Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Case of the Frustrated Writer

Another week means another chance for New York Magazine advice columnist, Polly, to offer some dumb advice. And, of course, to miss the point entirely. Nothing very surprising about that… because it’s what she does. And apparently she has an audience for it… which tells us that today’s millennial generation is in bigger trouble than we think.

The letter writer calls herself, “In My Way.” Apparently, she means that she is doing it her way, but Polly points out, correctly, that she is also getting in her own way. Thus, Polly concludes that the woman needs a pep talk filled with empty-headed bromides.

I would point out that a writer who uses a key phrase that she does not control does not seem to be a very capable writer.

The problem is simple: “In My Way” wants to be a writer or thinks that she is a writer. Her so-called writing career is going nowhere because, as she imagines, she is tormenting herself by comparing herself with other more successful writers. She seems to think that she can solve it all with therapy. Big mistake.

Now, it does not take too much perspicuity to see that the issue is not her mental state and emotional turmoil. The issue is: does she have the talent to be a writer? After all, she is providing us with a writing sample, one that-- in a flash of unconscious awareness-- opens with the phrase: “I feel stupid even writing this….” Perhaps somewhere she knows that she does not have the talent to be a writer and should be directing her energy elsewhere.

Without further ado, here is the letter:

I feel stupid even writing this because an integral part of my issue is that I never look to myself for answers, I always have to look to someone else, but here goes: I have crippling self-doubt that manifests itself in seething envy of others. I compare myself constantly to everyone and anyone else, and it causes me a lot of grief.

I’m trying to be a writer and am constantly comparing myself to writers who were hungry to break in at a younger age. Writers who are published now, struggling but excited, hip to the scene, comfortable, confident.

I am envious of smart people, people who went to grad school at a younger age (I am just starting to apply now and I feel old and insecure).

I am financially unstable and constantly compare myself to people who got out of school and pursued careers that now allow them to comfortably have things like nice apartments and furniture they care about and health insurance and yoga-studio memberships. I know these things will not fix it, but I can’t help but want the lives they represent.

I pursued, aggressively and stubbornly, a freelance position I no longer care for that is difficult to transition out of. I did it because it was hard to get in and I wanted to prove that I could. Well, I did. Now, I’m stuck and almost 30 and petrified that I won’t ever be able to recover the years I lost doing stupid things instead of focusing on something that could have brought me closer to where I wish I were now. I KNOW this is petty, I know this is silly, but it feels inescapable …

I feel like I made this massive mistake when I left undergrad and just started fucking around while other people were doing internships and building contacts and studying abroad.

I want to know how I can stop comparing myself to others and learn a little bit of self-love, patience, and respect for my journey.


In My Way

As for the salient question, one that you should now be able to answer. Does she have the talent to be a writer? For my part, I vote No. Admittedly, Polly is not a very good writer either, so perhaps there is still hope. But, in truth, wishing does not make it so, wishing to be a writer, tormenting yourself for your unrecognized talent… does not make you a writer.

Perhaps Polly is simply too discreet to tell this woman the truth. So, she offers up some drool saying that the real issue is enjoying the work. Trust me, if you have no talent and no one reads you, you are not going to be enjoying the work.

Here’s Polly’s everyday vapid mode:

All that matters is that you enjoy your work. So learn to enjoy it, right now, first and foremost. One day, fountains will dance to your song and it will make you sad. Or fountains will never dance to your song and thatwill make you sad. You are the author of this moment. You are the center of this day. Stop looking over your shoulder. No one knows anything. No one is ahead or behind. No one is better or worse. You hold all of the answers. Learn to look inside, to hear your heart, to treasure what it tells you, in all of its uneven, fearful, bewildered, bewitching glory. Learn to honor your bizarre, freakish, amazing gifts. Once you do this, you’ll also learn how to honor other people’s gifts instead of fearing and resenting them.

Give yourself some time. Give yourself some credit. Give yourself a break. Do it YOUR way. Celebrate your cutthroat soul, on the page and out in the world, and SAVOR THIS MOTHERFUCKING DAY.

So, the real question is whether Polly herself has any real talent. When you feel compelled to show off how cool you are by flinging obscenities at your readers, you probably lack confidence and have run out of things to say.


Dr. Irredeemable Dreg said...

The edgy chick-smut, in caps no less, is an obligatory twerk to establish one's pussyhat creds. Understandable in tbe contemporary context. At least she's not smearing herself with fake fecal matter or fingerpainting with menstrual effluvium.

The "dancing fountain" metaphor is another matter altogether... juvenile writing that the editorial staff of Tiger Beat would blue-pencil.

Sam L. said...

I would recommend In My Way go to, but I know not how to contact her, nor do I really want to.

Bud Greene said...

"It was a dark and stormy night..."

David said...


Dan Patterson said...


Anonymous said...

Polly clearly enjoys her work. Alas, she may be the only one who does.

Infidel1776 said...

The would-be Shakespeare (apologies for referring to a dead white cis het guy) writes of people who have "furniture they care about and health insurance and yoga-studio memberships." I never stopped to consider that people other than furniture makers actually care deeply about furniture. Huh.

Sam L. said...

Infidel1776, I recall reading that there's some question about how "cis het" old Willy was.

Anonymous said...

My problem with the said advice columnist is that she uses profanity to assert her superior credibility. Instead, it comes across as gratuitous and even attention-seeking (look at me, see how edgy I am). Is this the logic: If I swear at you, I'm worth listening to? The people who like this probably like the reality shows with all the bleeps.

Outside of a circle of close friends, such usage imposes unwelcome and usually unmerited intimacy. Surely its use in a publication is not celebrated by its editors.

autothreads said...

No, she's not a great writer. In just seven paragraphs, she uses the word "I" 30 times and in fact starts each paragraph with it. Besides the self-centeredness (she also uses 8 variations of "me" or "my"), it's poor writing style to repeat a word so many times, particularly at the start of paragraphs. It's a letter, not a proclamation.

I write professionally about cars, the automobile industry, and car culture. A colleague, Jack Baruth, is a superb writer, regardless of the topic. If I worried about being as good as Jack, I'd never write. Instead I concentrate on finding my own voice.

The advice that I would give to In My Way would be to start writing every day, that and read Strunk & White.

pbird said...

Autothreads, you are very kind, and even constructive. Maybe that would help.