Bodies, Brains, and the Maintenance Thereof

Hello, Dames Nation! Perhaps you remember us from the last time we did this. We are Zan and Miranda, best friends and writers who each have a novel coming out in 2020

[That’s Zan on the left, complaining, and Miranda on the right, indulging her.]

[Also, look how pretty!]

We thought for this issue of Two Bossy Dames we’d go the traditional seasonal route and talk about beginnings and endings: how we got through 2019 and how we’re planning on getting through 2020, with some bonus writing advice for anyone whose New Year’s resolution happens to involve that kind of thing. Plus Miranda recommends music, Zan recommends … learning to box? And we both recommend finding a small-ish activist group to get involved in, because this year is going to be hideously anxiety-inducing, and we have found doing something to combat the darkness is, for us, the only thing that helps. 

SPECIAL DAMES BONUS! Win Miranda and Zan’s Books

This could be you, but with books!

If after reading this issue, you’re as taken with Miranda and Zan’s voices as we were editing it, good news! Their publishers have graciously offered to give one lucky reader a finished copy of Miranda’s Topics of Conversation (which is basically just women having incredibly interesting conversations with one another for a whole book, a thing that could hardly be bigger Dames Bait) and an advanced reader’s copy of Zan’s Look (a fascinating examination of one woman’s relationship with social media, not due to be published until MARCH). To enter, just submit your name and email through this handy dandy form, and we’ll notify the randomly picked winner next Friday.

Beginning Again, Whether You Want To Or Not

ZAN: I'm writing this in mid-December, and at this particular moment in time, thinking about beginnings feels somewhere between strange and impossible. This is not normally the case—my birthday is January 3, and usually I like the one-two punch of new year, new age, big ol' fresh slate, let's do it. I'm not much of a long-term planner and never have been, but I do like to think about where I've been and where I'm going, what I've wanted and gotten (and not gotten!) and what I might want to try to go for next. But this year has been tough, and I'm not sure what next year will bring or even what I want from it, and right now I'm just like: blergh

Three and a half years ago I left the non-profit where I was doing programming and events to become a full-time freelance writer. Or that's what I said I was doing—in reality, I was getting too depressed to hold down a job, and I had just sold my second book, and it was a thing I could say that would allow other people to nod their heads politely and move on in the conversation. 

So on the one hand, I never expected this to work. Like, it did not occur to me for one second that three years later I would still be self-employed. But for a while it did, so I’m still trying to figure out what to do about the fact that my dream job keeps me plenty busy, but is getting increasingly ineffective when it comes to helping me pay the rent. 

I don't know how much Dames Nation has kept up with the state of media in the last couple of years but it's pretty dire; as Maya Kosoff wrote in a piece for Medium

While digital media dries out in the wake of the VC funding boom of the 2010s, and the country’s regional newspapers are swallowed by corporate consolidation and hedge fund vultures, there is very little stability to be found anywhere.

Every time another round of layoffs happen, skilled and talented journalists are spit into the freelance market, where work is grossly underpaid. No new jobs get created to re-employ them; an ever-increasing number of people compete for ever-scarcer resources; precarity prevents already-marginalized folks from jumping in, much less starting careers. It's very bad! It's very bad for the world, and it is very, very frustrating to have been a part of.

But also, of course, I'm lucky: lucky that I got to do this work for as long as I did, lucky to have other resources and skills to fall back on. I don't, uh, know what the next thing will be yet (maybe by the time this publishes?) but I'm hopeful it will be something good. So I guess I am starting over this year, whether I like it or not. 

And there are a couple of things I started doing in 2019 that I'm excited to keep doing going forward:

  • Volunteering with Sister District has kept me sane for the last three years, and I am praying that it allows me to survive the psychic onslaught of the 2020 election, never mind its results.

  • Since I've been making not much money for the last few years, I've lazily allowed myself to be bad with it. But a few months ago I joined the Financial Gym, and hokey language aside (please, white people: stop calling things "tribes"!) it's been so helpful in forcing me to get over myself and take a sober look at my finances—hence, some of this “oh shit I actually really need a job” stuff. If you need some accountability in your life, I highly recommend it!

Okay, your turn. Your FIRST BOOK comes out next year!! How is it going to change your life, do you think?

MIRANDA: One of the unexpected pleasures of growing older is that I'm less afraid, now, than I've ever been. (This is going somewhere, promise.) Which, I realize, is sort of a ridiculous thing to say! I mean, the election, global warming, white nationalism, I could go on! I mean, death! And I am a person who has had panic attacks about death. I mean, several! 

But that's the thing, isn't it: time is short. When I was younger, that idea was abstract and therefore terrifying. Now it's more concrete, and like a writer whose deadline approaches (not that I have ever been in this position as a writer!) (I am always in this position as a writer), I suddenly find my terror motivating, rather than paralyzing. So maybe I'm not less afraid; maybe I'm just—and this in general has been the story of my thirties—better able to deal with it. 

This is a roundabout way of saying that I'm on the cusp of a number of big changes that scare me but before which I am not, as I might in an earlier self-iteration have been, frozen. I am, as you mentioned, about to publish a book—which changes everything and nothing. I mean: whatever doors the book opens (and has already opened!), I am not myself, by walking through them, automatically changed. (Talking about the book is tricky because it's easy, in airing anxieties, to sound ungrateful, which I am—which I hope I am—not. But two things can be true at the same time: it can be true that I am very lucky to have a book published, and it can be true that many books are published every week, every month, every year, and that few sell more than a few hundred copies; one can be respected as a writer and still, in order to pay the bills, need a day job.) You've written about this recently in your (always excellent!) Tinyletter; the work doesn't have to be its own reward (a bullshit excuse for not paying writers for their labor), but it does have to be, for the writer, of enduring interest. I mean, if you want to get rich or famous, there are easier ways. 

I am also at some point in the not too distant future applying to graduate school. Without getting too deep into the boring specifics of my current financial-slash-workplace situation, it's very likely that my life, in a year, won't look much like what my life does now, at least day-to-day. I may be working part-time in a job that has nothing to do with my writing and freelancing when I can. I may be getting ready to go back to school. I may have a job that is connected to my work as a fiction writer. 

At this point, all I know is that I want, in the next few months, to establish a series of routines that can survive these changes. I know that is going to involve running, as my routine already does. (I'm training for a May marathon; my training plan, I regret to inform you and also myself, tops out at 57 miles a week.) I want it also to involve:

  • Waking up early (did you know that Jenny Slate wakes up at 5 every morning? I heard it on a podcast, so it must be true).

  • Drinking less alcohol and more tea (she says, sipping whiskey and writing this email at [redacted] in the late night/early morning).

  • Listening to more music. Some songs Spotify dropped into my lap this year that I found particularly meaningful: Julia Jacklin, Body; Phoebe Bridgers, Motion Sickness; Lucy Dacus, Night Shift; Molly Sarlé, Human; Blood Orange, Hands Up; Sharon Van Etten, Every Time the Sun Comes Up; Angelo de Augustine, Time; Big Thief, Not; Nicole Atkins and Mark Lanegan's cover of November Rain.

  • Going to more concerts; specifically, going to more concerts alone. This started as a workaround; my husband is a high school teacher which means that he, much like Jenny Slate, gets up at 5 in the morning and so is … disinclined to go to a show on a Wednesday night. But it turns out it’s really fun! Vibing on the positive energy of a group of happy strangers: I recommend! It’s especially nice to buy yourself a ticket a few weeks or months in advance and then forget about it and then get an email reminder and it's like your past self sent your future self a little present!

  • Pulling a tarot card in the morning and journaling about it! I cannot believe I just typed that but … I do think tarot provides a fruitful interpretive framework and as anyone who’s ever talked to me about lit theory and/or the Kennedy Assassination knows, I love an interpretive framework. Besides: it couldn't hurt to have a daily writing practice that didn't feel loaded in the way that requiring myself to produce fiction every day does. (I say does as if this is something I require of myself, which it is … not.)

Your mention of Sister District reminds me that I also want to re-engage in activism. I was volunteering for Freedom For Immigrants until earlier this year, but had to stop when my hours at my day job increased, and I've missed feeling—not like I was solving anything (which I wasn't), or even necessarily helping anyone (because I couldn't always), but like I was part of a community that was interested in solving (in the long term) and helping (in the short term). In the meantime, I’ve continued to contribute to FFI financially. A few other groups I’ve been happy to send money to: No More Deaths, BIJAN/Beyond (an excellent option especially for Boston-based Dames), the National Bail Fund Network, and South Dakota Access for Every Woman

Besides Sister District, what kept you sane this year? 

ZAN: What did keep me sane this year! What indeed. Anyone who knows me will say, with equal parts love and exasperation, "Oh, her gym," which is ... not what anyone who knew me before 2016 would have expected. I've been doing yoga since high school (#californialifestyle, what is up) but in early 2017, in part in response to late 2016, I started boxing at a local gym with a handful of writer friends, and it changed all of our lives. I wrote about it a couple of years ago, and you can read that here, but that was before I was sparring—which is to say, I was then still hitting a bag, instead of a person. 

Now I hit people a couple of times a week, and get hit, too. (One of the coaches recently: "This isn't going to sound like a compliment, but it is: I'm always amazed that you come back. You get hit so often, and you come back every week to do it again!") And it has taught me more about pride and shame and anger, and consent and self-control and vulnerability, than anything else I've ever done in my life so far. 

At the beginning of the round, you touch gloves with your sparring partner, and that touch changes the rules between the two of you: before that touch, you are not fighting; after that touch, you are. But it's not just that—it's not just on, off. If something changes during the round—a coach asks you to add or withhold a certain punch, or increase or lower the intensity—you touch gloves again, to acknowledge that you both understand and accept that change. Violence is allowed, but not bullying, not recklessness, not selfishness or cruelty, and untangling those concepts from one another feels like really necessary work for me right now, and work that I wish a lot more people (read: cis men) could figure out how to get interested in. 

I started fighting because I wanted to explore my aggression, and it was useful for that, but it turns out that aggression is just the first stage of boxing—or can be, anyway, if you have good coaches and good sparring partners. Now I'm learning how to be a good partner, how to respond to someone else's cues and communicate my own. I'm learning how to level up, and then down again; how to accept that sometimes, someone gets the better of me and there's nothing for it but to listen when my coaches tell me how to approach it next time, when, inevitably, I come back to try to do it again, just a little bit better.

Related: I used to come at my yoga practice with a lot of aggression. I have an intense little anxiety brain, and I thought I needed a lot of difficult, fast-paced movement to get it quiet. But for most of the last decade I've gotten increasingly into a restorative practice, which, lately, provides a necessary counterpoint to all of the punching. Sometimes we just lie on the floor and the teacher says, "Do you trust that the earth will hold your body?" and I realize that the answer is no, that I am holding all kinds of tension against nothing, and I get to stare at the ceiling and breathe and allow small pieces of unraveling to happen.

And it's both of these things, the boxing and the yoga, the trying to learn and do combined with the permission to relax, that allow me to sit down and write fiction, which drives me absolutely bonkers but also, unfortunately, helps keep me sane. I need all of that movement to keep me in my body, to remind me how much of my life exists outside of my computer screen and my professional accomplishments (or lack thereof); I need it to know that, whatever visual shape my body happens to be in, it's how it feels to live inside it that actually matters. But then there's everything else that's happening to me and around me, and I need to write in order to ... metabolize, is the best metaphor I've got, my life. 

I've been teaching writing for the last few years, and here I will offer to Dames Nation the few bits of advice I feel confident giving, in case you are trying to write more, or write something specific, this year:

1. Everyone does it differently. However you do it is fine. I used to hear other writers talk about their processes and think I could never do that, that's why I'll never be a "real writer." Nope! If you have a thing that works, that's how you "really write." 

2. But if you're still looking for a thing that works, go to book events and literary festivals and listen to podcasts (First Draft with Sarah Enni is a particular favorite) and see if anyone has a technique that sounds like it might work for you. As a bonus, you will get to hear, over and over again, how differently everyone does it, and feels about it. And also:

3. It is this hard for everyone. Everyone. Absolutely all of us. Sometimes I just spend ten minutes walking students through the sheer number of drafts I have to write to get a book published (I write a first draft, which I revise on my own for a while, and then revise based on comments from trusted reader friends, and then revise with my agent (always twice, sometimes more than that), and then revise with my editor (always twice for big picture stuff, then however many rounds of line and copy edits that sometimes bleed into bigger picture stuff). That's eight or ten drafts, and that's when it's going really well. It is this hard for all of us. It is this much work for all of us.)  

Do you have writing and/or publishing advice for the Dames of the Nation?

MIRANDA: I wrote most of the novel that is about to be published while in an MFA program—which is to say while I had a lot of time on my hands. The program I attended, at Washington University in St. Louis, is fully funded, which means not only was my tuition covered, I was also earning a monthly stipend. (The one writing piece of advice I do find myself repeating over and over: do not pay for an MFA. Or, better, don’t go into debt for one.) 

With a husband with whom I could split the bills, in a city where you can get a two bedroom apartment for under $1000/month, this meant my responsibilities boiled down to: go to class & write. So I wrote my novel mostly in the middle of the night, between episodes of Frasier, while stirring enormous stews, with a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes next to the computer, a method I would not recommend and which I could not replicate, not with a dog and a day job and fifty-seven miles a week to run, not even if I wanted to. 

So a big question I will be trying to answer this year is: how do I adapt my writing style to the much more scheduled life I live now? Because the way I’ve written in the past—turning ideas and sentences and paragraphs over in my brain for hours or days or weeks or months until they feel ready and then rushing, in a moment of panic, to the computer to get everything down before it disappears—isn’t possible in the present. (You write to metabolize your life; I’m afraid my habits indicate severe … constipation.) 

The best advice I can give to Dames embarking on a creative project is to consume voraciously—and not only in the genre in which they’re working. I didn’t read a lot of fiction while I was working on my novel because I worried about unconsciously picking up another writer’s voice or tics or phrasing, but I did read a lot of nonfiction and watch a lot of television and listen to a lot of podcasts. And as guilty as I felt for vegging out in front of Broadchurch or going for a run with You’re Wrong About in my headphones instead of writing, it all helped. There’s very little in the way of traditional plot in my novel, but I’m sure that what plot there is would be parceled out even less elegantly if I hadn’t quote-unquote wasted so many hours of my life in front of shows like Jane the Virgin whose narrative momentum depends on dramatic twists of the revelation of an identical twin’s hidden motives! variety. I mean, true story: I figured out how to end the novel while listening to an episode of Blank Check with Griffin and David—specifically the episode about Aquaman, a movie I fell asleep while later attempting to watch. 

And I would also say—and this goes along with consuming voraciously and with equanimity: be patient. Once I knew I was working on a novel, I was able to produce a draft—a draft not too dissimilar from the version that will be published on Tuesday—in maybe six or seven months, which is fast. But I spent at least fifteen years getting to once I knew

In learning to be patient, running has been an enormous help. Maybe in the way that boxing—that sparring, in particular—has helped you understand that aggression isn’t necessarily cruel, running has helped me understand that boredom doesn’t necessarily have to be appeased. I’ve written a bit about this in my Tinyletter, but running, fundamentally, is so boring. Training for a race especially. You do the same thing over and over and over and hopefully you see an improvement over time, over the weeks and months, but sometimes you don’t. And even if you do, you usually see this improvement not in the moment but in retrospect, looking back over split times and distances accumulated. In the moment you’re cold and somehow also you’re sweaty and your legs hurt and you’re trying to figure out how many meters until you hit the next mile, how many miles until you can be done. 

My instinct when I’m bored—a very human instinct, I think—is to distract myself from the irritation of that boredom; to, mostly likely, open Twitter or Instagram or the New York Times app, and scroll aimlessly. And you can’t do that when you’re running—or you can, but you have to do it consciously, rather than by reflex; you have to really choose it.  

ZAN: Oh man, this reminds me of something else I always tell my students: that part of the fear of the blank page is fear of having to really hear the sound of your own thoughts. You know how when you hear a recording of your voice you recoil instinctively, because that’s not how it sounds most of the time in your head? I find that often with writing it’s just like that: I imagine my sentences are gonna sound a certain way, and when I get to actually writing them, it’s like… no no no not that! That’s not it at all!!

Sadly, in my experience, there’s nothing for this but exposure therapy: sitting down and writing the crappy sentences until they don’t scare you anymore, until you know it’s just your crappy draft and it’s fine, you can fix it later. Taking long runs without headphones in, or going to quiet yoga classes, driving without the radio or a podcast on for ten or fifteen minutes: learning how to be in some kind of mental stillness, with nothing but your own self to keep you company. Taking in everything voraciously, yes absolutely, and then having these moments of silence where you get to ask yourself, what do I think about that? and then hear what the answer sounds like, too.  

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