Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
Let Them All Talk
And I mean all of them.
I’m entering the final month before my book is due, and while I’m freaked out in ways, I’m also having new kinds of fun. I’m making connections between stories and ideas that I hadn’t seen before, and it’s very satisfying to connect those dots. I couldn’t have done that earlier. I had to do a lot of thinking and drafting and throwing out drafts of pieces to get to here.
Part of what is freaking me out is what I already knew would freak me out, and that is worrying about my family’s reactions to my perspectives on things. I’m doing my best to make this as bloodless a memoir as possible. It’s an interesting experiment. I’ve come to believe it’s only fair to omit anything unnecessary about other people’s choices and behaviors, and focus on my own instead. Where ever possible, I leave in only as much as is necessary for context, and I blur identities to the extent that it’s possible.
But I can’t leave out my points of view, which in many cases do not jibe with those of many in my family, nor many of the people I grew up with. To begin with, most of them are not interested in memoir or personal essays, and they can’t understand why anyone would expose myself in the ways that I do. They are not my target audience, and they will not understand my book or why it exists, and it’s painful to be so misunderstood by the who raised you, and who were raised with you. Obviously this is at the root of why I’m writing a book about feeling like an outsider and weirdo, but also a big reason why writing it is difficult.
Even more challenging are the differences in our politics. I lean much farther left, politically, than most of them, and am much more critical of Judaism and Israel. This of course has come up a lot in the past week. There have been some pretty large reactions to my simply posting on Facebook a piece from the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voices for Peace renouncing Israel’s attacks on Sheikh Jarrah. It feels terrible to be at odds with my family, but it feels worse to be in any way aligned with oppression, ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism, etc. I’m standing my ground, but it’s excruciating. They are unhappy with me. They are talking about me, among themselves, and I have to just let them. It’s sometimes really hard to let people just have their feelings, and say what they will, while you have your completely opposite feelings.
This is all very old for me—the family stuff, and the Israel stuff. They are intertined. I’ve been pushing back against politics around Israel since I was fed a bunch of propaganda in Sunday school, in junior high. Our teacher was a high-strung guy in his 30s who would literally foam at the mouth (so gross) as he told us the over-simplified version of middle east history in which the Jews were the angelic good guys and the Palestinians were the demonic bad guys. I raised my hand often, questioning the simplicity of the narrative. It just didn’t add up for me. At one point he said to me, “Hey, do you define yourself as an American Jew, or a Jewish American?” I replied, “That’s a grammatical question. What does it have to do with any of this?”
I think what he was trying to ask was whether I was a good Jew, or a bad, self-hating Jew, which is what some people call you if you dare to be critical of Israel. This has been a big hurdle for me in terms of embracing Judaism. There’s also my considerable clergy-kid baggage, which basically makes it my job to have issues with my religion, and which also makes it so that I can’t see straight.
So, I have to skirt around this stuff pretty carefully as I write. One day, in a different book, I’ll say fuck it and go crazy. But now I feel too emotionally vulnerable for that.
In other news, earlier this week it was an honor to be quoted in Alicia Kennedy’s wonderful newsletter. (If you don’t subscribe, you should!) She had interviewed me, via email, asking:
How do you balance being creative with also being a business, and does having to do both feel like an ethical compromise to you?
This is something I think about often, and have throughout my career. Which is probably why I provided Alicia with way more of a response than she bargained for. She included some of what I wrote, but I thought I’d post my entire response here:
Since I began working as a writer in the late 80s, I’ve struggled to strike a balance between art and commerce, in a few different ways. *
The first struggle has been just managing to support myself while pursuing creative writing. I don’t come from money—I put myself through undergrad at a state school by working three part-time jobs—and I didn’t have the connections that come from going to fancy schools, which would have led me to the best job opportunities. I attempted to pursue an MFA, but I couldn’t afford it or balance it with a full-time job, and so I dropped out, twice. All this to say that I always knew I’d have to support my creative writing habit with money I earned some other way.
I’ve managed to build a career filled with creative-writing-adjacent work, including being a reporter, editor, and teacher. But it’s been a mixed blessing, because forever, the time and mental energy that adjacent work required has made it hard to have the time and focus to write personal pieces that I was getting paid little or no money for, or didn’t know if I would get paid for. When I’ve been buried with editing work, I’ve sometimes felt resentful that I’m doing that instead of my own writing. (I’ve occasionally tried jobs outside publishing and digital media, hoping it would free up my mind, but each time it led to a complete identity crisis and I came right back.) I’ve done a lot of work in the lit world for free, or for very little money, and still do from time to time. Actually, I’m currently writing my memoir for next to nothing, for a tiny but wonderful press.
Pausing all my other paying work these past few months to work on my memoir despite not having much of an advance, living off of a small cushion of savings, has been the biggest gamble I’ve ever taken on my own writing. I often wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night worrying whether that’s been a sound financial investment. I think, “I’m 55 and don’t have a lot of money! I need to save for my future!” And then, conversely, I think, “I’m 55! I have been playing the longest game, and if I don’t do this now, I never will!” Then I take an edible and try to fall back asleep.
The second struggle has been worrying about people perceiving me as “careerist” when I’ve tried to promote myself and my work. Until fairly recently it was considered gauche to retweet praise for your work, or to promote your work without adding a note of apology for doing so. Then we all agreed the world was coming to an end, and we might well all go for broke. As a woman born in the 60s, I’ve been conditioned to believe I’m not supposed to seem too ambitious or competitive. So I always feel bad about hustling. But I hold my nose and do it anyway, because I have to.
I think that hustling hard in 2013 and 2014 helped me make my NYC anthologies bestsellers. I was an absolute maniac, stopping into bookstores everywhere I went so that I could sign stock and put these gold stickers on Goodbye to All That indicating it had won an award. I planned and paid for my own fun events after my publishers no longer would. A man in publishing, who shall remain nameless, frequently teased me, publicly, at the time those books first came out, calling me a “hustler” on social media, on stage, and in his newsletter, like it was a bad thing. Meanwhile, I was writing for his website for free. I see a lot of men condemning women for promoting themselves and their work, and it makes me so angry, because they don’t know how much harder I have to work to get even a fraction of the opportunities or money they have. I’ve lost out in so many ways to male colleagues throughout my career. After reading a male colleague’s memoir last year, I put two and two together and figured out that the most horrible humiliation I ever experienced at work in the mid-90s, which made me leave the magazine world, came about because he either framed me for his errors, or let me take the fall for them. So fuck anyone who looks at me askance for doing what I have to do to survive or get ahead.
Right now I’m promoting the reissue of Goodbye to All That, which came out April 6th, and I hate doing it, partially because I just don’t enjoy self-promotion and hustling, but also because we’re in the midst of a pandemic, which makes it hard to sell books, or interact with people in person, which sells books. And then there’s the matter of feeling guilty as a white middle class lady trying to grab anyone’s attention or money when there are so many more important concerns that really need attention and money right now.
The third struggle has been feeling conflicted about profiting from stories that involve other people and their experiences. It’s nearly impossible to tell a story about yourself in which there are no other characters. But even if you blur people or fictionalize, you’re making money from other people’s choices and lived experiences. There’s a scene in Let Them All Talk in which Candace Bergen’s character asks Meryl Streep’s character for a percentage of the profits from the bestselling novel Streep’s character wrote, based on a character like Bergen’s, and it really made me stop and think about what’s ethically just when it comes to writing about other people and making a living from it.
I’ll sign off here. Shabbat shalom—to Jews, Palestinians, and everyone, everywhere.