There’s a local artist whose studio I peer in on whenever we walk by. I’ve seen him at his desk, late in the evening, working on the detail of a painting. I’ve seen him on Sunday afternoons, putting on his apron to take to a canvas on his easel. Even when I see him walking down the street, he has an air of enviable focus. My voyeuristic perspective likely has no relationship to the truth, but as a person who makes a living off of her writing—off of what is occasionally her art, though rarely, though increasingly—I admire his seemingly fluid relationship to sitting down to his work.
Often I too work within view of the street, but because mine is done on a laptop, it could be perceived as leisure (to people who associate laptops with leisure—that ship has long sailed for me). I was being interviewed for a podcast the other day and saw someone, seemingly a tourist, peer in and make eye contact as I was gesticulating and talking into a microphone. What did he think? Perception is perhaps 90 percent of being a creative person. I had my first occasion of finding out someone was screen-shotting my tweets and putting asterisks in my name to shit-talk me recently, and it reminded me of that: What people see will be what counts for them, whether through my balcony or the window I open for social media. Anyone who glances through will write their own story, just as I have for the artist I envy.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of interviews, giving talks, speaking to students. People think I know something about something, which is strange, because for most of my time as a writer I’ve felt like I’ve been standing on a street corner shouting wearing a sandwich board that says “please care.” This is quite the switch, and I’m still processing it. I’ll likely be processing it for as long as I’m given the privilege of strangers’ attention.
For a short time, once this newsletter became my focus and before I started working on my book, I had a very fluid relationship to my writing. I would read leisurely, write in my notebook, watch TV shows or movies I was interested in, then eventually sit at my laptop to type out something coherent. This was, despite the conditions of the pandemic in which it occurred, the best time of my adult life—the time I’ve felt most whole, real, settled, and calm. There was no alienation from my labor, no anxiety about productivity. (Thank you, CARES Act.) My life is different now, because I am very anxious about whether I can actually write a good book, write the book I want to write. And I’m also anxious because the content of the book is the kind of work I was doing before I somehow started making a living writing the way I like to write, here in this newsletter. How do I meld these worlds? Can I? Should I? My struggle is that I’m a workhorse and not an artist, that I’m a transcriber of my thoughts and not a writer.
That’s another matter. What matters to me now is the pervasive idea of writing, especially the freelance sort, as a “business.” If you’re working to bank $10,000 in one month on the back of 60 articles, as Lola Méndez did in September and chronicled for Business Insider, there’s no room for that natural inspiration to hit. You’re not the painter, easing on his apron on a Sunday afternoon, because the light is just right. You’re churning out words. I know this because I’ve lived it, as well. I’ve taken the sponsored content jobs and the event listing gigs. I’ve churned. Not churning is a luxury in a capitalist world.
But I want that luxury, and I will take it for as long as I can. I will take as much of it as I can. I exist in a writing world that is all business, though—clicks and virality and rarely a compelling formal choice. It’s a writing world in which the writing isn’t what matters much at all, just what’s being said. I’m sick of just saying things. I want my book—which is about how veganism long existed as a resistance to capitalism and now has been incorporated into it—to do something as well as say something. I want it to be food writing and I want it to be writing-writing. Is this a false or pretentious distinction? Is this me being a whiny baby? There was a day, long before I sold the book, that I stood in the food writing section at Strand and shed a tear, thinking this is where my writing would be—not with the real writing, the nonfiction, the serious shit.
This is a false and pretentious distinction, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to actively work against it in my own work. As Molly Wizenberg recently told me, it’s very hard for someone considered a food writer to be taken seriously in the literary world. My tear at Strand wasn’t just pretentiousness: It was a recognition of publishing reality.
Still, I look to literary writers for direction on how not to consider my work in terms of hourly rates. It’s not all sunny there either, I know, what with adjunct professor jobs and grant dependency. In Kate Zambreno’s Appendix Project, which gathers the talks she gave around Book of Mutter, she writes about wanting to give her work the essence of “the unfinished or ongoing”—”a feeling of the notebook,” her friend calls it. She writes of publishing a book requiring “editing out everything unclear or confusing to a reader.” In The Last Supper, Rachel Cusk wonders about an innkeeper who serves an extravagant dinner to guests and likens his desire to show his work to her publishing novels rather than putting them in a drawer. For both, the work finds meaning only in its contrast against reality. I think of these essays as being more like a notebook, and also that they find their meaning in how people respond to them.
I don’t think of myself as someone who works hard, though I think about working a lot. I read in order to write. I cook in order to write. I walk, shower, listen to music—do pretty much everything with the thought that writing will happen, eventually. My 30th birthday tattoo says “tiny victories and bursts of speed,” a lyric from a song by Minor Alps, because that’s what I pursue: the moments when it feels easy.
Someone asked me if I’ve thought about my “ambition” in capitalist terms, and my answer to that is I don’t believe I have capitalist ambitions. I have an ambition to survive within capitalism without compromising myself too much. I have an ambition to stay out of jobs that would make me miserable while still being comfortable. (I did recently joke that my only true ambition is to write a food book for Semiotext(e).) Even though I am a terrible bartender, I wouldn’t be upset if I had to go back to that work. Same with baking. If I wanted to write for or be on staff at a prestigious publication, I would have contorted myself differently over the last few years. But as I’ve said a thousand times, I wanted to write for the Village Voice and one day in early 2016 an email arrived in my inbox that said, “food writing for the Village Voice?” A dream realized, and honestly, I’ve been wondering where to go with myself ever since they shut the paper down, and that’s why I’ve ended up having to build something myself. My own alt-weekly.
All this is to say, really, is thank you for reading me. You’ve given me license to be myself, and that is the greatest gift you can give a writer under capitalist conditions—especially on her 35th birthday. I’ll get back to work now.
On Wednesday, paid subscribers will receive the second installment of my not-gift guide, on my eating essentials—my flavor tools.
Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Katherine Clary, editor of The Wine Zine and author of the book Wine, Unfiltered: Buying, Sharing, and Drinking Natural Wine.
For The Guardian’s opinion section, I wrote about the recent EU decision to allow plant-based meat-makers to use the word “meat” on their labeling. I’m excited to write in my book about distinctions between EU and U.S. regulations on production.
I’ve been dipping in and out of Douglas A. Martin’s Acker, which I prefer on an intellectual level to Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker but is much less pleasurable to read. I’m Very Into You is, of course, the most pleasurable biographical object to read.
A wonderful pumpkin cake made with the goan masala from Burlap & Barrel’s Floyd Cardoz spice blend collection. Tomato sauce with fresh Roma tomatoes that are hard and not good for much else, but great for a pan sauce with just onion or shallot, garlic, fennel salt, a little tomato paste, and some cheap red wine.
I resonate so much with everything you're saying here. Though I come from a different professional background, I have been on an eerily similar journey with my writing work recently and especially since quarantine started. I love how you describe cooking and reading in order to write; my mentor once told me that "everything is writing," from the actual keyboard strokes to the run you go on when inspiration strikes, and I too find myself constantly lit up by the materials I consume. Your newsletters, podcasts, and book recommendations are some of the fuel I most look forward to; thank you for sharing, and I admire and aspire to the kind of career you're forging.
The older I get, the further I get from myths like "ambition" and "productivity" and other things that are capitalism's lies. We cannot all do what makes us happy, and sometimes we just have to work to survive. There cannot always be nobility in the work being performed; all we can do sometimes is get through the shift and the churn of it all and know that the "value" is on showing up, getting through, and surviving. The nobility is in taking no crap from the people who denigrate this work-as-getting-by.
The creativity of places like this is a wonderful boon; how amazing to build a place to get paid to say what you mean, instead of what other people want to hear.