On Second Thought, Maybe Not?
How is a person, and an artist of any kind, supposed to be in the world, anyway?
I don’t know man. I have some other things going on, so maybe that is coloring my perception of a lot of other experiences at the moment, but I’m feeling a little deflated right now. When they launched Notes last week on Substack, I was thrilled. It felt fun and fresh and interesting and undemanding. I tried out the Substack Chat feature for the first time for an impromptu Saturday write-along, and people seemed happy with it. I was finding new publications to read, and new writers to connect with. But then some of the old black-feathered demons came home to roost. I’ll never be a real writer, no matter what I do. No one is going to read my next book. I will never be successful. I will never make a living and be a normal person who buys jeans when they need new jeans and doesn’t agonize about the cost for weeks on end afterward. I will never be one of the cool kids, and the cools kids are running everything, and always will, and I am not invited to the party. Everyone thinks I’m stupid and untalented and annoying, and no one wants to be my friend. My actions will always be interpreted in the worst possible light, and no one takes me seriously.
You get the idea.
I wouldn’t say I’m spiraling. These thoughts were more like background radiation as I went about my business, got dressed, wrote my morning prompts, revised my book chapters, walked around Paris, ran errands, planned a big family visit, went to the doctor, rode the little tin can elevator up to my apartment on the fourth étage, cooked my dinner, and then accidentally knocked that dinner onto the floor. Do you see how I’m trying to prove, even here, that I am a real person? That I’m trying? Look at me, trying to work, walking around, moving my mouth and arms and legs, trying to get everything done that I’m supposed to get done and then failing spectacularly, as always. The dinner was not salvageable. The five second rule did not apply. I picked it up and put it back on the plate and then set the plate on the counter near the sink and stared at it. There was nothing left in the fridge to cook, and the will to go back out again had left me. I cleaned up the floor and table. I sat on the couch for a while, and decided to check Facebook, entirely from habit. I saw that someone from my hometown had gotten headshots made from an AI website. They looked pretty good. Maybe this is what I needed? I uploaded some selfies and waited for the results to come back. When they did, I looked—I kid you not—like a 65-year-old woman with a bright lipstick addiction who is coming to murder your entire family.
The other day, I was sent the finished copy of an audiobook project I contributed to last year, about Mary Oliver. I wasn’t paid or anything, and don’t get any royalties, but I just wanted to contribute and talk about a person who meant a lot to me, who was the only real in-person writing mentor I’ve ever had, and who I think is often misunderstood as an artist. It’s called Wild and Precious: A Celebration of Mary Oliver. It’s beautifully produced, and it was so nice to hear stories about Mary from other people who knew her in real life, but I also had this weird moment about how I myself was presented. Listen, I know this is probably so stupid, but as far as I can tell, I’m the only author they included in the project whose books or awards they didn’t name. It’s probably really dumb and conceited to even zero in on this. How arrogant of me, right? The project isn’t about me! Who cares! But I was already vulnerable. I had this little nagging thought that started to grow and grow: I’m not a real writer, they don’t think of me as a writer, I don’t count, I’m nothing, they think I’m a joke, I am not and never will be in the same league as the other writers they included, I’m just a delusional little hedgehog in a jacket who has only ever been published by accident.
The funny thing is, right as I was thinking this, I immediately heard Mary’s voice in my head, like, Summer, this is the world. The world is always going to be the world, and the world, as you already know, can be a very hard place to be.
The other day or the other week, I forget when exactly, I listened to an episode of This American Life as I walked around the neighborhood and did my shopping. In the segment, a young woman, a producer on the show, Valerie Kipnis, finds herself on a crowded New York City subway car with a man she knows from work. She thinks the man has seen her, but she isn’t sure. She doesn’t know if she should say hello or not. Maybe he doesn’t want to be bothered, like in general, or maybe even by her specifically. She thinks he’s going to get off the car at any moment, and it won’t matter, but then he doesn’t. The subway ride goes on, and on, and becomes a torture. She hides her face behind a magazine, held up so close that she can’t even read it. She doesn’t know what to do. It’s probably too late to say something now, or is it? She’s sweating. It’s definitely too late to say anything. The man is going to notice that she was there and didn’t say anything and think that there’s something wrong with her. It is one of the worst 40 minutes in her life.
Ira Glass is interviewing her about the encounter, and asks—is this somebody who you're scared of? No, she says, or sure, maybe, but only in a normal kind of way. He asks her, what does she mean? She tries to explain. The man on the subway was her boss. There’s a beat. Yes, it was him, it was Ira Glass.
He laughs, and tries to reassure her that he totally didn’t see her at all, but then he asks something personal: was she raised by people who didn't provide her with a lot of reassurance that they liked her?
I felt incredibly called out by that question, because I, too, tend to go through life with the assumption that my very existence is a kind of burden on the people around me. That the best favor I can do for anyone is to not exist, or to exist as little as I can. I should be shorter, smaller, quieter. I should shut up and go away. Ideally I should just never, ever talk to anyone, and not be there at all. Of course running into me on the subway would be annoying to someone I worked with. Obviously the friend I’m not emailing doesn’t really want to hear from me anyway.
I mean this and I don’t. Kipnis’s response was simple: yeah, duh. She’s a Soviet immigrant, and the feeling is cultural to her. For me, these feelings ebb and flow. Since I was about 19, I have been trying to give myself permission to take up space with my body and my words and my being. I stretch out my arms, and choose boots with heels on them even though I’m already 5’9”, and I write sentences for the explicit purpose of showing them to people. I take risks, I’m out there, I’m alive. But still these other assumptions and fears always grow back, like weeds. Women are plagued by this especially, I know. Not everyone is raised to feel like they belong in the spotlight, or even in the world, whether they grew up in Russia or simply the Former Soviet Republic of Complicated Humanity.
I was excited about Notes, but then I thought, oh great, another place where I can get it wrong, where I can feel like I don’t really belong in the lit world, either because I’m actually talentless and annoying and bad, or because I moved to Europe and am forever out of sync with everything, or because I’ve been awkward one too many times at literary parties, and these beautiful people just can’t stand me. If I send out Chat invites to the readers of this newsletter, I’ll just seem desperate and annoying and like I’m trying to over-promote this little bake sale of words that I run here and that I live on. Everyone will see how uncool I am, and then this little mirage of creative fulfillment and professional success will flicker out. Doom, doom, doom!
It’s fine. I’m fine. I am uncomfortable existing as a product. I am not a product, but it can be hard to separate out, and protect, in our current extremely online era, the part of ourselves that creates, from the part that has to put on a little outfit and go be a person and tell other people about the things we create or want to create, so that we can make money and buy ingredients to cook the dinners that end up getting knocked on the floor. The world of online professional relationships is so fucking confusing, and writers are often so vulnerable. It is so important for artists of all kinds to guard the parts of ourselves that make the art.
Anyway, here are a few of the selfies that I uploaded to the AI headshot generator, just so you can get an idea of what it had to work with:
I mean, I don’t know. I think this is sort of what my face looks like? I’m wearing mascara and lipstick, but no other makeup. They’re selfies, and selfies are always kind of dumb and weird, and I’m not very good at taking them, but I felt like it could maybe get an idea of what I looked like.
Here are some of the results:
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