Inbox Zero is My Ironing
Susan Orlean irons to save her sanity as a writer. I fill out Excel spreadsheets.
In “How to Avoid Going Insane as a Writer,” Susan Orlean says, “I’ve realized that it’s important for me to have something to do regularly that is concrete and satisfying, to contrast with the abstractness, the impossibility, of writing perfectly.”
For Orlean, this concrete thing is ironing. Sheets and pillowcases and sleeves can be ironed to a kind of perfection that Orlean says she and no one else is ever able to achieve with the written word. I love Orlean’s (to my eyes) perfect books and essays, but I can begrudgingly agree that for the most part, she is correct when she writes, “Unless you’re arrogant or a fool, you know there’s always something more that could be done to make something you’ve written better.”
For years, I have danced around a career as a writer. As a child, it was all I ever imagined doing, spending hours in my closet making up stories. I started writing down those stories first with crayon and then pen and then on my father’s electric typewriter and then on our Mac Classic. I petitioned my high school to let me take a creative writing class every semester even though the registrar said that was “unusual.” I only applied to colleges with creative writing majors, and after graduating with mine, I expected that it would only be a matter of time before I published the next great American novel.
It didn’t exactly work out that way. But I haven’t stopped writing. I wrote that novel and another one and countless short stories, and I have the rejection letters to prove it. Yes, they used to be actual letters! To support myself, I turned temp jobs in offices into full-time writing jobs. Although it was at times the most boring writing imaginable, it was writing, and I never stopped doing the more creative writing on the side. And then through the dot-com boom and bust and what came after, I morphed into less of a creative writer and more of a content creator.
And so now it seems as I inch toward my first 50 years of life on this Earth, I am the closest I’ve ever come to having a job as a writer, working here on this very platform fashioned for all of us foolish souls with the stamina (or insanity) to keep trying to be writers.
“I feel very lucky to have a job that doesn’t include monotony, and doesn’t have a performance grid that I must match,” writes Orlean in that same essay. I wish I could say the same, but some parts of my job are monotonous, and there is the occasional specter of a performance grid hanging over my days. This is my ironing. Responding to emails, tracking budgets, and putting page views into nearly organized spreadsheets is strangely satisfying in a way that writing never has been. “Writing is not an absolute. At your best, you hit close to the mark, but it’s not science; it never adds up to 100, no matter how good a job you’ve done,” writes Orlean.
Read the full essay here: