Hi, I’m Sara, and this is Tiny Revolutions, a weekly-ish dispatch of personal writing and links about becoming who you are. Reply anytime, I love to hear from you.
Hello, readers – the essay below is a response to a request I got in my recent call for things to write about:
“Advice/retrospection on living in your 20s. I’m a 20-something who just realized he knows nothing! Would love any sort of perspective on navigating a period of life that feels to me like being unmoored and pulverized all at once.”
In April 2001, I moved to New York. I was 24, with huge ambitions but deeply conflicted ideas of what I wanted to accomplish. In my heart of hearts I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t sure I was capable or talented enough, so I set my sights more broadly on being “successful.” In either case, as far as I knew, New York was the place to go for that.
I moved into a fifth-floor walk-up in the northern reaches of Chelsea with two sweet, fratty guys I knew from high school in Georgia. I bought a full-sized bed and a gilded mirror from the flea market in the way of decor. The night I moved in, I asked one of my roommates if it was safe to walk around alone at night – shouldn’t I have considered this before I moved there? – and he laughed and gave me a pocket-sized map. I got to know the city on foot. I gawked at everything. I was shocked at how outside of the pockets of glamour and opulence, mostly it just seemed dirty and cold and teeming with people who’d never be able to afford said glamour and opulence.
I came to New York because when I pictured my ideal life, I imagined something vaguely along the lines of Dorothy Parker in the ‘30s. I’d have a cool writer day job and a crew of clever, literary friends always waiting at the Algonquin Hotel with cold, perfect martinis and a light for my cigarette at the ready.
The problem with this dream, however, was that I wasn’t actually taking any steps to achieve it – an unfortunate fact I was acutely aware of. I wrote sporadically – journal entries, mostly, and an occasional short story or aborted stab at a novel – but I was nowhere near committed to it, certainly not to the degree that it would require to actually make progress. In fact, I was years away from being able to admit that I wanted to be a writer to anyone but myself.
Mostly I was just afraid, but what’s also relevant is that I had some genuinely ridiculous ideas of what a writer actually was. In my mind, writing was the province of the preternaturally talented and singularly driven. People who spent their evenings out partying with their Algonquin-type crew but still got up at 5:00 am to crank out a few thousand words. I was...not like that.
I was tremendously insecure! And nowhere near confident enough to commit definitively to a career where essentially you are forcing the innermost workings of your imagination upon the world. I wanted that career very badly; I just couldn’t believe it was possible.
I was so conflicted I could barely make a step in any direction; it was like my ambition had its foot on the gas, but my fear had its foot on the brake. I would choke out a decent sentence every now and then, and I was rarely found without a book in hand, but I couldn’t find a way to just go for it. So, little by little, I built my life tiptoeing around my dreams; never quite quashing them, but never giving them the attention they required either.
Instead, I figured I’d establish myself in Manhattan and see where being surrounded by all that artistic brilliance and inspiration took me. I had planned to work in book publishing to give me a push in the right direction, but I couldn’t figure out how I would afford to live on the crazy low salaries the industry was notorious for (I later discovered most entry level people in publishing were subsidized by their parents, but that’s another story). Unlike Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway and Vincent Van Gogh and many other successful artists I had read about, I wasn’t willing to live in squalor in pursuit of my dream, if for no other reason than that I lacked the audacity to think it would pay off.
Instead I took an administrative job in a very tall office building overlooking Central Park, where I answered phones, ran errands, and secured restaurant reservations for executives, with the understanding that if I did my job well, I would work my way up in the company. I wore cheap black office worker pants that didn’t fit especially well, stylish but disposable clothes from H&M and the other megastores on Fifth Avenue whose sales racks I would browse absent-mindedly after work. I made lovely, interesting friends, but unlike my ever-present Algonquin fantasy crew, they were tough to pin down. It was more like we had to make elaborate plans to get together on days when schedules/work/weather/bank accounts permitted, which meant that sometimes I’d go a week without a proper hang.
I was lonely a lot. I consoled myself with long walks through Manhattan, yoga classes at New York Sports Club, and bike rides along the Hudson. Even when I did manage to connect with my friends, I wasn’t so sure we were after the same things.
The longer I stayed in New York, the more convinced I became of my own mediocrity. Even though I’d been promoted out of my assistant position, I felt adrift. I was climbing a ladder, but it wasn’t the ladder I wanted to climb. After a while, I had to admit to myself that if this was the kind of life I was going to live – toiling away at a corporate job, being constantly reminded of all of the ways I wasn’t successful, pointedly NOT writing – then I might as well do it somewhere where I could afford to live more comfortably.
And so in 2005, I quit my job and packed up a yellow Penske rental truck to drive back to my parents’ house in Atlanta. Though it seemed like such a big deal to leave the city (and, maybe, my dreams of being a writer) behind, it was shockingly easy. A few months later, I moved to Los Angeles because, well, it just seemed fun. And it has been! 16 years later, I’m still here.
The period above occurred from when I was 24 to when I was 28. What strikes me now when I think about it is how all the ingredients of the life I wanted were in the picture:
Brilliant friends and conspirators
The key ingredient I was missing? My own belief in myself. I knew that I wanted a life that involved writing, but I didn’t believe it was possible. I was also way too attached to what I thought that should look like.
I had this strange idea that everyone else had things figured out in ways that I didn’t. Or that they had somehow been chosen or recognized by someone who had – a boss, an editor, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, a husband, wife, professor, whatever.
Unlike you, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but what’s more I had no idea that there was a lot more not to know! That some things are in fact unknowable. Like who you’ll meet or what will happen that is beyond your control, but that may nonetheless change your life entirely.
Faith wasn’t a concept I understood at that point. To me, it was something only weird religious people had. I just really didn’t get it. Which is unfortunate, because these days I believe that the only way to get through life is to have faith. That who you are and what you do matters. That you are a product of a large and mysterious universe, and that there is a place for you in it. And that, furthermore, you don’t have to do or be anything different from who you already are in order for that to be true.
So the trick, if you ask me, is just to love and accept yourself for exactly who you are. Move toward what is appealing to you, and not what you think is what you “should” do. Worry less about the outcomes of what you do and more about whether it is actually feeding you.
Ironically, I did become a writer in L.A. But only because it was here that I learned to just let myself write without worrying about what would result from it, and to align myself with other people who were in the same boat. I did it for curiosity, enjoyment, and pleasure, and, of course, because it was something I wanted to be good at. On a good day, I’d say that I am (though I still have a looooong way to go).
I came across this quote from the poet Audre Lorde recently that captures something really important: “If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
This world wants to funnel you into a whole lot of things, and if you’re not careful, you can find yourself in some dark alleys that are very hard to escape. I’ve certainly found myself in some of them, and it’s gnarly to get out. Many people never do.
But the longer I keep at this phenomenon called life, the more I can see that all the good things happen when you begin to choose yourself. When you take a hard look at who you are and what makes you tick and you decide that that person deserves to be honored.
That’s how you find mooring in a world that is constantly trying to unmoor you. That’s how you stay whole in a world that is constantly trying to pulverize you. You choose to get to know yourself and to be OK with who you are, and you choose it over and over again. It is not the easy way to live, because the reality is that most things worth doing are hard. That doesn’t change. But although you will never have control over what happens to you, if you stay true, you get the real prize: to live with integrity and the knowledge that you rose to the occasion.
On to a few things I found worth sharing this week.
“You are your own best thing.”
“It may be easy to trust the “good” things that happen. Not so much what we deem “bad.” Sacred trust starts here: comprehending that given all the causes and conditions that led up to it, this moment could not be any other way.”
From a great issue of Sebene Selassie’s newsletter about cultivating what she calls “sacred trust.”
Tuesday Night Work Sessions Continue!
Tuesday night is the night to move something forward – at 7:00 pm PT I host a coworking session on Zoom. Join a crew of silent sailors, and maybe, just maybe, come out a little bit farther along than you were before. RSVP here.
Thanks for reading, as always.
p.s. If you got something out of this, share it with someone else who would too.
p.p.s. Thanks to the crew at Compound Writing for providing feedback on an earlier draft of this newsletter. It helps to have smart editors!