When the World Changes Faster Than You Can Write About It
How to let an essay go.
After much digging around, I heard from an editor at The New Yorker who gave me the name and email of another editor there to whom I could submit my “Department of Returns” essay. Over the course of a few days I finished and polished the piece, then sent it on.
Headline: The Supreme Sadness of Being Sidelined Through Hot Vax Summer.
Dek: After sixteen months of lockdown, I was more excited for my favorite season than ever before. Then I contracted mononucleosis.
The editor kindly promised to read it. Then a day later, there was news of a CDC internal memo reporting that Delta and other variants were more of a threat than the agency had acknowledged publicly. It was followed by calls everywhere for a return to Covid protocols we’d recently been so excited to toss off. Masking. Contact tracing. Avoiding large gatherings, even outdoors. In effect, it put an end to everyone’s ability to move about carelessly and freely in the sunshine. At least among the rational and communty-minded, it was the end of “Hot Vax Summer.”
A minor casualty: My essay as I’d written it was no longer relevant. I thought about reframing it.
Then I realized things could quickly change again, within days of said reframing, and I’d be right back in this same spot. I came to the conclusion that I probably need to let this one go, at least for now. Who knows? Maybe it will be something I can rework down the line, in another context, or during some far-off anniversary of the pandmic. Right now, though, summer is spoiled for just about everyone. In light of this new reality, my very particular take—at least as I framed it in that essay—would no longer have the same value or impact.
Initially I was determined to rework it, but my foggy mono-brain slowed me down, and I think that’s for the best. That lag allowed me to realize that sometimes the world changes faster than you can write about it, and you just have to let your hopes for a piece go. (It also reminded me of one of the reasons that, as an editor of personal essays, I have avoided accepting “hot takes.”)
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It’s certainly not the first time this has happened to me. The time that stands out in my mind is when, at the end of 2007, I was working on a rant about how women’s magazines were still paying the same $2/word they’d been when I graduated from college twenty years before then, in 1987. When you tally up all the hours you ultimately have to put into pieces that go through so many hands, and which require lots of research and fact-checking and all kinds of documentation, $2/word has never been enough.
Then—before I even finished writing that piece—came the financial crash of 2008, after which one magazine I was writing for cut my rate from $2/word to $1/word. Other publications instituted even lower rates. It put the kibosh on my essay, and a serious damper on my ability to make a living as a freelance writer.
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So, for the moment, at least, I’m letting this one go. I’ve got a few others in the works, one of which will include an encapsulation of my Mono in the Time of Covid story, but I’ll probably leave it at that.