The shame of hope

It's the stuff that dreams are made of

Howdy folks,

Ok, I’m busted. I skipped last week to finish an essay draft and then yesterday…well, I just couldn’t quite finish my thoughts in time. As I type this note on Monday morning, I’m still not sure I have. But done is better than perfect, right? I’ve been doing my best to embody this mindset recently, which does not come naturally to me and psychic demolition derby of procrastination versus perfection. Anyway.

To be sure, we’ve got our own issues over here, but the more I look back towards the States, the more distant I feel from it, from identifying in any meaningful way as an American. It feels about as useful as sending ‘thoughts and prayers,’ but this week I’m thinking of all the women I know who’ve made difficult, necessary, and deeply personal choices about their lives and their bodies because it was their human right to do so. I’m thinking about my friend who just made it out of New Orleans in time to avoid the worst of the storm. I’m thinking about whether people’s rejection of science and divorce from any sense of the greater good will block me from the chance to safely visit my friends and family for the first time in more than two years. I’m thinking about whether anyone can really go home again, and whether they’d even want to.

Sending love.

Carly Simon, NYC, 1970

For the past few months, I've had the privilege of working one-on-one with a writing coach. When I decided-slash-realized that I wanted-slash-needed to develop an idea I'd been working on into a book, a sort of memoir conceived in essays, I knew I couldn't go it alone. I found Emily through the fellowship program I'd participated in earlier this spring. She'd given a presentation on storytelling that seemed tailor-made for getting to the heart of what I’d been thinking about, the ideas I’d been turning over in my mind for years. I felt an immediate connection, knowing innately that she was the mentor who could help me bring my ideas to life. I emailed her a sort of pitch, not sure if she even worked with writers in the way I was asking, and she replied almost right away.

I call Emily as a coach, which she very much is, offering encouragement, holding me accountable for sending updates on my progress, and imposing a deadline for sharing drafts. Nothing motivates a writer like a deadline. But fundamentally, she is a producer. She focuses on finding the essence of a story, panning for the shiny bits as they tumble over slippery, mossy rocks, and selecting the most promising ones for polishing up. Thanks to our monthly conversations, I'm about to start on my third essay. I've already completed two full drafts, shitty first drafts, to be fair, but the second already somewhat less shitty than the first. I can feel myself getting better, my grasp on the plot getting tighter. The idea of pulling these pieces into a collection that becomes a book is starting to feel real.

At least the work is real. That at some point next year, there'll be twelve or more pieces in various states of shitty draft that might objectively be called a collection is real. And my dream of turning them into a book is real, inasmuch as dreams are real in the first place. But that's about as far as I can go. What happens after that, well, there are steps I can take: sending out queries, finding an agent who might see some potential in the manuscript, then sending out proposals to publishers, etc, etc. Everyone knows the odds of getting published, much less having any measurable success on the market are slim at best. And yet. Despite the grim prognosis of these earnest efforts, I persist, hoping not that I'll be the exception that proves the rule (well, ok, a little bit of that), but mostly hoping that my hope itself won't embarrass me.

Hope is the thing with feathers because it is flamboyant. It walks into any party like it's walking onto a yacht. Seeing hope displayed nakedly makes people clutch their pearls: How dare they!? Hope is uncouth. It flies in the face of the restraint we apply to manage our expectations. Hope is a loud-talker who declares, fuck yes I want to be a famous, successful writer, grinning ear-to-ear when everyone turns to shush them.

Hope is embarrassing. It's shameful to admit to such ridiculous, far-reaching, improbable dreams, especially when you're old enough to know better. And there's shame in hoping that against those dreadful odds, your dreams might actually come true. I mean, writing this newsletter every week is already pretty cringe-worthy. It's mortifying to even assume anyone might pay to read what I write. But every week, I write this letter, and thousands of other words, with the silly, vain hope in my heart that someday, somebody will.

During our first Zoom meeting, Emily asked me to tell her the story of how I’d arrived at my idea, and why I felt the need to write this particular story at this particular moment. She listened actively, nodding along as I unspooled my breathless, meandering stream of consciousness.

After processing my whole long-winded explanation, she said: "Ok, great. So where you were on the night before this huge awakening happened? Because that’s where your story really begins." This took me by surprise and I didn't have an immediate answer, but I also think that was kind of the point. But after thinking about it a lot, and now with a few drafts under my belt, I think I get it. The story I'm working on is a story about becoming who we are, which means that it is essentially a story about hope, and all of the ways it's lost and found as we move through our lives.

With every essay, I'm attempting to build a bridge between who I imagined I might be and who I am, and my starting point, thanks to Emily’s insight, is always the same. Where was I, literally and metaphorically, the night before hope swooped in, creating a scene? Hope is Andrew Scott dancing in silk pyjamas, a brazen suggestion of an alternate reality in which a whole new set of possibilities for living is revealed.

In the story I’m writing, hope is what advances the plot.

A Legend in My Own Time