A Breakup Letter to My Writing Career

Every reader is a reader of crime novels. They want the criminal to succeed because they want to escape, and they want the police to catch the criminal because they want to restore order. The reader has the same attitude toward writing in general. She wants it to be free, and then she also wants to say that the third act was all wrong, or that the story didn’t deliver, or that this time around its heart wasn’t in the right place. But whenever a story seems off, that’s when you know that the author was free. A story isn’t a fucking chair. This isn’t Bauhaus.

Rome Coronavirus Dispatch #8

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not. ca. 1906. via Library of Congress.

This is my eighth pandemic dispatch. The first was about my father’s hip replacement, the second was about my marriage, the third was about my toothache, the fourth was about alienation, the fifth was a fake TV recap, the sixth was about power in the workplace, and the seventh was about my neighborhood. This time I broke up with my writing career. —FP

Dear writing career,

Sorry for doing this by letter. But I want you to be able to come back to this after the spite has worn off. Eventually you’ll understand that this was the best outcome for both of us.

The truth is that you’re not doing it for me anymore. There, I ripped off the Band-Aid. You’ve been there for me during this very bad year, I know that. You gave me room, consoled me, encouraged me to experiment with kinks and roleplay. You let me be casual with the new novel, tease it and play with it without any real plan, and you let me write some new stuff that was neither my bread and butter nor my brand—you let me do it for the hell of it. It’s fair to say that every time I’ve been bitter, every time I’ve felt us going around in circles, you’ve tried to make our relationship evolve.

But I fear that you’re not acting out of love, that you’re doing all this only to enhance your reputation. I still love writing, you see, but I don’t think I love you anymore.

I’ve been seeing other careers. Well they’re not really careers. Going back to study music theory is not a career; playing music is not a career. After all I renounced music for you! But when 2020 hit, it was music that soothed me without judging my every chord progression. These days I find myself wishing I were a musician, a music teacher, a cook, a bartender, a handyman. I know it’s easy to crave other lives, other possibilities, but for now I’m just lingering with what these other lives are giving me. The bars have been closed for two weeks now. Writing that’s not offset by the company of strangers feels like an entirely new life. But no, not writing: it’s your constant judging that’s not offset by the company of strangers.

I needed their company. I needed something besides you poring over my every word with that air of expectation. You weren’t excited about what I was writing, and you didn’t care about what it was I needed to write. You could only ever judge how proper and appropriate my writing was, how much it aligned with your own plans.

Why bring this up now? Can it only be the shut-down bars? Is it this dark and horrible year? I can’t pretend it’s not a glorified midlife crisis—of course that’s part of it. And why not let myself partake in that mopey scene? People give the midlife crisis a hard time, but really it’s a textbook Buddhist moment. After middle age comes decay and death. But what is transpiring now didn’t just materialize out of the bleakness. It has roots—everybody must have picked that up by now.

The thing about a writing career is that it starts by being about writing and then slowly evolves into something else. Whatever it is now, it’s something into which I’m afraid to put my real writing, because I’m afraid that you might not understand where I’m at.

I’m incapable of establishing myself. When I think of you I still see you as the thing I courted and kissed in secret when my father still thought I was going to go work with him at the company. Writing is still the only thing I care about, but I’ve become withholding. I’m a stranger in our house. At 43 I constantly feel out of place with you. I have all the wrong thoughts and desires, so I can’t bring myself to finish the projects I know you won’t like.

I’d hoped that writing in English for a magazine that has launched careers could be kinky and exhibitionist enough to change us, to get us back to that time when we were madly in love with each other and you were proud of the fact that I was always a contrarian, always rejecting the good stuff that came our way in favor of trying out new shit with my usual reckless abandon. You knew that I was pure. But now you’re bored by my inability to settle, to cash in, to get the money that would let us make plans together. And I don’t want to make plans. Whenever I do, I start feeling like I’m a hoax artist, projecting a sense of romance while wheeling and dealing for jobs and clout. Anyway, we have the money we need.

They say you can sustain yourself on love, on sheer love. You, too, swear by this bit of common sense. I myself would never say something that cheesy, but in fact I’ve also become the kind of person that only wants love. You’re the one who’s fallen out of love.

I’ve started writing with an alias. You knew I wasn’t going to go a long time without writing. I’ve had the thought that maybe I wouldn’t tell my career about it, that I’d just have this thing on the side. But I needed to tell you. You’re the one who took me when I left my nest, you let me recover from the madness of that nest, helped me build something better and stronger. Now I can’t help but tell you how I feel about writing at any given moment.

This is how the thing with the alias came to be. A friend asked if I had anything to submit to his weird new magazine, and eventually I told him no—this was maybe a year ago—even though I liked the project and wanted to be a part of it. I couldn’t write anything crazy, and that’s what the magazine required me to do. You see? After a while I started seeing this project hanging out with a bunch of new writers I liked, and I felt the brakes within me. I couldn’t go there, I “had too much to lose.” And also, at first, they asked me to write about literature. They didn’t even ask me to write my literature. You’ve forced me to tread so lightly that I seldom write anything outside the well-policed boundaries of my current novel in progress and my criticism. So people ask me to write about literature. This is what I’ve become.

Have you noticed that I stop thinking about my books as soon as they’re out? I know you resent that. It’s not that I don’t want to think about them. It’s that what I’m asked to do inevitably has to do with us, the two of us, and not me and my needs and my desires. I’m asked to talk politely about my new book, not be too drunk while I do it. I’m asked to make sense of it, explain what it’s about. Who benefits from all that endless clarification? You do.

But that’s not the crucial part. The crucial part is the self-censorship. I admire writers who are free to be tame or wild depending on their inclinations and convictions, their political ideas. But I always end up feeling the urge to be tame against my own instincts, my own wishes. I feel uncomfortable when you feel uncomfortable, which leaves me unhappy, and then I hate you.

You’ll want to kill me for doing this to you, after you stretched your boundaries to accommodate my whims. The English strain in my writing—you let it run wild. The pandemic had left me speechless in my own language, and we thought we could use this as a space where I could express myself. But soon enough the ghost caught up with me. The expectations. I had managed to write a couple of installments people could relate to. And when people relate to things I write and start informing me of that I end up feeling like shit because I know that the next thing I do will have to be unrelatable, because that feeling of wholeness makes me miserable.

For twenty years you’ve asked me why that is. I’m tired of answering. Every reader is a victim and a bully. She’s a victim because she’s had to adapt to society and its bullying ways. She’s a bully because by adapting she’s become a part of the bullying Leviathan.

Every reader is a reader of crime novels. They want the criminal to succeed because they want to escape, and they want the police to catch the criminal because they want to restore order. The reader has the same attitude toward writing in general. She wants it to be free, and then she also wants to say that the third act was all wrong, or that the story didn’t deliver, or that this time around its heart wasn’t in the right place. But whenever a story seems off, that’s when you know that the author was truly free. A story isn’t a fucking chair. This isn’t Bauhaus.

I know what you’re thinking—that for all my teenage daydream posturing, my inspiration would have soured if you and I hadn’t gotten married when we did. I’m sure that’s true. You have allowed me to deepen my relationship with writing. It’s the same reason 20-year-olds used to want a steady partner, so they could investigate sex without the interruption and distraction of constantly searching for a new partner.

I don’t want this letter to be definitive, some kind of closing argument. The other day I was trying to find the right opening line for something I’m writing and stumbled upon the following grandiose sentence. I hastily deleted it, but it has stuck with me in a cracked up, F. Scott Fitzgerald sort of way: “Literature has been the greatest disappointment in my life.”

I found my way to it because a longer thing I’m writing—and this is something I’ve kept you in the dark about—is about things I’m ashamed to be writing. There’s nothing “deep” about it—it’s an account of some people’s lives sloppily crashing into one another and in the process revealing all the wrong motives, values, and urges. (I’m sorry that I love Dürrenmatt and Gombrowicz. I know you secretly wish I were into Amitav Ghosh, that I could make something useful of my talent.) I used that ridiculously grand sentence only because I was bitter about feeling those feelings. I was bitter about my wrong imagination, about the fact that there’s no committee in my head raising hands and pitching in with notions of civic duty and wholeness, that my stories don’t contain any good fathers putting alt-right assholes in their place in front of an audience. Remember when I wrote a novel about an impotent anti-Semite and an English writer panned the book and said that the humor must have gotten lost in translation? That’s how I feel all the time. You always jokingly ask “What have your parents done to you, dear boy?” The answer is supposed to be in my stories, but anytime I don’t crap out a square, comprehensible product you end up puzzled by my lonely upbringing. Every time something I do is jagged, you think my writing lacks depth.

I’m getting carried away by my own rage when I should be focusing on you, you who are reading this.

The pandemic has had a strong effect on all of us. Even for those of us, like you and me, who have yet to experience any practical, structural consequences—I’m so relieved that over the past year publishers all paid me what I was owed—this year has been disruptive in a rote way, like those moments they put in movies that are supposed to provoke the characters to “open their eyes.”

Kids aren’t going to school regularly, and people are wondering what will become of them. How will they connect? How will they become good citizens? I wonder if attending literary events and meetings is like going to school. You’re socialized there, you learn how to talk to an editor, or an agent, or a critic, or a reader. It’s a lot of work and it makes you feel like you’re a part of something. I’ve lost that skill—I can feel that, even if I don’t particularly miss it.

I didn’t end up at literary events because I wanted it. I got myself there because you told me that was what I had to do. But every time you asked me to take part in these things you’d scoff at my reluctance. The scoffing, my God. Why is scoffing an acceptable form of communication in relationships? I’m so done with all this.

When everything shut down for the second time, after the summer and a few calming weeks in a seaside town, I was so distraught I went back to my friends’ parents garden shack and picked up the musical instruments I’d left there many years earlier. I needed the release of playing and singing along. Then things got deeper. My wife and I bought a piano, and I started studying jazz guitar because I wanted to have something to chew on. I don’t care much for jazz, but it creates so much space for thinking around scales and harmony. You’ve often stifled these things in me—release and study, study and release—and now, finally, I had both.

When I’m singing my favorite songs I’m often brought to tears by all the pent-up sadness—the study and playing inevitably bring me back to when I was a boy and wrote stories and songs. This fall and winter, whenever I got back to writing prose I froze. It was music that helped me loosen up and write again. Its mere renewed presence was enough, like an estranged friend who’s come back into your life and brings so much feeling with them, who won’t allow you to settle on numbness, who reminds you that you’ve always had to get over a mental hump to allow yourself expression. So when I realize I really need to write I go after some constraint that will distract me with its practical needs, that’ll get me in the zone.

One constraint I resorted to was writing on my smartphone. The process discourages multitasking, so I don’t get distracted by all the things that lure me away whenever I feel that I don’t deserve to be writing because I’m not serving you the way I promised I would.

When I write on my phone, like I’m doing now, and like I did when I wrote that secret thing for my friend’s magazine that will mark the first time in my life I’ll have published something under an alias, I feel like I’m sexting somebody I really like, and I can’t be distracted. Even writing this to you, I’m not second-guessing myself, I’m just doing it. Like texting a good friend, like sexting somebody I’d fuck in a bathroom stall because I want her so much.

You’re trying to get me through this crisis without wanting me to change in the least. That’s true of all your friends, too—my friends’ literary careers—whom I’ve never been able to befriend even when I loved you and was grateful for everything your passion was bringing to my life. You all think that our duty is empathy, but what you call empathy is really just relatability, communication via shared values. The very fact that a writer might be so discombobulated by the pandemic that they don’t know what connection even is anymore, because the reality of that connection is changing every month—this makes you mad. You want us to be steady and reliable even at moments like this one. Do you think we don’t grasp the irony? The reason you careers fell for us in the first place is that we managed to be unsteady and unreliable even in the most stable and predigested situations.

This letter is making me think of the time my first wife and I went to marriage counseling and were very eager to show each other a way to solve our problems. “You’re making an effort to show each other where you’re at,” the therapist said, “and the only reason you’re doing that is that you feel guilty. You feel guilty about the fact that you’re fine going where you’re going without the other. You’re both just being polite.”

You and I should find ourselves someone smart like that therapist and ask her to lay down the truth for us. Or maybe you’re feeling so let down by what I’m writing that you’ll let me go and fuck up my life on my own. You’ll find yourself somebody more deserving and I’ll watch you from afar and miss you and hate you.

You think there is no alternative, I know that.

I wish you were as crazy as my wife is. You’ve always liked her because she looks the part. She’s smart and polite and has taste. But inside our home, when society’s locked out, she’s a completely different person.

Up until pretty recently she was always miserable when I was finishing a book and publishing it. She said it was an unbearable risk, she hated me because she felt my pain and it was excruciating.

So a couple of years ago, as I was writing a new book—an essay on love, of all things—we decided that this time around she wasn’t going to be involved in the process. You know how all your friends’ partners—my writer friends—thank their spouses in their acknowledgments for being “patient” during the writing of said books? My wife and I have always made fun of that. It sounds so dumb and stranger-like. First off, most of the time a partner is both supportive and unsupportive all at the same time. And we like it like that! At least I do. I like the reality of the person being half there and half not there. Both liking and making fun of what you do. Scolding you in front of friends and fucking you with passion because you crafted a good sentence. The acknowledgments have all these stakes. I wish someone wrote some John Lennon shit, like I thank my wife for bringing home lovers for me when I was so tense during the writing of this book that I could only get my mind off things by having sex with somebody new, in front of her.

Well, my wife and I tried to let this new book off the conjugal hook and let it roam free in my mind without her needing to be involved and stressed out. I told her I fantasized about her buying the book in a bookstore and reading it bound, not on the iPad or in galleys. She couldn’t go buy it because it came out last March, a week after the first lockdown started—we weren’t leaving the house and were scared shitless—but she was able to read one of the copies the publishers sent me. She could read it in the form she used to read me before we became a couple, in a bound copy that looked good and secure and not those needy, wobbly galleys with their typos and their TKTKs. It worked, and now she’s happily excused from my writing process and our relationship doesn’t have to grin and bear it. There’s less emotional wear and tear.

Why can’t you be more like my wife and take risks? Isn’t any actual risk you might encounter just a projection of your fears? What if the world keeps spinning out of control and we never go back to the middle-class smoothness our relationship was based on? What if the time for stability is gone? Maybe the brave ones among us will find new paradigms, while the scared will go to their graves with their values, like slaves did with their pharaohs?

I’m not even sad about writing this, I’m just excited. Do you see how writing this letter has made my juices start flowing again? Do you feel me? Do you care? Can I ever feel alive again when I’m with you?

January 22, 2021

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