For weeks I’ve wanted to write about all that’s happened in my life in 2015, but I couldn’t find a good way to get at it. I keep thinking back to a rainy Sunday night, about a year ago, when I met two friends for dinner. One was pregnant and doing interesting research for her PhD in linguistics. She and her husband were thinking about buying a condo or moving to a new, baby-friendly apartment. The other, a psychologist, I hadn’t seen since August, when she was in the midst of a messy break up with a not-at-all-nice guy. But by March she was living happily with her new boyfriend—a man who seemed unbelievably successful and kind and good for her. A man she met the day after her break up. She told us about helping to raise his two kids, and her summer plans to attend conferences and visit family.
As they talked, I sipped wine and asked questions and then, when it was my turn, I realized I had nothing to say. “Um,” I tried, “I’ve been on two dates with a guy who seems kind of smart and fun, but we still haven’t scheduled a third.” I searched my life for something: work was the usual mound of ungraded papers and, yes, I was still tooling away at the same book I’d been tooling away at for years. No real travel plans, no visitors. No weekend getaways.
I woke up grouchy the next day, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. After ending a serious relationship a few years before, I’d worked hard to make my life exactly what I wanted it to be. I liked my job, and writing, and walking around the neighborhood with Roscoe. I had time for skiing and climbing and eating Thai take-out with my best friends.
But when I had to describe that life to someone I hadn’t seen in a while, the straightforward sameness of my days suddenly felt embarrassing. My close friends were getting married and making babies. I was about to turn 33—my Jesus year!—and, while I was in no rush to procreate, I wanted something to say when people asked how I was, some small miracle. I understood that the upheaval in my friends’ lives was sometimes hard, but, at the time, even having something to struggle with seemed enviable and kind of glamorous.
Now, on the verge of my 34th birthday, I still spend my days the same way I did a year ago. I go to the climbing gym and I grade papers and I eat Thai food from the same restaurant down the block with my same best friends. I walk the dog. And I write. I write whenever I can.
But in some significant ways, my life feels different. When friends ask me what’s going on, I tell them about a talk I’m giving in California next month. Or I explain what my agent said about the chapter outline I wrote. I tell them how my boyfriend volunteered to get up and walk the dog in the rain because I’m getting a cold and it’s almost my birthday. They listen with enthusiasm, because of course they aren’t the types to feel grouchy about someone else’s good fortune.
The short version of the story is this: I wrote an article for the New York Times and it got something like eight million views in a month. I received emails from strangers and editors and tv producers and literary agents. I went on the radio and television, and I turned down other requests out of exhaustion. I woke up one day to find my name in The New Yorker. And another day I sat down to breakfast to find an email from Jonathan Franzen’s agent. I woke up before my alarm every morning and lay in bed and wished I could stop thinking about what would be waiting in my inbox. None of it made sense to me. I was flattered and freaked out and I got very sick almost immediately.
The longer version of the story is that out of all those emails, only a few were weird or demanding. Most were very, very kind. One was straight up crazy. And one was genuinely critical. When I wrote back to that person—the critical one—agreeing that her criticism was fair, she replied with an apology, saying how much she liked the rest of my article and how she must’ve been in a bad mood when she sent the earlier message. These are atypical internet experiences, I know.
People regularly said to me: “Just enjoy the ride!” This was good advice that I found impossible to follow.
The longer version of the story is that I spent a lot of time deep in worry. I lost days and weeks to worry and I don’t remember much about the details. I have to look at my calendar to see exactly what I did and whom I spoke to.
Everywhere I went people asked about the article and I worried about how this would impact my relationship. I worried my boyfriend was tired of hearing about it. Or that he’d feel overexposed by all the attention. Or, conversely, that he’d be hurt by my desire to keep the details of our relationship out of the media. I worried he’d think I was becoming self-absorbed—or overly consumed with worry. (For the record, I was both. And he was great.)
I worried that my friends would be annoyed that I was suddenly so busy and tired. I worried that they would say things like, “Now that Mandy’s famous she doesn’t have time for us.” In fact they did say exactly that, but they said it with love and irony. Still, I tried very hard not to cancel any plans. I failed. When I did cancel plans, my sense of relief was overrun with worry.
I worried that I would pick the wrong agent. And I worried that voicing this worry would expose the fact that I wasn’t appropriately grateful for the attention of agents in the first place. I worried that I was too preoccupied to be a good teacher. I worried that my students would mention the article in class and I’d turn red. I worried about all the Facebook friend requests that suddenly arrived and what people would think of me if I didn’t accept them.
All that worrying did me no good. The real story, the better story, is that I now have things I couldn’t have imagined having six months ago: a supportive and experienced literary agent, a first draft of a book proposal, a fun, generous, hilarious and handsome person to share my life with. I couldn’t imagine these things because somewhere along the way I decided it was dangerous to want too much. Wanting too much was like playing that game where you describe how you’d spend your lottery winnings: it only reminds you of all you will never have. It always seemed wiser to focus on what I did have, to keep my head down, and keep writing.
I still believe it is dangerous to want too much. But I now find myself wanting all kinds of things, things I didn’t even know I was allowed to want. I want people to read my book and love it the way I love the books I’ve been reading lately. I want to find a way to create a thriving literary community here in the city I love. I want to keep teaching but I also want to make a living as a writer. I want to be able to buy a home in the most expensive city in North America. I want to spend more time with the man I love for as long as I can. It is unsettling to put these wants in writing. But there they are.
I need to write these out because it’s the only way to be really honest about my uneasy relationship with success. The problem with success is that it just blows the roof off the wanting. You spend years sitting on the couch, staring into a screen and typing. You are writing a book because you spent a lot of money on graduate school and you want something to put in the alumni newsletter. On good days, you trust that if you keep at it, you’ll eventually have something to say. On bad days, you walk the dog again. Then one day someone notices something you typed. Maybe millions of people notice. And it’s much harder to keep your head down. There are suddenly so many new forms of distraction, so many different versions of who you might become. There is so much to want. And it becomes much easier to forget the basic truth that makes writing (or really any activity that requires a high tolerance for rejection) possible in the first place: the fact that success and talent are not linked in any meaningful way. Talented writers go unread every day. Mediocre writers can, and do, make millions. Occasionally talented writers have big successes, but that’s an exception, not a rule. I believe success relies far more on luck and timing than it does on talent. I have no interest in challenging this belief.
Sometimes life is just a series of days that all look mostly the same. If you are lucky, these days allow you to sometimes do what you love, whether it’s writing or rock climbing or listening to a podcast while you walk the dog. Sometimes you have very good luck and very good timing and all that writing or climbing or podcast listening turns into opportunity. Sometimes it doesn’t, and you wish you had more to show for yourself. Or this is what my 34 years have suggested. I am reluctant to make too much of one thing or the other, of measurable success or hard work. But here I am, almost 34 and feeling full of gratitude, and slowly letting go of the worry.