisible after three hours?
if I was alone in an underground bunker and everyone outside it was a ravenous, illiterate zombie?
What would I write if climate change was real and none of it mattered?
Whatever the fuck I wanted.