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2015111095125545Coraline’s been sleeping on her own lately, and this morning I sent Mia off to catch the bus to school and am now sitting in a quiet house, enjoying hot coffee for exactly 35 minutes and counting. I want to poke my head in to the bedroom to check on her, but I know it’ll wake her up. I get moments to myself at night, too, and end up pacing a little, ready to jump out of my seat if I hear her whimper. Her sleeping on her own has been one of those quiet moments of success that give me a chance to breathe without asking someone to help me do it.
Yesterday I did an interview for a radio station in Australia about the housecleaning essay Vox published back in July. The essay I’m turning into a book. I have to pinch myself often that this is my life. Yesterday was definitely not an exception, feeling a literal 15 minutes of fame. I had friends come over to listen to it, had a few beers, and ordered out for pizza. Coraline covered herself in spaghetti and we all patted our bellies full of food we didn’t have to cook ourselves.
It’s hard for me to celebrate, and it was especially hard for me to invite friends over to celebrate with me. I usually allow moments like this to pass. I believe that if I give them attention, I might jinx them in some way. If I poke my head in to check on them, recognizing they exist, they’ll vanish.
DSCN2175I’ve been going out on dates lately. I’m not totally sure I even want a boyfriend, and “relationship” has the same ick-factor of the word “moist” when I say it, but I thought it’d be good to try. I am happy single, but there are moments, during the holidays especially, where walking down a street alone in the midst of bundled up couples is too much to bear without feeling a little tug of sadness and wanting.
One of my dates asked about my writing, since I put in my online profile that I wrote for a living and it was something I’d dreamed of doing since I was ten. I told him I’d published some essays, and had kept a journal since I was a kid. He nodded in a “that’s nice” sort of way.
Later in the date he asked what I had going on that weekend and I told him about the Australian radio live interview. His jaw opened and his eyes got wide, and I went on to explain who I wrote for regularly and that I was preparing a book proposal for an agent who’d contacted me.
“I didn’t realize I was sitting across from a famous person!” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was saying that in a joking or sarcastic way or not.
I turned my head and said, “Yeah, I guess I’m a little famous.”
Being able to tell people about my job isn’t about that, though. For years I battled overcoming an inner voice in my head, the voice of my ex, who said I was worthless and that no one was ever going to love me. He said I was selfish for pursuing a college degree in writing, because I’d always be struggling and costing the tax payers money from being on government assistance.
Being able to tell people about my job is being able to say that I am successful. A professional, even, though most of my writing is done half-lidded and in pajama pants. I’m just at the start of my career, and it’s something I have to pinch myself over daily. I’ve had so many years, the last five especially, of showing my writing to people and being rejected, heavily edited, or watched them frown and tell me it needs some work. So I worked at it. It’s exciting to have things click, to find my voice and have the courage to use it, and get paid to write.
I almost threw up yesterday after the interview. It was only 15 minutes and I had no idea how many people had tuned in to listen, or just happened to be in a place on Monday morning in Australia where the radio was on that channel. My dog had horrifyingly barked through the middle and I fought through the distraction, but still felt awful. I had to stop. And breathe. And give myself that quiet moment of recognition. Not to relish, but to give credit: “You’ve worked hard to get here. Sit and enjoy it for a second.”
I guess I could say that about just about anything, but those moments are my favorites. Getting a chance to drink hot coffee in a quiet house ranks pretty high on the scale, too, though.
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Lately I’ve been writing a lot about how it feels to live in poverty. I’ve been published or featured seven times in the last week. I’m waiting on three more to go through edits, and another two to go live. On Tuesday, I’ll stand on a stage in front of a class at the college where I just graduated and give a talk about freelancing. I took that class two years ago.
DSCN1960But that’s not even the biggest full-circle moment. I’m working my way out of poverty by writing about my experiences in it. By opening myself up and taking a risk of admitting to others (namely internet trolls) that I’m still struggling enough to qualify for government assistance, I am getting to a place where I don’t need it anymore.
My first piece through the Economic Hardship Reporting Project was published yesterday. It’s the first time I’ve ever published something that said the words “I’m on food stamps.” Yesterday I wanted to curl onto my knees and heave sobs because of those four words appearing on a website. It was admitting how hard this has been while knowing the journey is almost over.
The piece was about the stigma involved in being on government assistance, or welfare, as most incorrectly call it. It’s about being compared to a wild animal receiving handouts on social media. It’s about feeling that judgment and hatred every time I pay for groceries, or even select items off the shelf.
I can honestly say I’ve never felt encouraged to get a college education as a single mother. I especially didn’t feel encouraged to pursue writing. I felt encouraged to work. I felt like I needed to work as many hours as I possibly could, no matter how low the pay, to get ahead. This is an idiotic system. Why wouldn’t low-income people be encouraged to educate themselves to earn higher wages? Not only was I going to school, though, I was taking out the maximum amount of student loans to pay for our meager fixed expenses like rent, insurance, internet, gas, phone, and utilities. I worked my way through college, and received grants and scholarships, but still ended at $50,000 in debt. Graduating meant failing my family at a chance to own a house.
DSCN1965Without the degree, though, I don’t think I would have stopped cleaning houses. I don’t think I would have thought myself on the same level as the people whose houses I cleaned. I don’t think I would have set my sights on top of the mountain, instead of being okay with remaining in the comfort of the trailhead at a job that required little skill or brain-power. Not thinking, not going to school, only working, was easy.
In a sense, I still feel the pull to get a regular job. I’ve written about this before. I think it’s only because writing is such a hobby to me and I feel like I’m not truly working. What is work, anyway? To a low-income person, it means being on your feet, asking people if you can get them anything, and performing customer service in the most direct way possible. Even if you’re working behind the scenes as a janitor, you still have customers to please.
But we’re all working in customer service. We’re all freelancers. Nobody (hopefully) forces us to work and we can leave anytime. And somebody, somewhere, appreciates the work we do, even if they don’t notice it.
I’m sitting in a café right now. I have a store-bought coffee sitting next to my laptop. I’m waiting for emails from editors, sending off essays, and fielding comments on my social media platforms. Last night I stayed up until 2 in order to meet a deadline. The work is constant, a mad dash, and a delicious hustle.
I just found out The Guardian’s running my op-ed tomorrow.
I think I deserve the night off.
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DSCN1996Netflix recently made classic episodes of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood available, and I’ve been watching them with the girls. Or, more correctly, I sit on the couch, my mouth gaped open a little, a tear welling in my eyelid and balancing until I wipe it away while the kids putter around and play with the dog.
Mr. Rogers was a sort of hero to me. He was the grandfather I’d longed for. The friend down the street I wanted to visit, the answer to my uncertainty and angst at four-years-old. I used to stand in front of our huge, wood-encased television that sat on the floor, waiting for him to wave good-bye, and I’d kiss the static of the screen, leaving marks for my mom to complain about having to wipe off.
Watching the episodes Netflix chose to release, especially the one with the crayon factory, was to sit as a child again, remembering my small frame and long hair, listening intently to the nice man telling me I mattered because I was me and nobody else was.
I spent the entire month of August hustling to get published. I wrote stories about rape, edited others about abortion, and made lists of how Louis CK and Roseanne molded me in to the parent I am. I submitted, pitched, and submitted more. My rejection pile increased more rapidly than my accepted one, but as of today I’m forthcoming through eight publications, and most of them are new to me and large platforms.
In the midst of all of this, I got accepted to be a writing fellow through the Center for Community Change. This position is the equivalent of running across the room, leaping, and landing in a feather bed.  My boss is an enthusiastic cheerleader of my writing, my story, and talks me up to editors at lunches after listening to me talk for a couple of hours about my struggles over the last decade. Most of all, it comes with a stipend that, with the child support I fought hard to get and receive, pays my bills. My days of constant writing, hustling, and pitching for 12-14 hours a day were done for the time being.
Granted, I have very modest bills. I don’t have a smartphone, cable, a car payment, or high-speed internet. I only fill my gas tank once a month. I have housing assistance and qualify for other programs like free breakfast and lunches for Mia. Federal poverty level is at $16.50 per person, per day, and I’m still under that mark, but not as far as I used to be.
Currently, I just have one piece that’s due next week, and I’m waiting for instructions on another one. I’m taking an online writing class, but other than that I’m not writing. I went from writing over 1,000 words a day to hardly any. I had to take a break from myself. I had to stop reliving those painful moments. I had to shut down and stop being so damn open and vulnerable. I’d wake up in the middle of the night sometimes in a panic, asking “Why am I sharing these things?!” I admit, I’m an avid social media user, and have kept a blog off and on for years, but in this age of publishing online and facing scrutiny through dreaded comment sections, I often felt gripping anxiety over it all, wanting to hide, or pretend my online self wasn’t really me.
DSCN2018Most of all, I had to stop reliving those painful moments, editing my memories to form them into a story arc. Writing about heartbreak was putting myself back in that body, sitting with myself on that porch late at night, feeling that loneliness and isolation again. This wasn’t feeling the warm fuzziness from Mr. Rogers. This was lying in dark rooms, alone and scared.
Instead I’ve been giving myself permission to not write, not work, and take some time to read books or go back and edit pieces I’m passionate about. I take Coraline and the dog for walks, and Bodhi never pulls while we wait for the baby to catch up, holding a leaf or stick she’s found.
It was my birthday on Sunday. I meant to write something about turning a year older, or the fact that it’s the anniversary of conceiving both of my daughters. I wanted to recognize how far we’ve come in the last year, but I don’t need a birthday to meditate on that. I do it almost daily.
The only thing I wanted to happen on that day was allowing our dog, Bodhi, the chance to run without fences, long leads, or a nervous me calling her back constantly. We drove out to the mountains and I opened the door to the truck, watched her hesitate a bit, then run back and forth with the greatest doggy-smile on her face.
We got back to the house, and I ran to the store for dinner stuff. Mia sang “Happy Birthday” to me over cupcakes I’d bought. That night, everything was quiet, and I realized the only adults I’d spoken to all day were two cashiers and a friend I’d run into outside the grocery store. Years ago, this would have sent me in to a spiral of despair and sadness, but I didn’t feel that in the slightest. When I think of my life, minus the tasks of caring for all of us, I feel nothing but contentment. A freedom from want. A happiness. Maybe that’s what growing up means: finding your inner Mr. Rogers. Finding a way to be comfortable with, appreciate and love me because I am me and no one else is.
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For a lifelong introvert, freelancing is not exactly a career of choice.
The last year has been one, long, continuous struggle to get people to notice me. I’d historically been an avid Facebook user, but only with people I’d quickly agree to have coffee with. Deciding to freelance meant building a platform. It meant blogging again, an act that took me nearly six months to do after being on hiatus for two years. It meant adding every acquaintance, every high school classmate, every person I’d sort-of-heard-of-maybe-even-seen-once-in-person as a Facebook friend. That was enough, for a while.

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My Bukowski “Bluebird” Tattoo

For most of the last three years since I’ve been submitting work for publication, I’ve given the equivalent of a public reading of my own work to maybe a few hundred people at a time or less. Instead of being on stage, I’m in the middle of a swarming stadium, and the ones listening are peppered throughout crowd. I longed to write something that people would stop and pay attention to.
“I just want to go viral for all the right reasons,” I said to a friend, a week before I did.
When it was all happening, and the bad comments were coming in and my blog had 60,000 hits, I ducked even harder into my little apartment. I read articles on going viral, because what constitutes as going viral anyway, and found this quote from Elyse Anders of Mofo Nation, who’d experienced her share of negativity. “But when it comes at you when something goes viral, you can’t make it go away that easily,” she said. “It’s like you took a wrong turn and all of a sudden you’re standing in the middle of a stadium and everyone is yelling horrible insults at you.” I’d gotten what I’d longed for. Everyone, all hundreds of thousands of them, had noticed me reading my essay. But some of them went to great lengths to call me a cockroach.
I’d had an agent contact me and put all of my time and energy into getting a first chapter of my book written, and decided to focus on scenes I rarely tell close friends. Eventually, I started eating regularly again. Well, if you consider frozen pizza to be “regular.” I got Mia back and everything was back to normal. But I was changed.
DSCN5133Sherman Alexie’s been known to call the feeling after reading his work in front of people a “Vulnerability Hangover.” When I’d told my neighbor how many people had clicked on my articles that weekend, she said, “That’s like, more people than the entire state of Montana!” My friends started calling me “the famous writer,” even though I repeatedly brushed it off.
With highs come the lows, and then a settling. What now?
For the last few weeks, I’ve taken a crash course in freelancing by way of a few Facebook groups and many late nights of reading how-to articles and publications I want to submit to. I have a list of editor emails open on my desk. I’ve made close to 20 pitches. I’ve sent out that first chapter for review and have started an ebook. I work every possible moment that I can, staying up until two in the morning most nights with a sleeping 14-month-old in my lap. My wine consumption has increased, as with the coffee, and visiting the deli at the hippie store down the block.
Being an essay writer and spending hours and days and weeks on writing about things where you are the main character is not especially fun. There are some nights that I get so sick of my own self I shut the laptop, then open it again a few minutes later with a sigh.
An essay going viral didn’t prove that I was a good writer. I still have a hard time believing I am a lot of the time. Sure, there are titles that people click on more than others, but I kept hearing from people that they’d started to read my article and couldn’t stop. They appreciated the honesty. They told me that again and again.
I had a piece go up on The Mid today. It was something I’d written like I am writing now—late at night, with a glass of wine, and while nursing a baby. In the past, I anticipated getting published by reading what I wrote obsessively, trying to calm my fear of telling the story. This time, I read it on the site the day it came out, all the way to the end in one go, without cringing at sentences that could have been said better. At the last sentence my first thought was, “Wow. That was good!” instead of wishing I could retract my submission like crumpling a paper and throwing it in the wastebasket.
Putting myself out there as a freelancer and book-writer-dare-I-say-author meant winging it in the worst way at first. Because I still wanted to be a writer that I wasn’t. I wanted to be the lyrical, poetic description, literary author.
But I’m not that kind of writer.
I don’t fluff. I don’t wring every last ounce of emotion out of sentences. I write, for the most part, like I speak. I tell stories. I have conversations. I found that voice a long time ago, but going viral gave me the courage to speak it clearly, despite the crowd.
And, it turns out, from the looks of the scraps of paper and notebooks with barely legible notes scrawled in them, I have a lot to say.
So, there’s that.
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