New Year's Evolutions

Making the list, checking it way more than twice

Four years ago I made specific New Year’s resolutions for the first time. Not the vague and consistently impossible goals of “lose weight” or “save/make/swim in more money” but actual tasks. I thought I had written them down, and maybe I did, but I can’t find them now. “They” may have been as simple as “it”—get a piece accepted by McSweeney’s. And write a piece every single week so when one was rejected, I’d have another ready to go.

I do not recommend this specific resolution. And neither does Chris Monks as it turned out. I think it’s important to also mention that I had never written a humor piece in my life prior to this resolution. Not once, not ever. But that resolution resulted in profound lessons, actual results, and an entirely new (parallel) career path. I’d like to think it was born of my New England-bred desire to work until my fingers dropped from my hands like ten very over-it cocktail wieners, but that wasn’t the case.

It was jealousy. And pettiness. And insecurity. And getting very tired of having my virtual doorstep darkened with other writers’ bullshit successes. I kept thinking, “I could write something better than that.” (I hoped.) I thought, “I’m funnier than that.” (Maybe?) And I thought, “I’LL SHOW ALL OF YOU.” There’s that optimism we hear so much about when it comes to New Year’s resolutions!

I have written about this before, in multiple places, but I will reiterate it here — I believe one of my most resistant-to-change flaws is never being satisfied. It has made me excellent at my job but miserable as a person. I live my life with blinkered binoculars on, always looking over the next hill, spying on my internet neighbors, focusing on what they have that I don’t. It makes me hungry. But it’s a hunger that’s truly impossible to satisfy.

I realized the only way to get out of an outwardly-focused cycle (other people, their lives, their work, their writing) was to shift my focus inward. To break the cycle of waiting for the other shoe to drop—the metaphorical shoe being other people’s writing successes—then being enraged/jealous/sad/mad about that shoe, while doing absolutely no work of my own. I wasn’t proving I could write better, be funnier. I was just being small and jealous and blaming other people for doing the work. So. I stopped focusing on other people and started to write. And submit.

Yeah, wow, so that was humbling.

My first submissions to McSweeney’s were so painfully awful I wish I could operate on my own brain with a scalpel and a spork in order to extract them forever. I kept writing more bad pieces. They kept getting rejected. I felt desperate and kept writing and submitting. Everyone knows this feeling of desperation—it also generalizes to dating and freelancing. You want something so badly, you can envision how happy you’ll be when you get it. Then you don’t get it, you try harder, you get rejected again, you start to panic, and then everyone can smell the desperation on you like a sour hangover.

I learned to hit pause. I learned to step back and reassess. Instead of trying to force a formula (this modern scenario + historical figure = !!laffs!!), I stopped writing for a bit. I then wrote a piece spontaneously in a moment of inspiration. The more you talk to other humor writers the more you learn that this scenario is the most common one when it comes to first acceptances and viral hits. You’ll hear “it just poured out of me.” Not to say it isn’t work, that it doesn’t take craft, that it’s just *that easy.* But it tends to be where the surprising, fresh, and funny work comes from. That little voice, the typing fingers, the brain that says “the world can wait while I bang this thing out.”

In March of that year, just three months after my New Year’s resolution, I had my first McSweeney’s acceptance. A month after that, I had my first viral hit. Nine months after that I had an agent. All told, two-and-a-half years after making that resolution I had a book deal. I didn’t make that resolution ever thinking I would have an agent, never mind end up writing a book. I just knew I had to break the cycle of inward-facing darkness, outward-facing envy and jealousy, and general crabbiness about all my perceived the-universe-is-against-me injustices.

Turns out, writing is hard. I don’t happen to believe it’s “open a vein and bleed” hard (enough with that fucking quote already, Jesus.) But it’s personal and personal things are hard. Personal things you put out publicly are even harder. Personal things that the public can rate and comment on are the worst. But they can also be the best. They can also push you in an entirely new direction. They can humble you and they can surprise you. They can bring you back to a sense of excitement and a rollercoaster of emotion that most of us have long since left behind when it comes to our actual job-jobs (if we ever had real emotions about them at all.)

For 2016 and 2017 I had multiple New Year’s resolutions. I won’t bore you with them here but they were many and specific. But when it came to 2018 I had returned to just making one—survive launching my book. I had to learn how to launch a book with almost no guidance, I had to figure out how to wrestle with my anxiety in order to stand up in a room full of people and present my book—because that’s what a reading actually is. I had to write a ton of pieces all in service of promoting my book. Then the second half of the year became all about trying to take advantage of every opportunity that resulted from that process. I chased down just about every offer, pitched and pitched, wrote and wrote. I tried to develop new projects because that’s what I thought I should be doing.

Only last month did I realize I had to put the brakes on, much like I had almost four years ago. I had to question why I was doing what I was doing. I had to ask myself why I was desperately submitting to publications I didn’t even care enough about to read. I had to question if I was following a path I was genuinely interested in or if I was pitching publications solely because that’s what I thought A Real Writer would do. I had to ask myself how many hours I thought there were in a day. Because make no mistake, none of this writing supports my family. It wouldn’t even support me alone. How much free work can one person do in service of multiple undefined goals? [monocle emoji]

It’s incredibly hard to let go when credible and connected people reach out with offers to collaborate and you just can’t … figure it out. It makes you feel like a fucking loser when you talk to producers from The Atlantic and The Longest Shortest Time and editors from other publications and sites and podcasts but you just can't stick the landing. Because you don’t know how to pitch. You don’t know how to fashion a hook that’s just irresistible. Or you just don’t want to portray yourself as an expert on any level because you just are not. Or you don’t want to whore out your innermost life (or your kids’ lives for that matter) to fuel the clickety-click-viral-a-go-go machine. It’s hard to let all that go and get back to where you started—trying to write a new thing. See how it goes. And if it doesn’t work, then stop, step back, fix it, try again. Stop worrying about what everyone else is doing. Stop worrying about their books, their joke writing gigs, their longlisted-shortlisted-how-ya-doin’ listy-lists. Put the binoculars down and start breaking that dark cycle of hunger and slithering envy, again. Get back to, as I tell my kids when they’re “but does-ing” me about whether their sibling has or has not been charged with the same shitty chore I just gave them, “Stop worrying about what other people are or are not doing and just worry about yourself.”

Worrying about myself? Now that I know I can do.

Tomorrow I’ll be working on writing down my New Year’s resolutions. Some will be focused on returning to the intense level of self-care (CAN WE NOT COME UP WITH A BETTER PHRASE THAT MAKES ME SOUND LIKE LESS OF AN ASSHOLE THAN “SELF-CARE”) I had to adhere to in the lead-up to my book tour, a routine that while exhausting actually made me feel the calmest, healthiest, most secure, and happiest I have felt in, well, ever? Some resolutions will swim in more typical resolution waters—finances, parenting, work. But most will be about writing. They will be specific. They will involve shifting my focus away from being in react mode. From wanting to jump at every offer and opportunity and instead shut all that shit down and forge ahead with creating something from scratch, from my own brain. They will certainly involve focusing more on craft. I feel like I am conceptually stronger, deeper, and faster (dirty!) than I’ve ever been, but in execution I know I’m getting sloppy. But above all I will try to recognize when I am getting off track and ask myself, “Where did these binoculars come from? Why are these goddamn things back in my hands again?” and put them down, worry about myself, and get back to doing the work.

Not so much new, but a review of highlights and favorites from 2018:
• I wrote 14 pieces for McSweeney’s and my favorites are this one and this other one and this one and this one I took personally and this was my all-time favorite.
• Other favorites from The New Yorker, The New York Times, Medium, RAZED, and The Cut.
This interview with Vermont Public Radio that I will always think of as The Groundhog Day of Crying because not only did I cry during this interview but I cried listening to myself cry when the interview aired OH LORD.
This other interview with Vermont Public Radio that I enjoyed so very much and not just because Jane Lindholm said the word “effing” on air.
My first live TV interview ever (for CNN/HLN) and it was terrifying, I was medicated, also FYI I couldn’t see Carol Costello (only hear her in my earpiece) and turns out she decided to make statements instead of ask me questions HA HA HA OKAY GREAT HOW IS EVERYONE ENJOYING THAT DELAY (for some reason this link doesn’t work on Chrome but does w/Firefox or Safari).
• And my favorite print interview from my book tour that closes with probably the best piece of advice I’ve ever given.

• AUTISM: Not sure which I felt more, square to my heart, the beautiful portraits or this simple yet profound concept: “At the New York Transit Museum, the staff noticed that their most enthusiastic visitors were boys on the spectrum, a phenomenon seen at similar museums around the globe. So in 2010 it created a Subway Sleuths program for autistic children in second to fifth grades that uses their common interest to help them develop social skills. This summer it added a pilot program for high school students. ‘Our purpose is all about communication and building friendships,’ said Regina Asborno, the museum’s deputy director.” “For Autistic Boys, the Subway Is Actually Soothing” from The New York Times.
• VAGINAS: You heard me. I love this writer and I love this piece and I wish it existed when I was young and highly susceptible to pressure and bullshit. “Your Vagina Is Terrific (and Everyone Else’s Opinions Still Are Not)” from The New York Times.
• WESTERN MASS: It’s not often that you hear a whole lot about Western Massachusetts. Rejoice! So many LULZ for me, a former / not-in-recovery Western Mass resident: “The brick congregational church gave off so much sternness but also was so handsome and sturdy. So was the accompanying clock tower. I felt proud looking at them, which was so stupid because I had nothing to do with them. Then I was ashamed, partly for being proud of something I had nothing to do with and also for liking architecture like this which seems mostly about projecting one idea: we are white and we are assholes and also, behave.” “Welcome to Western Mass” from Popula.
• PRODUCTIVITY: Cobbling together my New Year’s resolutions has to start here: “Six Years With a Distraction-Free iPhone” from Medium. Goodbye two-and-a-half screens worth of apps including news, Facebook, Twitter, and deleted-apps-workaround Safari. You stay for now email and Instagram.
• HELL’S CLUB: The most satisfying mashup of all time. Just stick with it. Don’t start watching it and be that guy who’s all, “Yeah yeah I get it.” Tom Cruise staring at Tom Cruise! All the same nightclub lighting in allllll the movies! So damn enjoyable.
• COMEDY DORKFEST: So interesting, so deep into the weeds, I learned more in an hour than I probably learned all year: “The Difference Is When Laurie Kilmartin Performs on Conan, She Also Has Jokes in the Monologue” from Vulture.
• AMAZING ADVICE: I’ve had this tab open for a while, knowing this would be a good one. And goddamn it I just finished reading it after writing this whole entire newsletter and this piece is 1000% percent better than this dumb newsletter (sorry for not bringing that up earlier!) A must-read. “I’m Broke and Mostly Friendless and I’ve Wasted My Whole Life” from The Cut.

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