I’m not interested in cruises.
One of my versions of hell is being stuck with 4,000 people listening to muzak versions of Adele (or just Adele, if I’m being honest). The buffet culture doesn’t interest me, and being near large bodies of water gives me an oddly unmoored feeling, one of physical and emotional dizziness. I also love the time between Christmas and the new semester. I have since grad school when I discovered that it’s a good time to get a lot of work done. I have a whole stay-in-the-house winter wardrobe that’s quite lovely and nicely coordinated. So cruises. No. Cruises during winter break. No, no, no. The thing is I adore my father, and as we have grieved the loss of my mother these last months I could see that going on cruises not only makes him happy but also actually changes him physically. He walks more and more briskly when he returns from one, he smiles more. He wears the Batman shirt I bought him (and my mom and myself) one Christmas. So he asked me to go with him on a cruise. And I said yes.
Here’s the thing. We didn’t think it would actually happen.
We both set a lot of rules for it. We could only go when I was not teaching. He likes to go in April (when I am teaching). He would only go some other time of year if the cruise was to the Panama Canal. He knew it would never happen because of things like weather and schedules and when boats actually go to the Panama Canal. I was secretly relieved. To say yes something I didn’t particularly want to do and then to not have to do it. WINNING!
I went on a cruise.
During what would normally be my winter break, I packed up summer clothes, formal evening wear, and a really good pair of flip flops and got on a boat the size of Staten Island. Thankfully, Bill Matthew travels in style. He promised me a life of ease with very few decisions to make. “You won’t have to make you bed” (it’s sweet how he thinks I do that at home). “You can send your laundry out” (oh yeah). “You won’t have to cook or wash dishes” (sold!). “They’ll make eggs just the way you like” (that’s harder than you’d think). And, finally, “the juice is really freshly squeezed.” We had a spacious suite with a balcony large enough for deck chairs and a table for two. We could bypass most lines, and, most important to me, we could eat in dining rooms with table service the way god intended.
My dad understands what my writing work means to me. Whereas well-meaning friends kind of cringed when I said I was taking work with me on vacation, he understood. He even told me the best place to have a quiet breakfast, so I could write in the mornings. So I did. I also opted out of spending a small fortune for very slow, spotty internet and disconnected from social media.
My brain really, really needed that kind of break.
Listen, I respect people who take social media breaks. I get that. That’s not me. I enjoy the companionship of the chatter in the background as I write. I use Twitter breaks as my treat for a good work session, and tweeting helps me from killing people in the real world. A day or so each week I take a breather, but I rarely feel the need to take an actual break.
But, after such a busy fall where I talked more some weeks than I do all year, and where I found myself with the enviable but daunting challenge of talking to multiple editors and publishers about what I want to write next, I found myself being way too performative on Twitter, too aware that people were paying attention to me. I know that for some people that’s the whole point—to make a splash, be a presence, have a brand. I may or may not have those things, but to the degree that I do, they are a byproduct of my time on social media, not the goal.
I read once how Colson Whitehead thinks about Twitter: “I had a cat, the cat died, and now the stuff I used to say to the cat all day, I tweet.” I liked analogy so much that I too tweeted like I was talking to Whitehead’s dead cat.
Then the cat tweeted back.
It was cool and interesting at first, and then a bit unnerving, and then somewhere around November it started distracting me. I was too self-conscious on Twitter, felt I was trying too hard, and was seeking something (I’ve not bothered thinking how to name it) that messed with my brain’s writing rhythms.
I’ve come to know my brain works quite well, how it works at different times of day, what it really needs to produce, the importance of leaving it alone, trusting it to do its job while I do other things. I’ve compared it to a toddler—not just to be funny but because I can tell that sometimes “writer’s block” is really my brain wanting something it can’t articulate. I joked on Twitter about a frustrating morning where every medium I normally use to write (pencil and legal pad, lap top, large sticky notes) didn’t work until I figured out that this brain of my mine simply wanted a blank piece of paper. As soon as I gave it one, it got to work giving me new topics and questions for the abolitionist book. I had to draw my way to a new vision for the book. These days it works spatially and orally rather than through prose. That’s weird for me, but I’m going with it.
And it works best when it feels like no one is actually paying attention to it. That’s the thing I didn’t really understand before this break. When the cat talked back, I developed a sense of an “audience” and ideas about expectations (real or imagined, I don’t know). I started fretting about who might be reading my writing. I convinced myself no one was reading the blog, most people ignore my tweets, and that I was in a little corner just doing my thing, even with evidence that this is not quite true.
Especially about Twitter.
I am a pretty performative person, and social media rewards that. Plus I’ve been excited and felt honor bound to broadcast every little thing about Written/Unwritten because the contributors deserve attention and praise. They trusted me with their stories, put up with my revision requests, held tight to what they wanted to say and HOW they wanted to say it when I lost track of their agency, and when I was afraid the book would feel passé, one of them would invariably drop a note telling me to keep at it. I have gotten so much attention and praise because of the book, and it has given me a platform to say things to people who have the power to change how institutions work, but my chatter about it is more about making sure it does work for everyone, that it is useful, that the contributors’ time was well spent.
Beyond that goal, Twitter and my blogging are really just for me, for my own amusement and reflection. For me and an imaginary cat. I’ve been happy to do it in front of people (and I obviously want people to see what’s going on in my head and to read), but I found myself thinking too much about what other people might want to see and read. Was I saying something “new” and did it all really matter? My brain didn’t like that one bit, and writing that should have come easily wasn’t.
Worse, I couldn’t tell what was SUPPOSED to be hard (planning a new book), so I decided to disconnect bit by bit. I disconnected just enough to remember the real reason I blog is so that I don’t talk my friends to death, to think through how I am feeling about all kinds of things including my writing, and to keep my writing brain limber during reading and research phases. And I disconnected just enough to remember that Twitter only works for me to the degree that it keeps me company during the day.
It was a good break. Being in the middle of the ocean helped a lot. I worked on a few short things I’ll be sending out soon, I reread McPhee’s Draft No 4. I bought copies for Tressie and me and read it quickly in October, but reading it again, I’m reminded a bit of this post I wrote about how much I liked the the structure of The Skies Belongs to Me. I daydreamed about my Frankenstein class. I wrote in the mornings like I like to do. Very nice people brought me eggs cooked properly.
Don’t fret, dear reader/cat, I did plenty of nothing. I read trashy novels and realized that everything I know about regency culture I learned from narratives that include a lot of bosoms heaving above corsets and other throbbing bits. I read a very respectable novel I’m happy not to have a single opinion about. I spent more than an hour dressing for dinner every single night, twice in dresses I’ll happily put back in garment bags. I had massages (more than one). After trying to convince my dad I was hearing dinosaurs in Panama, we worked out a which crisis James Bond would solve while we went through the Panama Canal, and then, I kid you not, sat down to dinner with a man who looked so much like Gold Finger that I hummed the theme song at my dad all evening. I saw dolphins in the wild and flying fish. God bless this cruise for serving a proper tea every afternoon. I spent a lot of time on the balcony by myself, staring at the water and dealing with feeling unmoored.
I returned to a lot of emails including queries about what I want to write next. That feels good. In the midst of what I now recognize is a transition to a different relationship to what I write and for whom, kind and wise people have been helping see what’s possible. I’m feeling very lucky and grateful these days. Publishers and editors want to read what I have to say. What a great way to enter 2018.
So I’m back and am going to keep writing, blogging, and Tweeting like the cat isn’t actually paying attention to me.