‘I’m Tired of Working So Hard for So Little.’
Hi there. This week, I’m kicking off “pre-orders” for paid subscriptions to The Reading. The experience you’re getting now is what you’ll continue to receive in a subscription after November 15: a Sunday letter, its audio format, and Wednesdays’ The Writing. As ever, Sunday’s letter will always be free.
The Reading is brought to you from my belief that art makes the fabric of our lives. Our biggest questions, hopes, and desires show up when we show up for our art. By writing letters, I want to show up for you. Each week, I spend 8 hours responding to a letter instead of some other job because I believe it’s hard to ask for help and even harder to find it. Your support will help this work exist.
There are many of you who read these letters without fail every week. This quiet offer is for you. From now until November 1, you can sign up for the earliest paid subscriptions to The Reading and get 15% off the year for a monthly or annual subscription.
Now, on with the work.
I’m writing to you out of a sense of exhaustion, and anger. A year and a half ago, I graduated from an MFA program. I worked precarious jobs and wrote before entering the MFA. Then I worked a series of part-time jobs throughout the program and after graduating, began working at a full-time corporate company. In April, I managed to finish my first manuscript—a collection of short stories. I was very proud of them in a way that I’m not often proud of or confident in in my own work. I began sending them out to literary agents. Half a year later, I’ve begun receiving the rejections. The main consensus from agents is, they wish I had a novel to sell the book with and want me to requery when I have a novel finished.
I don’t have a novel. I had one, but it’s changed so much, I’ve thrown out so much, and then when I started working full time, spending an hour or two every few days on it just didn’t work for me, which is why I switched my attention to short stories.
Also, I am tired. I didn’t realize how tired I was until I began hearing the rejections. I had been banking on possibly getting an agent and the short stories to open up more doors to me—whether to different fellowship opportunities, teaching jobs, something—to find an opportunity where I could be in the headspace to focus on the novel. I wanted to get an opportunity for me to finally find a space where I could spend MOST of my time thinking about my creative projects. I’m mostly excited about the story itself that I want to write, but I can see that it will take a lot of energy to finish, and will require a lot of focus. The thought of continuing to try to eke it out piece by piece while staying at the same, emotionally exhausting, draining job, and continuing this fight to find time and space for the next couple of years more, makes me feel even more exhausted.
On top of the exhaustion, I feel jealousy and anger, and these are the feelings that are causing me shame. I have cohort peers who graduated the same time I did. Some of them now have agents and book deals. They all wrote novels. A few of the ones with agents and book deals are also the ones who got fellowships or had independent wealth, and so they didn’t have to work while they were in the MFA.
I want to be happy for their successes—writing a book under any circumstances is no easy feat, and some of these people are my friends—but I feel a lot of envy. I wish I had the resources that they had. I wish I had had the time, the recognition by my institution, that someone had given me the space, money, and time so that I, too, could have a novel. I feel resentment at the people who had the privilege to not work for two or more years, and I keep reading into it a strong corollary between that and their current success. I feel angry that when I expressed my sadness at the agent rejections, some of my peers encouraged me, “Just finish your novel and they will be thrilled to sign you!” I know it’s meant as encouragement, but I feel like my situation, my exhaustion, how hard I’ve worked already, is not being recognized.
This has also re-awakened the old part of me that felt chastised I wasn’t deemed “worthy” of the “merit” fellowships at my MFA program, even though I actually really disliked my MFA program, and felt the curriculum, workshops, overall style and ethos, were stifling and nepotistic, and not reflective of my own personal ability or tastes. I also feel tired of the conservatism of publishing in the American market, in taste and in form. I also feel some embarrassment that after working for so many years, all I have to show is a collection of short stories. I feel like I should have more. And I also know that all these feelings are not helpful. Everyone’s situation is unique; it is what it is. But I still feel them.
I have loved your newsletter and so much of what you wrote in the past—about how class informs our work, how to stay true to your own sense of taste and necessity and urgency—and I’m hoping you can help me find some clarity past these emotions which feel like such a burden, and take up so much space in my head.
I’m reading your letter next to the window in my office. It’s been raining all day and what feels like all week, and I’m remembering the days when I would wake up early in the mornings, make coffee, and try to steal a couple hours before work to read or write a little. I’m remembering tearing myself away, late to work again, walking into storms like these, my body aching from not sleeping very well and cold wind smarting against my shins, all while feeling I had left something unfinished in my house.
While reading your letter, I thought about you and I thought about myself, alone, trying to keep believing and working toward a dream while remaining a viable employee at more than one “emotionally exhausting, draining job.” I thought about those days when I wanted more than anything to leave those offices and be free of them all—to be free of places where no one around me saw me as I saw myself.
T, even though we don’t know each other, I believe you and I see how you’ve worked yourself for your dreams. You worked and wrote before your MFA. You worked and wrote through your MFA. You’re working and writing now. Your caretakers didn’t come around and say, Why don’t we give you a break? Your institution didn’t look at your application and decide, Let’s give them a little break. Your job doesn’t see your writing as valuable, so they also won’t say It’s time for you to take a break. And these agents, the ones who might even love your writing, but don’t want the writing you’ve sent them, they didn’t say Hey, let’s get you your big break. You financially supported yourself, all by yourself, perhaps without more than an occasional grumble, because you believed that after finishing a manuscript, you’d be able to catch that break.
Throughout all these years of precarious jobs—perhaps jobs that barely afforded the rent, jobs that worked you to the bone, jobs that didn’t include health insurance—you not only wrote, but you finished a book of short stories you were proud of. That’s amazing and that’s huge. I don’t know what else you’ve gone through. I don’t know how hard it is for you to get to the page or even get out of bed, but I’m proud of you for getting this far, too—I’m proud of you in the way I wished someone else would have been proud of me.
There’s no one out there who told you how lonely it is to be the only person fighting in the name of your dreams. Past the “conservative” industry or the “nepotistic” program you went through is the glimmer of hope that someone, not just you, will recognize who you are: a good writer. A writer worth awards, fellowships, and residencies. A writer who has a good novel in them. A writer, who, if given the time and resources, would be worth the while of others.
You’re tired, T, of proving yourself to people who don’t recognize you. And not only tired, you’re angry. Really angry. Because you feel how unfair it is that your cohort peers had those resources and you had nothing. You feel in your bones the myth of the merit system; you feel an envy rising in you for wealth wrought by generations of genocide and oppression, and there seems to be no recourse for how to rail against it all: that system that benefits your peers who have it.
Beyond this anger and envy, you’re also really scared. You’re scared that all those years of no help, of waking up and wearing yourself down, were for nothing. You’re scared of what all those agents, institutions, and peers are saying when they don’t support you: you’ve failed and you’re nothing. Your writing is nothing. You will never make it and you will never know because no one wants to tell you how bad you really are.
When you wrote about how your friends responded to your sadness around your agent rejections, how they told you to just write the novel, you couldn’t hear their encouragement, which was basically “work harder!” You couldn’t hear how you’ve got more work on your plate. You wanted a break. You’ve needed a break. You needed someone else to appreciate how far you’ve come. You needed someone else to believe with you that your writing is as big as it feels to you on your best days. Perhaps you’re a worker, a survivor, and you’re strong, but even you need, in your darkest hour, someone to remind you that you’ve done enough. Someone to remind you that you will do more.
But not right now. As I read your letter, T, I felt how much you left unsaid. I felt the days that you’d diligently worked, pushed through to work, and I feel how much you can’t do it anymore. During all these years of being told “work harder!” by the people around you, but especially yourself, you pushed through the pain and the complaints. You worked not only to get to your dream: you worked to prove to yourself that you still believed in it.
When I was newly separated from my parents, I had suddenly lost a home. I responded, over the years, by buying lots of furniture. I was constantly working on my apartment, trying to make it as beautiful as possible. Eventually, I had to admit to myself I had too much furniture, but I didn’t want to give anything away. Even though I was keeping extra chairs in my closet, I didn’t want to give up those pieces that had accompanied me through grief; those pieces I had bought to make a home. I was scared to imagine one without them.
My therapist recently brought up “overcorrecting” to me. It’s the idea that in response to the traumas we’ve lived through, we compensate with practices to prevent them from happening again. I’m sure you’re already aware that meritocracy isn’t real, but in capitalism we’re emotionally and materially inured to the idea that if you work hard you’ll be recognized and receive a reward. You’ve worked without a witness. Your writing was your witness. The more you had, the more you could see what you’d gone through. I had lost a home, so I bought too much furniture. What is it that you’ve lost, so you work so much? Who is it that lost you?
Right now, you fantasize about having resources to comfortably write. You fantasize about being given time and recognition. You fantasize about finishing these short stories, getting an agent, then having not all of it, but something. You’re right that it isn’t fair. But it wouldn’t be right, too, for me to just leave you at that.
Right now, you charge your care to the uncertainty of strangers. Take some time away from your creative writing. Write, instead, what’s around you in your life. Who in your life has been there for you and helped you feel listened to? Reach out to them and thank them, and ask how they are. What have you done recently, for fun? Make a point to do something like this for yourself at least once a week (I used to take myself to museums). What time do you have outside of your job? When I couldn’t take off months to go on residencies like my writing peers, I “gave” myself weekend residencies and staycations to write. I rearranged my social calendar. Instead of going out or going away, I preserved my time for myself. It wasn’t much, but two days of complete concentration was better than an hour or two a day.
Walking away from your “productive” writing for a little while isn’t abandonment. It’s not enough to live through your writing, though it is a place where we see and love ourselves. You must free your time. You must give yourself opportunities to celebrate accomplishments as small as taking baths, cooking yourself a lavish meal, spending the evening on the phone or writing letters to friends who really see you. Your writing has seen how hard you’ve worked. Your writing loves you, and wants you to live. And when you’ve done right by your care, your writing will be waiting. It will be as if you’d never left.
Thank you so much for reading this newsletter. If you’d like to support this work, you can share this post, send me a letter, or subscribe to The Reading for yourself or someone else.
If you’d like a subscription but cannot afford it, you can respond to this email about your situation for a reduced-rate subscription.