WHITE BOARDS & tRICK MIRRORS

OCTOBER 12, 2020

This week's read: Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
I have been, literally, counting down the days in October.

Well, to be more accurate, the days until November 3rd. On the phones for the Biden campaign, it helps to know exactly how many days are left until the election, for the purpose of a symbolic ask: considering we have only 25 days until the election, would you consider a secure donation of $2,500?

I count the days on the corner of a dry erase board I hung above my desk, wiping away the obsolete digit with my fingerpad and scribbling the new number at the start of each shift. About a year after disposing of a huge aluminum whiteboard my former roommates had hung in the living room (to clear space for my favorite construction project: more shelves) I am trying to make dry erase boards my new secret weapon for meeting my robust weekly productivity goals.

So far it isn’t working out too well. I made 21 to-do’s for myself this week, and checked off three. As is the norm when I make a to-do list, the list is a mix of confidence-building softballs (“Pick up bridge pegs at Guitar Center”) and tortuously vague, awful-sounding life goals (Make a “Social Media Plan”).

The dry erase boards are double-edged swords. One one hand it is nice being able to list out my weekly to-dos in a physical space (i.e. not my phone) and on the other, I hate walking up to my laptop every morning and seeing an atlas of unsexy obligations that never quite represent what I really want to do at any given moment.

And, alas, figuring out what I really want to do is causing me tremendous anxiety.

My entire adult life I’ve placed enormous pressure on utilizing my time off to devote towards art and writing. Last week I wrote about how getting back to a somewhat predictable work schedule has allowed my free time to feel richer and more meaningful; now, I’m experiencing the ebb to that flow: when there’s no idea burning inside you, no distinct project to devote that time to, the infinity of small endeavors that could be that “next thing” can drown you.

The only creative activity I’ve been able to sustain with any consistency this week is writing, a welcome revelation. However, I’ve rediscovered an ancient, uncomfortable truth: writing is my companion to longing and confusion.

I have been writing mostly at night, after getting too high and before going to bed; after standing up from the couch and shaking the crumbs off, knowing that I can’t simply end my night with two straight episodes of King of the Hill. I sit down in my cotton-candy colored studio and just jot down how I feel — something I did regularly my last year of college, on and off when I lived in Portland, and not much since moving to New York in 2018. These last couple years have seen their share of late-night art-making, but missing that desperate quality of brutal, one-line aphorisms and affirmations hammered into a Google Doc.

Miraculously, I melted down those musings into a little poem the other night, what feels like my first in years. It’s raw, but here it is:
You learn, and forget, what happiness is.
You learn it so quickly it feels like a mistake.
When I finally put up that shelf above the cot in the studio,
That was happiness. I could do nothing all day
Knowing I could grasp those thin-enough paperbacks
And I could not before. Sometimes what feels like hours
Is hours. I have spent every hour of my life
To feel so awfully, and suddenly, this.
I have to teach myself, lifting the new brand of soap to my nose,
How easy it is to accept failure
And move on. There is always something else to be done.
An *exclusive* peek at my white boards and workspace!
As someone who has been paid to make art and wants to eventually turn my practice into a living, weeks like the one I’ve had are both frustrating and reaffirming. These jottings aren’t getting published anywhere except here. That poem likely won’t either, and that is fine. It is humbling to remember that being creative can ultimately be a means of survival.

And the best art is the refined product of that survival effort. As my Monday soured from a hungover morning to an afternoon of latent Craigslist-and-coffee-induced anxiety, Clarissa suggested we take a bike ride to a local bookstore. I felt panicky and breathless the whole ride there and back (which, in hindsight, may have been the result of massive dehydration) but managed to settle on a few books, including Trick Mirror, a collection of essays by Jia Tolentino. I paid full “new book” price, elated that I had actually found one of the titles I’d hastily scribbled in a Note on my phone before heading out the door.

I instantly recognized the anxiety Tolentino describes in her Introduction:
When I feel confused about something, I write about it until I turn into the person who shows up on paper: a person who is plausibly trustworthy, intuitive, and clear. It’s exactly this habit — or compulsion — that makes me suspect that I am fooling myself … Writing is either a way to shed my self-delusions or a way to develop them.
Late at night, hunkered down at my desk, I similarly do not know who my writing is for: the person I am, or the person I feel I should be.
The shelf above the cot in the studio.
It has been a week, and I have read every essay in Trick Mirror — obviously I enjoyed the book, and would recommend picking up a copy. More than that, though, reading her patient, ambitious arguments every morning, and every night in bed, and in fitful, sulky bursts of don’t-know-what-to-do throughout this week has helped me survive it — and by simply having a kindred voice in my head, I could summon the motivation to string a few thoughts together in a Google Doc whenever sleep seemed unappealing.

And this weekend I have had a couple decent days on the phones — that is, I’ve been able to call strangers for a couple hours straight without wanting to put my head through a window (though I know more days like that are yet to come). With a new week approaching and a new cast of numbers to jot on the corner of the whiteboard (on Wednesday there will be 20 days until the election) it will soon be time to reevaluate my life goals and represent them as a bubbled list on my white boards. Or maybe I won’t.

I’ll let you know how it goes!
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