I Don't Need Anyone's Goddamned Permission
(But I Still Desperately Want and Seek It)
Often I ask myself, “At what point will I finally stop seeking external permission for things I have a good hunch about…and also everything?” For now, the most accurate answer is, “Not at 55-and-a-half,” which is the age I turned last Friday, April 2nd.
Too many times I have lied to myself and others, publicly declaring myself liberated from the tyranny that is craving other people’s approval. Don’t fall for it the next time I announce this. (This goes for you, too, Me.) It’s complete bullshit. Or, at least, wishful thinking.
This lack of confidence in my own (frequently proven!) instincts is one of my biggest challenges as I work on my book right now. With nearly each choice I make—from which stories to tell and what meaning to make of them, to basic sentence construction and word choice—I find myself considering the various (often merciless) opinions of an imagined committee, to the point that it obliterates whatever instinct I had in the first place.
The Imaginary Committee is made up of:
• family members, current and former friends, and exes, some of whom might appear as characters in the story I’m telling, unless I can come up with a clever way to perfectly blur them or leave them out so they won’t feel hurt, or get too pissed off at me;
• people from my childhood who thought I was weird back then and probably think I’m even weirder now;
• people from earlier times in my adulthood who thought I was weird back then and probably think I’m even weirder now;
• serious writers I admire, whose talent I feel I can’t even begin to aspire to;
• every editor who has ever rejected me;
• the jaded cool kids of Internet High, who are all, “Ewwww, vulnerable and ernest writing!”—except, of course, when it’s their own, which they only very occasionally share. (And when they do, they act as if they invented vulnerable, ernest writing, and come valiantly to one anothers’ defenses, should anyone dare to point out their hypocrsy.)
Obviously I would do well to banish The Committee. Sometimes, for days or even weeks, I succeed at this, but then The Committee always finds its way back into my skull. It’s a shame because historically, without them, when I’ve had a genuine, strong instinct about something I’ve wanted to write or put together, I have almost always been right. When I pander to The Committee, not so much.
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My favorite example of a time I was successful with something after I stopped seeking permission and followed my instincts instead: when I put together Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY, an anthology originally released in 2013, which is being reissued tomorrow, April 6th, 2021, with seven new essays and a new cover. For eight years or so, every time I mentioned to an agent or editor my idea for a book of essays all inspired by Joan Didion’s iconic essay from her collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, they said, “Great idea, but you can’t do it.”* I wasn’t well known enough…I didn’t have enough connections to establishd writers…anthologies don’t make money… * These were the most common refrains. Finally, I took matters into my own hands and submitted a mini-proposal, unagented, to an editor at Seal Press. I was offered a deal—a teeny tiny deal, that left me with very little money to pay 27 writers. (I didn’t pay myself.) But writers—even some well-established, famous ones—were very kind and generous with me, and agreed to participate anyway.
The original edition was an instant hit. It led to the publication of a follow-up anthology, Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY, which became a New York Times bestseller. Weirdly, Goodbye to All That has never earned that distinction, depite outselling the follow-up week after week, and also in general. To wit: over 50,000 copies of Goodbye to All That have been sold, over the book’s lifetime, as compared to about 20,000 copies of Never Can Say Goodbye.
Of course, some of the cool kids of Internet High were jerks about the book, making jokes about the popularity and ubiquity of “the Goodbye to All That essay,” posting on social media that you only need one, the Didion, etc. I will have you know that some of those very same cool kids reached out to me when they learned I was working on a follow-up book, and asked to be included. That was incredibly validating.
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Even more validating: in the fall of 2019, Seal Press reached out and asked if I’d be willing to update the book for a reissue. Not just validating, but vindicating, especially when I recalled all those years when I let the naysayers keep me from making the original book. More than that, though, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to revisit the subject of leaving the city, which is a big subject in my life, and which became even more relevant a few months later, when the pandemic hit and something of a mass exodus began. It allowed me to take a book I was already proud of and make it stronger, in my humble opinion.
The updated edition features stellar brand new essays by: Leslie Jamison, Emily Raboteau, Danielle A. Jackson, Rosie Schaap, Carolita Johnson, Lisa Ko, and Ada Limón.
It also contains existing essays I love by: Elisa Albert, Chloe Caldwell, Emily Carter Roiphe, Meghan Daum, Marcy Dermansky, Hope Edelman, Lauren Elkin, Melissa Febos, Roxane Gay, Emily Gould, Ann Hood, Emily St. John Mandel, Liza Monroy, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Mira Ptacin, Rayhane Sanders, Rosie ! Schaap, Dani Shapiro, Janet Steen, Emma Straub, Cheryl Strayed, Eva Tenuto, and Rebecca Wolff. (Oh, and me. I have an essay in there, too!)
It’s pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. My (pretty reliable) instincts affirm this. Whether you have the original edition or don’t, I hope you’ll consider buying the reissue. Thanks in advance—and also many thanks to those of you who have pre-ordered. I really appreciate it. 💝
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I’ve got two online events coming up for the reissue. On Friday, April 9th, Isaac Fitzgerald will host an event with Books are Magic, featuring Leslie Jamison, Emily Raboteau, Lisa Ko, Rosie Schaap, and me. Sign up here.
And on Tuesday, April 13th, Ryan Chapman will host an event with Rough Draft Bar & Books, featuring Ada Limón, Danielle A. Jackson, Carolita Johnson, and me. Sign up here.
I hope you’ll join me for one or both!