What it Means to Try

It’s been a good ten months since my last newsletter, a long-form essay about 2020 and the books I read over the course of the year. Unless I put down all of my other distractions (including finishing Deltarune, trying to roller skate while it’s still vaguely warm, and reading various other newsletters), I will not have read sixty books by the end of 2021. It is also worth noting that many of you are following this newsletter because of my photographs. I am working on a very cool book project with a critique group I’m part of, and I have been thinking for a while about doing my own small book of grass photographs. Stay tuned for more info on both of those; future newsletters will not be this lengthy.

The main thing I have been doing with my free time over the last ten months (besides staring at my phone) has been writing. I have written by myself and in writing workshops, including the NYWC and a monthly writing workshop with friends I met during the pandemic. I have been (trying to) write 1,000 words a day per the inimitable Jami Attenberg’s advice. I haven’t stopped photographing, but I’ve ended up spending far more time writing this year.

During the beginning of the pandemic, I, like many people my age, hit a big wall with my artistic practice. There was no going to Virginia to photograph, anymore. There was no going out at all. There was going back and looking at all the images I’ve made over the past seven years and realizing that I throw myself through the same hoops when it comes to art. Among many other reasons from the early part of the pandemic, I felt useless.

I went back to what I did for my professional practices class in 2016 (thank you, Julie), which included writing a Strategic Plan for the following years (capitalization necessary). I expected to see something like what I thought I was telling people at the time, that I wanted to pursue a graduate degree in visual art to teach at the college level and make art in my free time. A worthy path, a path I could imagine for myself having an art degree. My sister had a mild panic when, after my bachelor’s thesis show, I said, “maybe I will apply to Yale’s photography graduate program,” which I mostly did in jest.

However, I opened my Strategic Plan and saw that I’d written what I have been subconsciously manifesting since I was probably eight years old. I wanted to make a career out of being a writer. I remembered, then, being eighteen and realizing I was not cut out to be a capital-F Fine Artist. I remembered being twenty-one and hitting the same wall I have always hit, not wanting to hate the artistic practice that I love by overworking it. I read the words of my past selves calling out to my then-present self, in the grey morning of the global pandemic, and felt a sense of relief.

The only deviation from my Plan was what I would write about, and how I would go about making money from it. I wrote about wanting to become the next Janet Malcolm. Other references that I only learned after college were Hilton Als and Claudia Rankine, whose work I have come to admire as much as Malcolm’s. The only deviation from my Plan is that I have written more fiction than nonfiction (I am about 50,000 words into what I have affectionately been calling my “gay space book,” about which I will give no further information) and I am currently still largely making money off of my photography-based experience.

Moving forward I am interested in doing more non-fiction work, and more art-related writing specifically. I was very glad to write about Sam Wrigglesworth’s work last year, and I’m looking to do more conversations and interviews with other photographers, writers, and artists. I would not be the writer I am without the images I make or look at, or the other art I take in while working at my creative practice - the ten-hour playlist I use to drone while I write, the work I look at on Instagram while I’m on the subway. The exhibitions and the live shows and the books and the books and the books.

I love Garth Greenwell’s writing in general, and I was introduced to his writing from his text that appeared in Mark McKnight’s Heaven is a Prison, a monograph of lush, grandiose photographs. I was able to ask McKnight what he thought about Greenwell’s writing about his photographs. This was during one of the last in-person photo events I went to, pre-Covid, the January 2020 edition of the Marble Hill Camera Club. As I go back and research this I am finding that Greenwell also interviewed McKnight.

After that talk in 2020, I went home and had a big trauma-laden cry about how I’ll never be as good as any of the people who showed their work that night. I knew then that I would never be as good as anyone I admire - Greenwell, Malcolm, McKnight - because I wasn’t trying. What took a long time to believe, and what I still have to regularly convince myself, was that trying, whatever it means, is worthwhile.

Since reevaluating my Plan I have looked at the intersections between writing and photography with a less critical eye. I learned that Greenwell is not best-known for his art writing, and that he has had a multifaceted career within his one chosen medium. I learned that Douglas Stuart, author of Shuggie Bain, spent years in the fashion industry while writing the book that won the Booker Prize last year. I was surprised to learn recently that Alexander Chee started out pursuing a degree in studio art, too. It seems like an obvious realization to know that notorious, successful writers have their hands in other mediums, but it’s given me some comfort to know that I don’t have to pick one creative pursuit over the other. While notoriety and success aren’t what I am after right now (see: gay space), without the trying, there isn’t even an outside chance of it happening.

This is what it looks like for me to try. I would like for “I am trying” to come across as less of a plaintive whinge, because it’s something I truly believe, and something I find myself reminding people around me constantly. Sometimes trying looks great, like the first Polaroid at the top of this email. Sometimes it’s more like the second Polaroid in that, no matter how hard we try, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. I had set the goal to finish a manuscript by the end of the year (the idea was to work on it all year; changing jobs five times over the last ten months got in the way of that). Even if I don’t get there, even if I do not write exactly 1,000 words every single day, I am trying. Even if I do not read my ambitious early-2020 goal of reading seventy books this year, I am trying. Even if I only lace up my skates one more time in 2021, I am trying, and if you are reading this, so are you.

What If This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky

The inescapable feeling of consumerism in the United States is nothing new. For decades, society’s fixation on buying products has remained locked in a forever spiral with outside forces determined to convince people that they need products in order to feel happy. What has become uncontrollable is how this fixation has affected our culture on a widespread level. Heather Havrilesky’s collection of essays, What if This Were Enough?, explores a culture consumed with consumerism, and implores us to look around and acknowledge what we already have.

Havrilesky is best known for her “Ask Polly” advice column in The Cut, in which she often advises her correspondents to look inward in order to resolve conflicts by blending occasional tough-love feedback with the reassurance that they have, or are, enough. She is quick to absolve and forgive the self-blame her correspondents claim. What If This Were Enough? asserts that, while society at large is not completely to blame for its desire to overachieve or over-purchase, these desires will have more direct impacts on our lives than they will on the trend of consumerism.

From the introduction, Havrilesky insists that we, as a culture, have enough and do not need to constantly consume to achieve satisfaction. She invokes important sociopolitical points to put our compulsion to buy in perspective: “At a time when our freedom is increasingly threatened by the spread of fascism, the growing gap between the rich and poor, and the ravages of climate change, it might behoove us to analyze just how broken our culture has become and just how poorly it serves us.” Throughout the collection, she shifts her narrative lens to allow readers to zoom out from the trends, behaviors, and phenomena she dissects.

Even in essays where it seems like her chosen lens does not serve her point, Havrilesky masterfully explains that, no matter how virtuous our choices are, things ultimately fail us. “Delusion at the Gastropub” contextualizes foodie culture against income inequality, food scarcity, and environmental consequences in a way that feels applicable and snappy, as though it could be shown to an “offending” (foodie) party to discredit their choices. However, “The Smile Factory” mocks society’s insistence on personal positivity by linking her individual experience of her father’s sudden death to John Updike’s Rabbit novels. With the inclusion of these more personal essays, the collection becomes more than a derision of consumerist culture, and we are left understanding that “enough” is sometimes all we get.

Though Havrilesky’s analyses do not include alternatives to these consumerist cycles, her thesis that we have the answers within ourselves to break these cycles endures. The titular question is both rhetorical and a call to action, though the author refuses to suggest how society should fix its ills until the meditative epilogue in the last passages of the book: “We must reconnect with what it means to be human: fragile, intensely fallible, and constantly humbled. We must believe in and embrace the conflicted nature of humankind.” Her personal accounts validate her refusal to tell her readers what to do, because she herself is just as clueless as her readers are— for better or worse.

This collection of essays felt particularly fitting for a year when the urge to consume as a means of self-satisfaction felt even more unavoidable than usual. What If This Were Enough? is a vital read for anyone who wonders why they are being told they need more, or feels inundated with the need to succeed, or just wants to reconnect with the barest elements of being human.

On Longing

When I lost my full-time job in May, I told myself I would spend more time writing and taking pictures. I have done some of that, but not as much as I expected. To provide a brief update on what I’ve been doing instead for the last four months:

  • Taking a long bus ride to and from my part-time job, staring out the window and longing - the same way I’d ride public transit when everything was normal.
  • Spending some of my idle time longing for the ability to “pretend that ‘this,’” as in, the pandemic, “is a vacation,” per my therapist’s suggestion. Playing a lot of Mario and Stardew Valley to try and manufacture that kind of peace of mind.
  • Roller skating around the Lakeside rink, or on the asphalt in Prospect Park, and having a really good time in between moments of longing for that person’s moves, or those skates, or that pair of yoga pants, or that hair color, this, that, or the other.
  • Doing things like setting up ant traps in the apartment and longing for the house I grew up in, which my dad sold in June. Longing for the ability to see my family again without something resembling terror or guilt.
  • Ripping through novel after novel, longing to put out something as tangible, as “real” in the world, as the book that’s in my hands. Writing and immediately deleting what I’ve written while longing for something resembling self-confidence.
  • Taking pictures that have not stuck in my brain, and looking at old pictures like the grass picture above. Longing to bury myself in them, to stick my nose in the sap of a foreign tree, to find moss in my pockets when I get home.

There is a pattern here!

Yesterday afternoon I read a wonderful piece by an author whose words have been a salve in this tumultuous time. Heather Havrilesky writes the Ask Polly column in The Cut, which is also sent out via Substack. I recommend her collection of essays from 2018, if you want to read her work in book format. I bring up yesterday’s piece because it had a number of good quotes, this one being the most memorable to me:

“You can’t write anything unless you’re honest. But you think that when you’re honest, it’s disgusting, because who you are is, at heart, disgusting. You have to start to chip away at that belief, starting now.

Instead of viewing that as a horrific task, I want to suggest that we enter this house of mirrors through a door that says THIS WAY LEADS TO JOY. Imagine joy while you’re examining your shame. Imagine a joyful life as a person who feels good and isn’t ashamed of herself in the slightest. Imagine that you actually deserve happiness. Pry open your brain and stick that concept in there.”

I want to examine this kind of longing I’ve detailed, because I’m questioning how much of it is actually longing (OED definition: Have a strong wish or desire. “She longed for a little more excitement.” That’s the actual example given, I didn’t make it up). It’s likely that I will be thinking and writing about longing, in some way, for the rest of my life. I can make my peace with this, because I think longing, or at least wanting what you can’t have, is one of the unspoken truths of every single human life. Writing about longing is as inexhaustible as writing about love - though distinct in some important ways.

Longing isn’t necessarily passive, either. A lot of my longing takes the form of being angry or sad that my life or physical appearance or resumé or apartment or whatever isn’t a certain way. This negativity can sometimes be a motivator (I was jealous of all the Instagram roller skaters who can do seamless transitions and I wanted to improve my own skills, so I got up and did it), but often it holds me back (see above example re: self-confidence and creativity). I am inclined to ask you to listen to My Own Worst Enemy - the song doesn’t actually add anything to this newsletter, but it’s what this kind of self-doubt sounds like to me; the song also rocks.

The thing about longing, however, is that it has a limited shelf life. It’s one thing to constantly want more for oneself, i.e. “chasing one’s dreams,” but it’s another thing entirely to be mired in those dreams. In the fiction I’ve read, I feel as though a character who does nothing but long and yearn is pigeonholed into moping their story away pathetically. In real life, there’s only so much longing I can do before it starts to become self-pity, or worse, self-flagellation. Many of Heather’s Ask Polly missives cover what I call self-flagellation under a broad “shame” umbrella. For most of this spring, I had a note on my bulletin board that read, “LOVE MATTERS. SHAME BLOCKS LOVE,” because of how purely it encompasses this battle in my head.

I’m not saying that now is not the time for longing or working for a better world. The world has left much to be desired, as of late! I’m not prepared to write about how horrible everything is, in countless ways, so I’m going to sum it up with this evergreen cartoon. What I am saying is that, at times, my longing for what I can’t do gets in the way of my ability to do the things I can do.

This is my urge to keep doing the things I can do. By writing this little anecdote about something I long for on a regular basis, I am actively combatting this negative feedback loop, even if that combat feels like hobbling down a quickly-ascending mall escalator at breakneck speed. If I can do something useful with my longing, I don’t feel like I’m “wasting my time” - whatever that means. There’s a lot of work I have to do behind the curtains to work at chipping away at the self-aggrandizement complex I have spent twenty-five years polishing, but I’d rather talk about the picture at the top of the page.

I’m including this picture because I love to photograph grass and other green things, and to point my lens at the ground and record where I’m standing. Much like writing about longing, it’s likely that, for the rest of my life, I will take pictures like this, even if I make work focused on some other project, which I intend to do. Taking pictures like the one above is my bread and butter.

I chose this particular grass because it was important to me to remember how the grass looked that morning. I woke up in Penrith, in the Lake District of England, alone in the middle of an off-season boutique hotel room. I had booked one night in advance, but upon arriving I decided to take out a little (more) money from my savings account to spend a second night, both because I was getting over a stomach bug I brought with me from London and didn’t want to desecrate a hostel bathroom shared with other travelers, but also because it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.

A few people told me that a trip to the United Kingdom in January wasn’t a good idea. I’ll allow that some of the places I visited on that trip might be nicer in warmer weather, but I loved how Penrith, especially, looked in the winter: the misty mountains; the fog lingering over what felt like endless foreign pastures; a lake so still it was hard to believe it wasn’t glass. I think about the quality of quiet I found out there, and what it was like to walk along an early morning field in that specific part of the world. This might look like any of my other pictures of late afternoon grass, but if you look closely at this image, you’ll find crystals of a cool morning frost. That frost, that fog, those permeable facts of nature, often disappear when you look at them too closely - not unlike how longing can change in shape over time.

I added this picture because I want to take my work in the direction of this act of investigation. I want to hold my work, both written and visual, under a finer lens. I want to define an intention a little more distinct than, “I am doing all I can do right now, because I don’t know how to do anything else, and doing this makes it easier to exist on this planet in 2020.” I want to collect of every “green” photograph I’ve made and put them away for a while, no matter how much I love them, in order to intentionally work on something goddamn else for a change. I want to have an original idea and have the faith to see it through to fruition. Mostly, I want to put things out into the world, even if they are old anecdotes full of longing and wishing and hoping and wist.

Whatever I do, even when it feels impossible, I want to do it with love.

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