American Factory, college reunion, questions

Slightly NSFW?

Hi, I’m Edith, and this is a newsletter with links, personal writing, and comics about my life. And, in this installment, some Q&As! I’d love to know what you think. (Please feel free to reply to this email!)  

February 4 & 5, 2020


New, experimental section: A week ago I asked readers of this newsletter if they had any questions for me or for someone I might pass questions along to. I got some good ones, and I sent them to my friend Jim Behrle, who was kind enough to answer a couple. Jim used to write for The Hairpin back in the day (some highlights: Princess Problems, Famous Turkey Last Words, and Jim Behrle Valentines), and he also had a great advice column on The Awl (some highlights: How to Write a Love Poem and Change Is Scary But Not as Scary as Jellyfish). I missed his writing, and I thought this might be fun. Okay, here we go.

  1. How do you know when you are content?

JB: Contentment, for me, is a lack of discontentment. Discontentment is easy to gauge. Watch a New York Knicks game. Or the final season of “Game of Thrones.” That's it. That's discontentment. 

How often can we look up from our lives—perhaps we are knitting or doing a crossword puzzle—and think to ourselves, “I am happy. This is what happiness feels like.” For me, it’s usually when I'm riding a roller coaster. And I think, “Life is good, and I'm grateful.” But it's a fleeting feeling. Happiness may not even be a real feeling; maybe it's a destination. And one day you're in a Happy Place and the next day you wake up in a motel next to the Lincoln Tunnel. 

The MacGuffin in noir movies is a thing that the people in the movie are trying to get, it's something for them to focus on. In Waiting for Godot, it is Godot. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is the lost ark. In Dude, Where's My Car, it's where the car is, dude. People climb Mount Everest to discover something about themselves, to unlock a truth they think the journey will reveal for them. Everest is the MacGuffin. Meeting the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz is one. Happiness is a MacGuffin. Your whole life is supposedly geared toward being more happy. But are you ever really satisfied? If you were, would that make you truly happy?

It is much easier to come to grips with being dissatisfied. That's less fleeting. If we're unhappy, we feel motivated to make changes. This is possibly a byproduct of contemporary American life. Did cave people think, “Am I happy?” while hunting wild boar under a full moon? Maybe. Those must have been nice nights. Hanging with your pals. Sharpening spearheads. But survival came first. Since survival in most parts of the USA is achievable, we have turned our attention inward. “How do I feel about surviving?”

You owe it to yourself to get out of unhappy situations. Bad jobs, played-out relationships, cheering for the New York Knicks. But don't think of contentment or happiness as someplace you can inhabit for very long. Enjoy the moments when it dawns on you that you feel happy. Admit it to yourself, mark it in your memory. Give that day a gold star. You might be most content striving toward something, reaching for the MacGuffin. You could definitely feel less unhappy. But maybe you only need to feel a little bit happier.

  1. How do you deal with the self-doubting voice in your head?

JB: My job used to be in author events at bookstores. Four nights a week for around nine years I would listen to an author read from their freshly written book. And then people would ask them questions. “What time of day do you write?” “How do you create interesting characters?” It was always seemingly the same questions every night. And authors had all kinds of answers. What I began to figure out was that the answers didn't really matter. Because there is no right answer. Some people just write books, and those books get published. The authors themselves, when the audiences were not around, were just as neurotic and searching as the rest of us. They do not contain the answers to secrets that will somehow make you write better. 

The one exception to this is possibly Anne Lamott, who gives maybe the best life advice that I have ever heard. It's something along the lines of: Allow yourself to write poorly. Do not let the self-doubt that pulses through us all stop you. Believe me. Self-doubt is crushing for every writer you love. Steven King, Shakespeare, Toni Morrison. 

Remember: You can't doubt something if you don't have something. We are our own cruelest critics. We somehow think that if we, ourselves, doubt first and hardest it will push us forward and make the writing better. I'm not so sure. Give yourself a break. You don't have to paint the Mona Lisa every day. Some days you just have to paint something to feel like a painter. And painting is fun. At least it should be fun most of the time.

What's right for art is right in every other part of your life. The voice in your head is a lot more critical of you than anyone else is. You may feel like that's a positive. That it pushes you. But why would you firmly believe the very worst things about yourself? And discount the very best. 

Where's the voice inside our heads that says, “Hey, I try hard and I'm a good person. I have skills and I should trust them.” I guess that's why someone created mantras. Somehow remind yourself of this constantly. We make bad decisions. That's a big part of being human. Trust your emotions, whatever they tell you to do. We should be riding our emotions right over the cliff. Allow yourself to hide under the bed sometimes. When you feel motivated to do something, trust that feeling, too.

At the end of the day it's only us, and the things inside you are also you. Trust yourself, but also confirm. Ask your friends what they think of what you're doing. Of whatever you're doubting. They may not always give you the best advice. They’re self-doubting themselves all the time, too. Even serial killers are always like, “I'm never going to be as good as the BTK Killer.” You can either stop randomly killing people, or you can use that doubt to kill more and better. It's up to you!

Thanks, Jim. And now, another comic…