Really feel something
It’s dreary in Iowa City today, but we were desperate for some rain, and I’m glad we got it. Spring here is glorious, and summer even more so—the sort of lush, humid, breezy kind that I love.
The semester is winding down, and holy wow what a few months it has been. I wrote last on the eve of GIRLHOOD’s publication day, and it was a really sweet day, not least because I woke up to this nonsense:
Apparently, this is a thing folks do out here in the Midwest (and other places?) but nowhere I’ve ever lived. It was a mortifying and adorable surprise orchestrated by my future wife.
Lots of cool things happened that week, including this wonderful review of Girlhood in the NYTBR, this one in The Atlantic, this one for NPR, and this one for The New Yorker by Katy Waldman, one of my favorite critics. It is an outrageous privilege to get to publish a book at all, and rarer still to have it reviewed thoughtfully or really bought by anyone. Social media has made these gifts appear much more common than they are, I think.
Something about publishing books, I’ve observed, is that the ceiling is pretty low on the good feelings that come from perceived external success of a book. (The parts that sting can sometimes last longer, but that’s for another letter.) That is, it feels good, for a bit, but the way that a piece of sheet cake from the grocery store feels good (I love grocery store sheet cake & incidentally had some today). That is, it’s ephemeral.
This has been the case with a lot of things I’ve longed for and when I experience that fleeting thrill, then its quick passage, I am always simultaneously relieved and disappointed. I don’t actually want publishing a book or getting a generous review to be the key to joy, it turns out, though a part of me is allured by concept of thresholds over which everything will be different. There are very few such thresholds in life, and even fewer that we can control, and I’m glad for that.
Here’s a partial list of what actually has brought me real joy and satisfaction during the time around my book’s publication:
-Knowing that I loved the very hard work of writing this book, and that I love my book, which changed me forever and gave me a map to future change.
-The 15-minute celebratory Zoom with a handful of closest friends who are family to me.
-Donika sleeping on the living room floor with me for two weeks while my sciatica laid me out right around my publication day, which made it feel, improbably, like a sleepover party instead of a nightmare.
-The work that my antiracism and meditation groups are doing together every other week.
-The letters from readers that I received after I published a version of an essay from GIRLHOOD in the New York Times Magazine called “Getting To No.” It’s about a concept that I call “empty consent,” an attempt to name the ordinary but profoundly affecting lifelong experience of consenting to forms of touch that I didn’t want. In the days after it ran, I heard from a shocking number of people who had had similar experiences and were relieved to see it named.
-The last class of the semester, in which I asked my students to all give each other “honey roasts” in which we went around and told each of them what we appreciated about them and their writing.
-The surge of love I felt for the woman who gave me my second vaccination shot.
-The quiet hours before sunrise during which I have been discovering my next writing project.
So, intimacy. Relationships. The ongoing incremental work that I passionately believe in. That’s where it’s at. That’s where I know I’ll really feel something that lasts. I say all of this not to undermine the momentousness of publishing a book, or my sincerely awestruck gratitude that I get to do this, but to share what has emerged as incontrovertibly true about the sources of meaning in my life. Because sometimes it’s possible for me to miss what’s in front of me because I’m looking ahead.
One more thing: When we first got together, Donika and I decided that we would do our best not to publish books in the same year. Someone had to be the anchor, right? Well, the best laid plans and all that, because THE RENUNCIATIONS, comes out today. But you know what? Publishing books in the same terrible year has been a surprising gift. Both of us know how to be both anchor and raft. That’s actually what we do all the time anyway.
We met in the first place because we loved each other’s work, and that continues to be true. Her book is a tremendous work of art. I’m so excited that the world gets to meet it today. You can catch her at Charis Books in a few hours with Nikky Finney for her launch. You can order the book at that link, or from Prairie Lights, our local bookstore, and if you request a personalized signature in the comment box she’ll write your name in it, too. (Same offer still stands for GIRLHOOD, too.)
That’s it from me, probably for a little while. Until then, I hope you read something good, and get some (vaccinated) hugs in this summer.
P.S. If you’ve read Girlhood and have a moment to leave a rating on Amazon or Goodreads (you don’t even have to write anything, just click the preferred number of stars), it would mean a lot to me. There were some issues with shipping and printing and the book was out of stock for a long while, which affected sales, and ratings help boost a book’s visibility on those platforms.