how to be famous

When I flew home last week, my mom reported how many views my TED talk had received and asked me if anyone recognized me on the plane. Ha. When I got back to town and told my chiropractor I had the worst seat on the plane (last row, middle seat–the one that doesn’t recline at all) he said: “Don’t these people know who you are?” Ha ha.

If jokes really are benign violations (this is my favorite theory of humor–a field I wish I’d known existed when I was in school), then I guess the violation is that famous people are sometimes entitled jerks and the thing that makes it benign is that I’m not actually very famous. But here’s the thing I’m struggling with, the part of the joke that doesn’t feel so benign these days: I’m not totally unknown anymore. No, no one has ever recognized me in an airport or on the sidewalk, but I get e-mails from strangers almost daily. Some even use the phrase “I’m a big fan.” (fan!) I now have a public persona that extends beyond my classroom and my friends. And I’ve spent the past month–and the past nine months before that–trying to come to terms with this persona, trying, in short, to figure out how to be just a little bit famous.

In all the years I spent writing without an audience, I developed an idea of who I would be as a writer. I imagined I would publish a book with a small press and it would be read by a few thousand people if I was lucky. In the wildest versions of this fantasy, I would go to conferences and sit on panels with other essayists. (Seriously–this is still a career dream, so if anyone wants an enthiusiastic panelist: call me!)

I imagined that I could keep my writing life and my personal life separate, that I could be honest and fairly unfiltered about the people I wrote about because no one who knew those people would ever read my books. None of this is shaping up to be true.

I got the call that I was going to be featured as the TED talk of the day the same week that my partner and I were trying to decide if we should stay together or split up. I told myself that, even if my relationship was a mess, at least this career thing was going well. But imagine this: 500,000 strangers watching you talk about your choice to love someone while you are at home with the dog watching comedy specials on Netflix to ward off the crying and wondering if it’s time to make a different choice.

I believe in personal agency but I also believe you get what you get from the world and you have to figure out how to live with it. To complain about the things that come with this newfound success would be disingenuous–I like getting e-mails from strangers. I like getting new Twitter followers. I even liked getting trolled (getting trolled is shitty–I do not endorse it–but it felt validating for someone to notice my work enough to loathe it).

troll

But these markers of success also make me uncomfortable. Those e-mails from strangers are sometimes difficult to respond to. People confess the most intimate details of their heartaches to me. Continue reading

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on the problem of wanting

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.

how I spend much of my time

how I spend much of my time

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. Continue reading

Faking it

When I finally read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running a couple years ago, I hated it. As you might expect, he talks about running both as a discipline and a metaphor. He outlines his training process for marathons and triathlons and, as he plods along, he considers the relationship between running and writing. I like hearing about other people’s creative processes, and even though Norwegian Wood is the only one of his books I particularly liked (and I did really like it), I still thought I might learn something from Murakami. After slogging through 1Q84, I hoped he and I might find some common ground again in the genre of memoir. But no.

Murakami says a few things I completely disagree with, like: “Talent has a mind of its own and wells up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it.” And cliché things like, “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest.” And smug things like, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” The thing is, running marathons and triathlons is impressive—especially when you start in your late twenties and continue into your sixties. And writing a bunch of highly-acclaimed books with cultish following is also very impressive. But I have a badass friend who regularly runs ultramarathons—and once a hundred miles!—and he’s not nearly so self-satisfied.

Reading What I Talk About felt like an ongoing reminder of my lack of discipline. I thought the book could’ve been subtitled, Why I’m so good at things (and you’re probably not). The fact is, I agree with Murakami on some basic points. I believe dedication will always take you further than talent. I believe in sticking to regular routines and putting writing ahead of other obligations that sometimes seem more important. But, not only did his book not inspire me to write more or better, it actually made me feel a little embittered about the whole process.

the view from my computer this afternoon.

the view from my computer this afternoon.

I say all this because I want to talk about what does work for me, and how I’m hoping to keep motivated without such Herculean smug-guy self-discipline. I much prefer Alain de Botton’s idea: “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

When I was a kid, my main (and most loathed) chore was mowing the lawn.

Continue reading