Day upon day I awaken both thrilled and exhausted, my nights all beset by the disquiet of ideas and anxiety. As it turns out, I am no better at sleeping soundly when I am fulfilled than when I am frustrated. This is the life I had conditioned myself to avoid, convinced as I was that I couldn’t handle being “busy” — at least not in the typical Western, capitalist tradition of busyness. And if that meant that I wouldn’t earn much — either in money or in accolades — I’d just have to learn to live with less.
To brace for this, I had spent years telling myself that I would be fine earning and living below my true ability because I was not particularly ambitious, nor was I roused each morning by an agitating pressure to impress others and outdo myself. I wanted contentment, not an interminable climb. I was working just enough, in positions that allowed for anonymity and flexibility. Any bouts of real striving were selective and intermittent.
But I suppose I’ve always known that was a lie. The Lie, really. The biggest self-betrayal is the one that persuades you to live unambitiously. I am neither minimalist nor mediocre. I have never been content with less than I’m capable of creating or earning or becoming; I am just averse to that creeping sense of mania I feel when I stretch forth my hand too far, grasping at things that will require unending restlessness and fierce self-competition if I ever hope to reach them.
I have only been producing radio for four and a half months, but it’s already quite clear that this was what I was avoiding. This job has confirmed both what I find terrifying and what I could be capable of. Just as writing — my lifelong calling (and I say that devoid of hyperbole or delusion of grandeur) — had become staid and dead-end for me, a Sisyphean cycle of essays and small checks sliding up and down an ever-mounting debt, I learned that I could do more. I learned that writing isn’t all I can do, that I’m not doomed to it. I learned that pursuing a life as a black woman who was raised lower-middle-class isn’t some sort of lifelong punishment. And I needn’t spend what’s left of my 30s wondering where I went wrong and what I should’ve studied that would’ve left to a less financially, creatively frustrated existence.
I just needed to allow myself full access to the expanse of my imagination. I needed to urge myself closer to its edges and dare to believe — as I had as a child — that invisible opportunities lay beyond it.
Right now I reside in one of those once-unseen provinces, one of those worlds I had yet to dream up a year ago. I go out every day and meet people and want things and make decisions that affect far more people than myself and my daughter. I manage a budget. I manage a project. I will myself to be a less timid, less ingratiating version of myself. I try to remain more kind and more generous than most jobs require us to be in this country where people are so often reduced to their bottomline. I try to be more responsible with long trail of paper, to treat the numbers on it as though they’re decipherable. I pretend until I don’t have to.
The effort is exhausting. But what I can tell you is that I have never been happier in my professional life. With the exception of last year, when I was a freelance essayist, I’ve never felt as creatively uncertain or emotionally depleted. And without exception, I’ve never been prouder of the work I’m doing.
I never know how I sound when I’m describing a life transition so I hope you’ll forgive me any slips into melodrama. I’ve just always found it difficult and lonely to work temporary, contractual jobs and much of my professional life has been comprised of that work. The older I get, the more isolated I feel leading a life where benefits and retirement planning seem a distant fever-dream, and I know a growing demographic of people, especially creatives, are experiencing this. And to have that compounded by the physical isolation freelancing can foster is especially difficult. I write things like this to commiserate and encourage and to compel those in this position to reconsider the parameters of their skill set. Apply for new sorts of work. Learn an unfamiliar form of storytelling. Deepen your curiosity, if need be, and overcome the prison of your own quickest, reactionary thoughts on the issue of the day. Grant yourself the luxury of time and investigation.
For as long as you can, awaken thrilled and fall asleep depleted.
- As the opening gif may’ve suggested, I’m super-into the Hamilton cast album as of last weekend. Since then, I’ve tried to maintain a modicum of chill about it, but it’s been hard. I’ve been bitten; I am smitten.
- We’re five episodes into Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City. You can listen to them all here. Please take a moment to rate and review us on iTunes; it really matters.
- The show was featured and I was interviewed on WAMU’s The Big Listen, a broadcast about podcasts.
- I’m recapping WGN’s Underground for Vulture.
- I’m still a once-a-week contributor to The Washington Post’s Act Four blog.
- That’s officially all I can handle. My plate is full to overflowing. My cup runneth over.