On Staying Hungry

What’s the use of advice you can’t help but follow?

Young creative types are often spoken of in terms of their hunger. Hunger is everything because it’s nothing—not yet—just raw need, if not raw promise. Hunger will take you far, over the bodies of the frightened and dull and more easily sated. Like a shark, the hungry must keep moving, hunting, killing, “killing it.” Nothing is more noble than being young, except maybe being young and hungry.

Hunger is encouraged by commencement speakers (most famously, Steve Jobs, speaking to Stanford graduates in 2005), noted as a requirement in job listings, looked back upon fondly by one-time strivers now on the far side of their golden years. Hunger is shorthand for a certain stripe of ambition—a willingness to strain at the yoke, to jump through the flaming hoops, to worship the grindstone in the name of career-building—or brand-building, or whatever we’re supposed to be building now—to be left smiling at the end of the day and still wanting more.

When we talk about hunger in this way, as a feature of some romantic larval state, we tend to forget the actual properties of hunger as a bodily sensation, as a biological function. Hunger is uncomfortable by design, meant to bully us into eating—what we feel, when we’re hungry, isn’t the actual lack of food in our bodies, but a Jacob’s ladder of hormones and brain-bits structured to signal that it’s time to consume. Hunger reminds us that we’re animals. Hunger reminds us that one day we will die.

Perhaps because of this—at least within certain sectors of our world and certain segments of our culture where food, like metaphor, is ample to the point of threat—hunger is something to be controlled, a wild thing to be tamed. We the oversated are plagued by a sense that we shouldn’t trust our hunger, and this is not entirely unreasonable; despite its primal roots, half the time it’s a false flag—we’re hungry not because we lack sustenance, but because we smelled the cookies baking, or we got stood up or cut off or side-eyed, or just because the clock says 11:30.

Hunger lies like a child.

We forget this when we talk about the appetites of the young. “Stay hungry,” we tell them, as if they have been drafted into some cannibal army and must devour their own to have any hope of survival. “Stay hungry,” we tell them, as if they have a choice.

Either I’m no good at being hungry or I’m really good at being hungry. Despite having lived for three decades without encountering a situation where my personal lack of food wasn’t almost immediately fixable, my body persists in reacting to the sensation of hunger as if faced with a real threat of wasting away before the next meal. When I first heard the word hangry I thought I might be cured, just by having a word for the feeling. But the reality of my hunger is beyond the means of a snappy portmanteau, better described in terms of riptides and broken levees and typhoons of anxiety and dread.

It’s not only food that I am bad, or good, at wanting. My primary state of being is generally trackable on some scale between pining and obsessing. This is well-concealed from the public world; for the most part, I easily pass as a peaceable, satisfied being. In reality I am a gaping crevasse, a black hole of indistinguishable wants and needs schlumping along inside a human-shaped bag of skin. I want many things, mostly dumb things, like self-washing clothes and a dog that won’t shed or die. But mostly I want attention, and I want approval, and I want to be told that I’m funny and smart and kind and good at writing and thinking and being a person, and also I want to not care about being liked, but I also want to be liked. To be loved. To be the best, mostly, and known as the best.

(These wants aren’t exceptional, of course, but that didn’t make them any easier to name. It took an episode of The Simpsons to explain me to myself. Unshockingly, I identify deeply with Lisa—the goody two shoes, the overachiever, the little savant in the world of morons. In one of my favorite episodes, season six’s “The PTA Disbands,” a teachers’ strike shuts the elementary school down and Lisa goes into a tailspin. After days of exile from the classroom, she is bedraggled, weak, drained of her life force. She staggers to her mother. “Look at me!” she pleads. “Grade me! Evaluate and rank me! I’m good, good, good, and oh so smart!” Marge grumbles, scribbles an A on a scrap of paper, and Lisa stumbles away as if from a methadone clinic. The experience of seeing yourself so fully in another person is uncanny, particularly when that person is a yellow, unaging cartoon.)

My hunger for approval resembles my hunger for food: ravenous and almost fully detached from reality. When I was hired, right out of college, as an administrative assistant at the magazine where I’d interned my senior year, I felt like some Dickensian urchin scooped up off the streets and sat before a heaving banquet of roast pheasant and rabbit ragout and plum pudding and what’s that? Stewed eel? Sure, why not, I’m famished. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t worked to get myself the job—when found, I had been jigging on street corners, or blacking boots, or whatever would move along the analogy—but it still seemed too fantastic to be trusted.

I had always wanted to write for a living, and while it always seemed like my best option, skills-wise, it also never seemed entirely viable, for all the reasons writing has never seemed like an entirely viable career path for anyone lacking a generous patron. But then it happened anyway. This was 2007, 2008. Magazines were combusting all around mine, the economy itself verging on implosion. I didn’t know how much time I had until the house staff would come and clear off the table and shoo me away. So I gorged myself.

I was hungry in all the ways I could be hungry. I didn’t get paid much, ate a lot of rice and beans, (farted a lot), and lost too much weight, but I was doing a job I’d wanted desperately, I was doing it well, and I was getting recognized for doing it well. I moved up to editorial assistant, then assistant editor, then associate editor; I wrote short profiles, then longer profiles, reviews and longer reviews, news stories and live reviews and festival blogs and lists, then features, then a column that clocked in at thousands upon thousands of words every week. From a distance, a particularly daunting assignment would seem like more than enough to satisfy me for a while; it rarely ever was, but that was fine because there was always something else coming along behind it.

We had the magazine, then the website, then the dwindling freelancer budget, then the functionally nonexistent freelancer budget, then the website that needed to grow, that could seemingly never grow fast or big enough. I barely had to push my way into any of the work; it wasn’t just falling into my lap, it was avalanching all around me. But who was I—a young, hungry writer—to complain about too much work? It seemed gauche. There are starving twentysomethings in Brooklyn who’d kill for that review! Eat up!

Anyway, it was hard to see this glut of work as too much, exactly, when my hunger always seemed to increase in proportion. When I held a copy of the issue bearing my first cover story—an issue that had almost been cancelled because the magazine had recently just about shut down and was on the verge of just about shutting down again—I expected to experience some sort of transcendent satisfaction, a bevy of cherubs tooting the “Hallelujah Chorus,” or at least some palpable sense of leveling up. Instead I was giddy for about eight hours, then just flatly proud, mostly just relieved that if my job fell out from under me a week later, at least I’d have done this one thing. My belly grumbled, my hunger already recalibrating.

A year later, when the magazine did finally shut down, my hunger turned out to be exceedingly useful in my unemployment-mandated adventures in full-time freelancing—I said no to nearly nothing, my bottomless want disguised as some kind of survival mechanism, a noble gnawing. And when I wound up with another job, a nine-to-five cubicle thing, the hunger proved useful in keeping up some semblance of a freelance career on the side, my gaping want masquerading once again as something like tenacity or commitment.

For a while I thought I would be satisfied with less, that my hunger would shrink to fit the amount of space it was allotted in my life, but instead it seemed to grow. I was saying yes and saying yes and saying yes some more, writing and pitching and writing and pitching on the train both ways to work, at lunch, at home at night, all through my weekends; to fill the gaps, I was firing off mid-afternoon Tumblr posts about most anything that crossed my mind and seemed to merit a paragraph or ten, and tweeting and tweeting and tweeting, terrified of silence, terrified of letting myself stand still, terrified of letting my mouth sit empty for one moment.

It was half addiction, half superstition. There was always this sense of urgency, a lurking suspicion that if I broke my stride, if I lost any momentum, I was done for. I was a Rube Goldberg machine of anxieties: Certainly any pause would be mistaken as hesitation, and hesitation would indicate self-doubt, which would trigger the fraud flare, signaling the armed guards of the Society for the Protection of Serious Writers to descend and disappear me.

At a certain point, after all the frantic pitching and posting and yes-saying and maw-stuffing, when I was staggering under the weight of deadlines and my brain felt shriveled and sprained—and my work began to feel cheap and shoddy, and the actual act of typing came to seem disgusting, and I found myself unwilling to stand behind stuff I had just written with what had felt like great conviction the day before, and all the world seemed smothered in fog but for one neon sign in the distance, flickering “YOU HAVE NO BACKUP PLAN”—I could usually sustain myself with one thought: this is what you wanted! At first it emerged as a chipper, wide-smiling reminder, and sometimes it would even work to get me back to work. But after a while it became more of an admonition, as if from a babysitter standing baffled over a crying child. This is what you wanted! You were hungry, now you’re being fed, you’re eating it up, why aren’t you full yet, why aren’t you happy, what is the matter, how can you be so hungry? How can you still be so hungry?

For a certain kind of hunger, the act of eating is its own reward, the matter of nutrition secondary if a concern at all. Even when I needed money I would write for free, telling myself that any work was good work, that at least I was getting my name out there, that maybe it might lead to something paid down the line. But most of the time I was fine with not getting paid because the act of writing—or, more precisely, the act of publishing—was more rewarding than whatever (likely tiny) amount of cash I might have received for the assignment in a more just world. You don’t have to worry about quarterly taxes when you take payments in the form of dopamine squirts.

And that’s how I thought of it: any time I wrote something, or was asked to write something, or got something published, or any time something I wrote was tweeted about, or commented on or passed around in any way, I imagined rainbow streams of dopamine geysering out from nozzles lining the inside of my skull, flooding my brain, fizzing out all the junk, all the crap thoughts about myself and my work and the world, like existential Alka-Seltzer.

Somehow, the reality of dopamine isn’t so far off. Speaking of my bottomless hunger for approval may be a bit overdramatic, but in terms of the neurochemistry, it’s basically apt. The brain always wants more, but there is a catch, a threshold. After a while, the reward system is dulled; more and more out-of-the-ordinary goodness is required to trigger the same reaction. Even if you can keep triggering a release at those original, beautiful levels, it can’t be indefinitely maintained.

“Stay hungry,” as it happens, is terrible advice—and not just because, taken literally, it suggests welcoming the symptoms of starvation: fatigue, anxiety, depression, muscle atrophy, stunted growth, compromised immune response, death. It’s terrible advice because you can’t help but follow it. You will always be left wanting. You will always be hungry. The untameable gnawing will haunt you for all of your days and the best you can do is learn to live with it. At least this is what I tell myself.

I have never dieted, in part because I’ve never wanted to lose weight more than I wanted to be happy, and food is so key to that happiness. But also, I think, I am proud of my hunger, proud of its depths, un-shy about declaring how famished I am, unafraid to be seen shoving burgers into my face. When food does arrive on my plate, I eat as if it will soon be taken away, or never offered again—I take giant bites, barely chew, choke and splutter and cough.

We are born hungry, we easily learn to eat, but feeding yourself is harder. Which hunger am I talking about now—appetite or ambition? I’m not even sure. But some of the best eating (or not-eating) advice I’ve read lately has also been some of the best writing (or not-writing) advice I’ve read lately.

“Ask the question: Am I hungry? We eat for nourishment. But many of us also reach for food when we’re bored, stressed, upset, lonely or sad—or just because it’s there.”

“Take a deep breath before eating. This simple act can help bring your mind back to the present world.”

“Try to enjoy the process instead of rushing through it.”

“Just because you think these thoughts doesn’t mean you have to act on them.”

“The rhythm of life is becoming faster and faster, so we really don’t have the same awareness and the same ability to check into ourselves. We need to be coming back to ourselves and saying: ‘Does my body need this? Why am I eating this?’”

I am taking those breaths, asking those questions, just to see how it feels or what the answer might be. What do I need? What do I want? I want to be unprecious and say I could live without writing, but that’s not a reality I need or want to imagine. I couldn’t do that anymore than I could live without food itself. I’m in a place I always wanted to be, which turns out to be a corner, and I may have painted myself into it. Writing is my job, how I keep food in my cavernous belly, literally and otherwise. Denying one hunger denies the other. I’m hungry, so I write, so I’m hungry, so I write.

It’s a nice arrangement, for now. But I’ve been thinking about Mr. Creosote, the preposterously massive man in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, who ravages a French restaurant with his vast appetite. He eats his way through the menu and beyond and has coated all surrounding patrons and waitstaff in his globulous vomit by the time he stops, sighs, apparently sated. The maitre d’ emerges, tentative, with a silver tray: “And finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint?” Mr. Creosote burps, resists, finally relents. His arms are immobile under their own weight, so the mint is placed straight into his mouth, like a communion wafer. Upon swallowing, Mr. Creosote promptly explodes, his guts splattering the dining room, his body rendered a hollowed-out carcass, his giant heart still beating at the back of his shattered ribcage. And then the maitre d’ returns. Punchline: “Thank you, sir. And now, here’s ze check.” We don’t see how much for, but that’s beside the point. You can stay hungry, but there’s always a cost.

Rachael Maddux is a writer and editor living in Decatur, Ga.

This essay originally appeared in the Q1 2014 issue of Scratch Magazine.

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