On taking a break and feeling like $h*t about it
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Maybe you noticed and maybe you did not, but I haven’t written here in over a month.
I had a newsletter written and ready to go on May 9 — a Tuesday, when I normally post — but I moved back to New York that week and there was cat transportation to manage and a car on a trailer and a U-box that needed to be unpacked; I left my laptop on the plane; I was tired; I was happy to be back in this place that feels like home and nesting is my favorite past-time.
So, I didn’t publish it.
The next week, there was more nesting and I hired an editor to help me restructure my book so I could start making progress on the thing that’s been stuck inside me for three years. Then the peonies started blooming and there were friends to be made and then it was June and I don’t know. Time just went on and writing here got thrown into the box that I don’t open or talk about or even look at, but which I also think about all the time. No one mentioned it which was a relief but also a presence.
Like anything I think I should be doing and am actively not-doing, not writing this stalked me. My good sleeping hygiene was canceled out because 10 minutes after my head hit the pillow I’d think, Substack! Or, because this pays my bills, I’d think: Money!
The worst-case scenarios piled up. That a month away from writing here would render all my previous work moot because no serious person just stops writing. That people would forget me and stop wanting to read me when they realized they didn’t even notice I was gone in the first place. That I’d lost my ability to write in this form on this cadence, all the skill honed over the past 16 months dissolved in six weeks. That the internet had moved on without me, and all the other writers were reaching new peaks in creative output and quantifiable readership while I was over here fading into obscurity. That everyone would want their money back. I could keep going.
This is all dramatic, but I’m dramatic, and these are the actual thoughts I had. It felt awful, like letting everyone down — except, of course, I was not letting myself down. I’ve been publishing on Substack since January 2022, and while there have been times I’ve taken an extra week or so to post something, writing here has been the one constant in my work life. For 16 months there wasn’t a time I wasn’t thinking about Substack, the same way for years there wasn’t a time I wasn’t thinking about what to post on Instagram. I didn’t think I was allowed to stop, so I didn’t. Not publishing these past many weeks wasn’t a considered, rational choice It was an instinct; a refusal; a natural shutting down I didn’t actively fight.
Last week, one of my friends — a writer but also a reader who did not mention I’d stop writing but also maybe did not notice — said in response to me telling her I was stuck on how to re-enter publishing here (Do I mention it? Do I not??), said: Offer them something. Give them access to something to make up for it. I recoiled. My entire life I’ve been offering gifts to compensate for what I’m not, thinking I have to constantly conjure some value in addition to value, that I have to pay people bonuses because I’m not enough. I told her that and she said, Right. Then don’t do that.
And when I talked to my person at Substack about it, she reminded me that what I had actually been doing, in her view, was the exact thing I’ve been arguing for in a lot of what I’ve written here.1
From a few newsletters ago: “If I want to believe in a world where everyone is taken care of and everyone has a sense of abundance and everyone gets to make a living doing things that inspire them rather than destroy them, I have to live that principle myself.”
From another: “Joan Didion and Octavia Butler didn’t have the opportunity to build their careers on Facebook, but my guess is they wouldn’t have. There are plenty of examples of folks who make complicated, unpopular, or misunderstood choices to protect themselves, to protect their art, and/or to prioritize their sanity. Probably to great immediate cost.”
The point is, for whatever reason I couldn’t write here and so I didn’t. And while it felt necessary and healthy, it also felt like a thing warranting apology and explanation.
And failure. It felt like failure.
I read an article on Vox called “Beatrix Potter, the unlikely hero of the anti-hustle culture movement”, about how memes of Peter Rabbit are the latest cultural evidence that we are collectively over the hustle and grind and all want to just curl up on our couch like Squirrel Nutkin with a warm bowl of soup.
This, in addition to at least a thousand other signals—we’re working less, Goblin mode was the word of the year, Quiet Quitting is a proper noun, we’re in the era of the sleepytime girlfriend, there’s something called The Nap Ministry, How To Do Nothing is a best selling book and I had a podcast called Quitted that came out at the same time as one called Quitters, etc. ad infinitum ad nauseam —indicate that we are a culture that is over it and tired and done and ready for whatever comes after peak capitalism.
At the same time, we’re also in the era of hustling to turn our exhaustion, burnout and anti-hustle sentiment into actual cash businesses. Books abound on the subject; there are burnout retreats and burnout courses and the other night some lady told me about her new breathwork course on burnout prevention, to which I reflexively said Smart and meant it, as in Way to leverage our new buzzword for suffering.
As always when anything becomes a cultural meme, we don’t just take it for what it is — in this case, a symptom of a larger issue enough of us might be ready to actually do something about. Instead, we turn it into an entire cottage industry and see it as an opportunity for a business venture, instead of an opportunity for living differently. Or we see it as an individual issue, a thing going wrong within ourselves that we might go to a camp, read a book, read a listicle, or take a breathwork course to fix, so we can keep trucking along.
What I mean to say is I hate being in this part, where everyone I know understands we need to make drastic changes in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, but when we do actually take steps to embody what we’re talking about on an individual level, we experience what I just did, which is a lot of Fuck fuck fuck.
In 2010 my then-boyfriend, a lawyer, told me he was afraid I’d quit my corporate job and become a waitress and a yoga teacher and the thought made his dick soft. He said a lot of shitty things and I don’t remember most of them, but that one, because it meant he suspected I was unambitious, was unforgivable.
I started working for my dad when I was in elementary school—for $7 an hour, I performed various labors, like running something called a “pizza make” or filing or making flyers or stamping things. I babysat for $2/hour for 45 hours a week in the summers before I could legally work and, once I was of age, I worked at a pet store where I cleaned hamster cages and killed mice for snakes for $4.25 an hour. I worked throughout high school; I worked throughout college; I never not worked.
The only unemployment period I had prior to 2014 was a 10-week stretch between December 2008 to February 2009, and that was only because the economy imploded and no one was hiring. When I left my last job in 2014 to start my own company, I may technically have been unemployed for a year (no income, no health insurance, some gig jobs), but I still worked all the time, more than I ever had.
I didn’t stop working like that until March 2021, when I left Tempest.
I’ve worked since I could work, for a lot of reasons that include financial necessity, but primarily because I fucking love working, and I love it because I’m good at it. I have always been able to make sense of the world through objective contribution — through a job description and manual labor and Getting Shit Done and rising to the top and beating everyone out. It’s the thing I know how to do the most, the way I best know myself, and what I’ve relied on to create the shape of myself and my life.
If I have ever truly known my worth as a human, it’s only been because I found it in my work and productivity. It is only because I was good at something — paid well for it, praised for the results I drove, promoted for my competence, applauded for my successes, needed by the organization or the people I served — that I ever believed my life had meaning.
I recently read a quote from the Communist Manifesto2: “Capital has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.” It punched me in the face because, yes, what I mean is, my personal worth, historically speaking, doesn’t just have an exchange value, it was one, and the only one, and it fluctuated with the market of my contribution, and how the fruits of that contribution were received.
My ability to work and be productive, and be good at those things, have been the sole ingredient of my worth.
The first time I ever meditated was at a weekend retreat in 2012, when I was running a department at a start-up and radiated anxiety and drank so much coffee my pee smelled like it. In less than 48 hours I went from “exposed throbbing nerve” vibes to “puddle-like” ones, and it terrified me because I could not afford to be a chill person at work: Unrelenting stress and neurotic terror were my fuel.
Before I left for home, I asked the meditation instructor if I’d be “stuck this way” forever and therefore turn into a highly ineffective person and lose everything I’ve ever cared about. He laughed and said something like, This line of questioning has me not worried about you at all.
When I later left Tempest (in April 2021), I wasn’t just “burnt out”: I couldn’t walk up the hill on my road without stopping to catch my breath and a friend, watching me, joked it was because I didn’t have any blood left in my body. I’d also just lost the one thing that made “me” make sense to myself and gave me any value, that was my reason for getting out of bed in the morning and my entire identity. I was broken and a little not-sane and I didn't couldn’t really wash my hair let alone figure out my life, so I took time off.
I decided on three months, and figured I’d go fuck off for a bit, let myself really rest and fall apart and come back a new person with a new purpose and enough motivation to Start Again. But that just never happened. Three months bled into 10 months bled into a year bled into two years and now it’s been two years and three months, and while I am no longer grief-struck or totally broken or missing the will to live, and am firmly on the other side of my Wintering Phase with clarity and a vague sense of purpose and a direction to walk in, the thing is, I unintentionally detached my worth from my work. And it turns out that, without needing to hustle for it (my worth), I kind of want to do nothing at all ever again.
On June 18, 2021 — two months after leaving Tempest and a month before I was supposed to know what next to do with my life — I wrote this in my Notes app, where I keep ideas for writing:
REGARDING FEELING LIKE A SLOTH AND BEING AFRAID I’LL BE STUCK HERE FOREVER/giving into the lazy?
I remember where I was when I wrote it and I remember what I was thinking, which wasn’t different from what I’d thought that first time I meditated: What if I let myself rest and slow down, and what if I can’t bring myself back from it? What if I get stuck like this forever?
In other words, what if doing something good for myself (totally fucking off) — something that was necessary — destroyed the thing I have counted on my entire life to validate my existence, esteem, and self-regard (my ambition)?
Back then I soothed myself with an Oh honey, these are the delusional thoughts of a person who cannot fucking quit and rest, and I laughed at how extreme I can be with my imaginings. I said to myself: You are not going to be stuck this way! You will be back to extreme productivity in no time!! It is who you are!!!
Except I was wrong. I did get stuck that way.
It’d make for a really tidy essay to tell you that six weeks of not writing here on a weekly basis was just the balm I needed to get my motivation back, that it gave me perspective and a surge of passion and I’m just chomping at the bit to get back in it with renewed vigor and there are more ideas than there is time, and I’m just a machine now — like I’m supposed to be, like I wish I was, like I’d be rewarded for.
Instead, I just expanded into the space not-writing created. I watched TV. I went to live shows on grassy lawns. I took tick-infested hikes. I baked cakes. I planted plants. I fostered a dog. I made progress on other projects I’d been putting off in favor of publishing here.
All good stuff. But also: I felt essential parts of myself collapse, because I get deep satisfaction from writing this newsletter. The schedule of it, the way it feels to finish something weekly, how it shapes my writing and forces me to become better at a craft I’m still toddling through, how gratifying it is to regularly translate all these things I’m thinking about in this very fucking weird period of history into surprising conclusions I wouldn’t have drawn otherwise, the connection it fosters between me and you and other writers and even the people that work at Substack, even the pressure of it—these things feel good. These things feel important and not having them in my life for an extended period of time felt not healthy and totally disorienting.
This was originally meant to be a short essay I published two weeks ago about not apologizing for disappearing and actually living into what the zeitgeist (and almost every writer and influencer I follow) is preaching. But as I started writing, other themes emerged, like:
What happens when our external motivations (vs. external forcing factors, like having to make money or buy healthcare) for work (like wealth, success, validation, fame/notoriety, feeling valued, measuring our worth, knowing who we are, etc.) collapse and we have to find internal motivation? And where does discipline fit into this?
What does a healthy relationship with work even look like anymore? What makes it healthy?
What are we to do with this yawning gap between what we collectively say we want (meaning, connection, naps, #deathtothehustle), and what we’re actually doing (or rather, not doing)? Why has taking the last many weeks and also last many years felt like something that needs to be apologized for and explained away, or retroactively corrected by some surge in my productivity?
I also thought a lot about discipline, especially in relation to external vs. internal motivations to work.
That being said, there’s a second part to this that explores those bits more deeply. It’ll be in your box next Tuesday.
Thanks for sticking with me.
13 Things Right Now
There was a lot of stuff I collected over the last few weeks and this is the cream! What’s a liminal space, what’s the point of life, a handful of Really Good Books, a playlist for the part of summer that still feels like spring, is depression adaptive, is sobriety consumerism, is Ozempic an addiction cure, is a dopamine fast a real thing, good podcasts, more.