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11:39

He made us lie on the couch in the small, dark apartment. This wasn’t just his favorite album; the work — from start to end — had changed him on a fundamental level. He wanted me to not just hear it, but experience it. My back against his stomach, his arms wrapped tightly around my too-small body. He suggested I close my eyes. His lack of embarrassment was astonishing, intoxicating. Several times I was on the verge of falling off the couch, but it didn’t matter. I had never believed in anything as much as he believed in this album. There was no world in which whatever came out of those speakers wouldn’t change me, too. I was already changed.

It was the Bonnie Prince Billy album, I See A Darkness — a cult classic for many, but especially for a certain type of secretly-sad-but-getting-by man now in his late thirties. These days, I’ve forgotten most of the album — but the third song, the title track, haunts me still. A staggeringly slow tune, with a heartbreaking crescendo; it will cut through anyone with a pulse. The lyrics mirror the notes, teetering between hope and sadness. The verses are pure poetry but it’s the chorus that stings. “Oh no, I see a darkness,” Will Oldham sings four times before closing out with a wish, “Did you know how much I love you / It’s a hope that somehow you you / Can save me from this darkness.”

“Did you feel it?” he whispered when the song was over, the next one beginning. I did, or I thought I did. Did I? My heart had been pounding since he’d shut the lights. We had only been dating for a few weeks and I could feel the sweat starting to form in every crevice as I clenched my stomach, where his hands rested, tightly. My curls were in his face and I was afraid he might see how thin and frizzy they really were. But with each “darkness” something in me pinched, a tightness in my throat. I wouldn’t dare swallow, though; at least not too loudly. I’d heard enough to know that I couldn’t wait to listen to it again, alone, so I could really feel it.


The first time I called myself a writer was two years ago, and only because an actual writer friend made me — presumably so we could talk about anything other than my tediously basic insecurities. I worked full-time in tech and was too afraid to admit that I spent any time writing at all. I was terrified of people thinking that I thought my ideas were interesting enough — and that I was talented enough — to make the effort of writing them down. Earnestly doing something terribly, it seemed, was the most embarrassing thing.

I had always stuck to — raced on — the proverbial “track.” Raised without the basic luxuries of health insurance, consistent heat, or reliable plumbing, I had one goal growing up: to not be poor. So I studied electrical and computer engineering in college, and went to business school after that. There was no space to ask myself what I was interested in, beyond making money.

Then I made money. Not a lot, but enough to chip away at my debt, order a refill without worrying if it were free, buy a T-shirt at The Gap instead of on sale at Old Navy. Once I had the simple luxury of choice under my belt, the idea of trying to make more money felt like throwing myself back into the fire at the very point that I had escaped. With the only goal I’d ever had already accomplished, I felt stranded in the middle of space by the time I hit 30. I know, it’s a total cliche: corporate type realizes money doesn’t make her happy. But for people who grew up with no safety net, a narrow focus on money when you’re a young adult isn’t stupidity, it’s survival.

By the time I got around to asking myself what I was actually interested in, I didn’t know how to do anything I was actually interested in. It seemed like most people had used college to read as many books as possible, cultivate taste, and explore ideas of social significance while I’d been heads down in Fourier transforms and assembly language.

It never occurred to me that the aspects of myself that were distinctly female might warrant exploring, that my struggles as a woman were valid and not just me doing something totally wrong.

To fill my gaping creative hole, I dated artists. Or at least, I dated men with artistic sensibilities. Or maybe I just dated men who liked to tell me why my artistic sensibilities were wrong. Having always worked in tech and business, following the lead of a confident man felt strangely natural. Of course, this meant that my oeuvre was all men. My love for these men was not insincere — Franzen turned me onto writing and I still swear by at least a handful of Ryan Adams records — but because they were all I knew, it never occurred to me that the aspects of myself that were distinctly female might warrant exploring, that my struggles as a woman were valid and not just me doing something totally wrong. There was no voice explaining the echo chamber I was trapped in, at least no voice I cared to listen to.

I’m not proud to admit that I wrote my first essay to distract myself from sending an email to an ex-boyfriend. I had sent him about a thousand after our breakup, and he’d replied to exactly zero. It was only when my sister suggested that maybe I should write about said guy, not to him, that I considered writing for an audience of more-than-one. I worked on that essay (about dating, naturally) obsessively. The audience thing turned out to be a non-issue since no one ever read it, save for my sister and best friend (readers are the true heroes of writing). But it didn’t matter. Writing that essay made me realize that maybe I had something to say after all.

I started writing in secret regularly. At 33 I knew nothing of the literary world, other than the brooding men I read to impress the brooding men I dated. But I couldn’t deny that writing, this slowing down of the world, processing ideas through my own lens, was all I wanted to do. By that time I had abandoned my corporate work for nonprofit jobs — another attempt to find meaning — and though the work was far more powerful, I still couldn’t shake the desire to write.

Bolstered by a tsunami of feminist female voices exploding in pop culture (a phenomenon more or less absent from approximately 1990-Beyonce) I slowly started to share my writing. Not knowing any better, I treated writing like tech — fail fast, iterate often. I sent my work to every possible contact I could find on the internet. Having written in secret for years, something in me had popped. If one publication didn’t like my work, I changed it and sent it somewhere else. Literary magazines didn’t occur to me because I didn’t know they existed. Instead I self-published on Huffington Post and Medium, pitched editors at the publications I read without knowing where they ranked in literary credibility. And eventually, some things hit. I started to publish more regularly — not a ton, but enough. Enough to feel the thrill that comes with ascribing tangible, shareable words to muddy, ungraspable feelings and in doing so build connections between myself and others with what once felt like the darkest and loneliest parts of my existence. And that was enough to never want to stop.


When I finally left my full-time job last year to focus on writing, it was physically impossible to hold back any longer. I thought I might explode if I didn’t give myself the space it was demanding. Which is why I also gave up my Brooklyn apartment and escaped to the middle of nowhere to spend the summer alone.

You’re stuck in the big, vast hole of finding yourself. Which, or course, is as exhilarating as it is terrifying.

For me, escaping to a cabin in the woods was about eliminating the noise. There was the standard noise: the pressure to make money, get married, start a family; the chorus of expectations that shove us along on the rails of so-called normalcy. And there was the noise of men’s influence; the certainty of their opinions and taste roared over my own tentative instincts when it came to making art. All this noise was so constant and pervasive that it was nearly undetectable. It was only when another sound presented itself that I realized it was there at all. For me, writing was this other sound, but it took a long time to know what to do with it. It wasn’t until last summer that the song had grown too loud to ignore. And to finally hear it clearly, I needed quiet.

If I had shut myself up in a cabin alone when I first started, I am certain my self-doubt and insecurity would have eaten me alive. Because when the noise stops — when you’re completely alone — there is no one telling you how to be. But, then, there is no one telling you how to be. So you’re stuck in the big, vast hole of finding yourself. Which, or course, is as exhilarating as it is terrifying.

A writer I admire once told me, “few people have an imagination when it comes to their lives.” I loved this. It flipped the notion that everyone was doing life right except for me — the common refrain of my consciousness — squarely on its head. The fact that I had abandoned my career at 35 for a pipe dream, didn’t have a partner, and was leaving the greatest city in the world to spend the summer writing in a cabin alone wasn’t wrong, it was imaginative.

This summer taught me that the real challenge of writing, for me, was not motivation or time. It was to constantly confront my own mediocrity and to not look away.

The trouble with being imaginative is that it’s hard. I assumed that the more time I had, the more I’d get done — just like any other job. But, turns out, time and productivity are not linear when it comes to writing. At least not productivity as defined by “words on a page,” which was how I measured it — and my entire self worth — at the time. The hardest part of being alone was coming to terms with the inferiority of my own mind. This summer taught me that the real challenge of writing, for me, was not motivation or time. It was to constantly confront my own mediocrity and to not look away.

But for every day of self-loathing, there were moments that could perhaps pass for inspiration, a spark of a new idea, a solid paragraph or two over breakfast. Eventually I caught on to the pattern. If I sat down to write and nothing but first-grade-dribble came out, I did not question every decision I’d ever made and the point of my very existence. I just did something else, knowing that tomorrow — or maybe even later that day — it would be easier. Or it wouldn’t, at least not for a while. But the possibility of piercing the otherwise ordinary state of my brain with something special, was enough to keep going.


Being in my head, without the noise, is new for me. And it appears that, at least right now, I can stay there for a very long time. Everything feels new. I keep imagining those animal-shaped sponges that grow when you put them in water. For a long time I kept all my ideas crumpled in balls. In some ways, I kept my whole self crumpled in a ball.

For women, likability is assumed, and anything less is an affront. Maybe what I wanted all along was the luxury to brood.

An indulgence in one’s thoughts feels masculine. I feel like the brooding men I always admired. For men, selfishness is so often assumed. It’s the acceptable default, and anything more is a perk. For women, likability is assumed, and anything less is an affront. Maybe what I wanted all along was the luxury to brood. To not worry about my body, my hair, if I’m feeling what I should be feeling. But to sit without shame in my own darkness.

Writing isn’t the most blissful state by a long shot, but at least it’s an honest one. It’s certainly not the most fun you’ll ever have. There are no sights to see except your own amazingly distressful flaws. But our flaws are the fabric of our connections. In many ways, the time I’ve spent writing is the least lonely I’ve ever felt. It may feel like the noise is where everyone’s at, but if at any age you hear a jumbled whisper, chances are it’s worth silencing some things. Take a deep breath, swallow if you need to, and allow yourself to listen.