Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Emily Gould

The art of survival

with 2 comments

Cuisinart coffee maker

About a year ago, I switched from using a coffee press to a drip machine, mostly because I wanted to program it to brew a pot automatically when my daughter wakes me up at five in the morning. Six cups is just about enough to get me through the day, and I stage it the night before by measuring out five spoonfuls of a cheap supermarket brand—my current favorite is Folgers Black Silk—and one spoonful of coffee from the gourmet aisle. (I’ve found that it doesn’t really matter which one.) Why bother? Well, the drip machine uses more coffee than my old press did, so I started stretching the good beans with the grocery store stuff. I began by mixing them in equal proportions, but somewhat to my surprise, I found that a single scoop of Gevalia, for instance, noticeably improved the flavor of the whole: it’s just enough to lend it some of the oiliness and complexity that I miss in the Folgers, which tastes like it’s been sprayed with artificial coffee flavoring. The result is that I end up spending a little less for what, to my tastebuds, is the same experience. I don’t present this as a life hack, exactly: it’s possible that a more discriminating coffee drinker would object to the difference. But it’s a good example of the kind of persnickety frugality that I often notice in myself. When I strop my safety razor each morning so that the blade lasts for months, I know that I’m saving a matter of pennies, but I can’t seem to stop. And I do it because I’m a writer.

I got to thinking about this after reading Nick Paumgarten’s recent profile in The New Yorker of Peter Adeney, better known as Mr. Money Mustache, the blogger who famously saved enough pennies from his software engineering job to retire at the age of thirty. Adeney’s idea of retirement differs a little from the standard definition: he works a lot, mostly at repair jobs in his small town in Colorado, but only because he enjoys it. (It’s also worth mentioning that his blog generates revenues of about four hundred thousand dollars a year, although he claims to stick to an annual budget of twenty-four thousand.) As Paumgarten notes:

Retirement, in [Adeney’s] hands, is a slippery term. It doesn’t mean playing golf or sitting on the porch. It is merely the freedom to do what he wants when he wants. He likes some kinds of work, when they aren’t jobs—carpentry, home improvement, the blog—but he disdains the idea of spending another minute of his life in a cubicle, in order to afford a dryer, or a Tesla…The point, for him, is to live lean and free.

It’s hard to argue with this. But this sort of freedom demands an exhausting degree of attention to a myriad of thrifty details. Adeney describes himself as “kind of” a stoner, but he’s a meticulous, obsessive one who is unable to turn off his compulsion to squeeze every ounce of value out of everything—sometimes literally, as when he uses a woodworker’s vise to get the last drop of juice from a lime. “He is aware that he is a handful,” Paumgarten writes. “He imagines that his wife’s inner voice whispers, ‘Your relentless optimizations are a drain on my life energy.’”

Peter Adeney

But “relentless optimization” sounds about right, and I think everyone who tries to write for a living ends up in much the same situation. I’ve said here before that the idea of being a writer is so egregiously impractical on the macro level that it naturally enforces a relentless pragmatism and efficiency on the microscopic scale. This applies both to the act of writing itself, as I noted in my post yesterday on the imaginative poverty that every writer learns to work around, and to economic survival. The top line for most writers, even successful ones, is rarely very high, so it helps to focus on the bottom line: the simpler your life, the easier it is to weather the dry periods that all writers face. (Whenever I run the risk of forgetting this, I go back to read Emily Gould’s essay “How Much My Novel Cost Me,” a vivid reminder of the fine line between a six-figure book deal and going broke.) There’s nothing virtuous about this, and I’m aware that luck and timing plays a big part in the outcome—and in both directions. If nothing else, though, a relentless focus on paring away the inessential extends the window of opportunity in which good things can happen, or at least minimizes the factors that tend to close it. A meaningful break might only come along once every five or ten years, assuming that you’ve managed to stick it out, but even then, you can’t relax. So you keep stretching out your coffee with an eye to the day in which you’ll have to regroup yet again.

And the artistic and economic aspects go hand in hand. When I look back at my life, I’m struck by how I tried to become more conscientiously frugal at the exact same time that I was seriously puzzling out how to write a novel. This wasn’t a coincidence: each half sustained the other, and learning how to edit a manuscript became inseparable from the act of editing myself. I felt driven to develop, once and for all, a set of tools that would allow me to finish writing a book because my financial circumstances didn’t allow for inactivity: I could calculate exactly how much each wasted hour was costing me. And I drove myself to become more efficient and frugal in visible ways because the goal was right there before my eyes. It felt as if my life were at stake. Even when my situation is relatively stable, as it is now, I can’t quite give up those old habits, although their benefits are mostly psychological. I feel more comfortable with staking so much on my ability to provide a roof and an overcoat if I can point to all the tiny ways I’m being practical. And it’s a fair trade. You could say that the price of freedom—for individuals as well as nations—is eternal vigilance, but that understates how instinctive, and even liberating, such tactics can feel when directed toward spending each day however you think best, hour to hour, minute by minute. Adeney gets at part of it when he says: “I’ve become irrationally dedicated to rational living.” And the flip side, as every writer learns, is to become rationally dedicated to an irrational life.

Written by nevalalee

March 8, 2016 at 9:41 am

This is her youth

leave a comment »

Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson, and Michael Cera in This is Our Youth

On Saturday, my wife and I attended the revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. This is a little show with a big pedigree: Lonergan, of course, has gone on to become one of his generation’s leading dramatists, and this production is heading to Broadway later this year with a cast that includes Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin. It’s a nifty, shrewdly constructed play, a bittersweet three-hander leavened with just the right amount of slapstick and heart, with fine direction from Anna Shapiro, who between this and August: Osage County is now responsible for two of my favorite memories of the theater. Still, I need to be honest. We and our friends were there to see Tavi Gevinson, the crucial third member of the cast, and looking around the auditorium—which was small enough to practically reach out and touch the actors—I suspected that a lot of other audience members were there to see Tavi as well. And it helps that Jessica, her character, is like a version of Gevinson from an alternate universe, or a dream, which Kant says shows us the person we might have been if we’d had a different upbringing.

If you’re like most people these days, you’re either already fascinated by Tavi or unclear who she is, although I expect the latter will change very quickly. She started out as a preteen fashion blogger in our town of Oak Park, established a massive fanbase before she was in high school, and slowly built herself an empire in all media, including the online magazine Rookie, of which Gevinson is the creator, editor, and sole owner. Gevinson’s ideal audience is and ought to remain smart girls her own age, but among adults, she tends to inspire feelings both paternal and a little awed, as if she were something we’d conjured into existence. (Among other things, she has cited the Log Lady from Twin Peaks as a style icon, wore a replica of Danny’s sweater from The Shining to an appearance on The Colbert Report, and recently appeared in an animated short singing “Heart” by the Pet Shop Boys.) As a recent New York Times profile notes: “Grown-up luminaries have practically lined up to offer the mentorship she has shown little sign of needing.” And between Rookie, This is Our Youth, and performances in the likes of Enough Said and Parenthood, it’s hard to think of another eighteen-year-old whose potential seems more limitless.

Tavi Gevinson

Of course, whenever someone attracts this kind of attention at a young age, there’s always going to be a backlash, and Gevinson has been dealing with skeptics of various stripes since she was thirteen. It’s fair to say that if you’re a creative person of any gender, you tend to regard anyone younger and more successful than you with ambivalence, as you find yourself playing Margo Channing to a newcomer’s Eve Harrington. Even if you’re Emily Gould, say, who was recently the subject of a glowing Times piece on how little attention she wanted, you can’t help but look at Lena Dunham and bite your hand a little: “She turned her life into art…which is something I’m still trying to do. Watching her do it has been excruciating.” And it’s easy to imagine Lena Dunham—who in fact has been an important early player in Gevinson’s career—feeling the same way about Tavi, now that she’s old enough to start competing for the same parts and opportunities. And maybe she’d be right to be wary. You can’t condescend to Gevinson, who has already shown preternatural levels of intelligence and resourcefulness and a tough kernel of ambition, and now she’s ready to conquer the world, or at least New York, in the realization of everything every bright high schooler has ever wanted.

It’s instructive to watch her onstage next to more seasoned pros like Cera and Culkin, who are coming to This is Our Youth with a combined two decades of experience. Cera’s performance is slightly less realized—Culkin seems to have internalized the play down to his bones—but he can still draw on a deep bag of tricks, using his big, lanky body as an instrument for inspired physical comedy. Gevinson is relatively green, which shows, and if she glows in the part, it’s thanks to some combination of natural charisma and the resonance of her story with the role she plays. And all she needs is time to grow, although time can hold surprises of its own. In one of her most memorable lines, she notes how easy it is to feel alienated from yourself at an earlier stage of your life:

It’s like, when you find an old letter you wrote, that you don’t remember writing. And it’s got all these thoughts an opinions in it that you don’t remember having, and it’s written to somebody you don’t even remember having ever written a letter to.

As I watched, I wondered if Gevinson really believes this, or if they’re still only words, as perhaps they should be. When you’re in your teens, you find it unthinkable that you could ever hold a different set of values, and Tavi has received all the encouragement imaginable to remain true to what she cares about now. We’re all about to watch her grow up in public. And if I’m more than a little curious about what happens next, it’s because her story is our story, too.

Written by nevalalee

July 7, 2014 at 10:04 am

%d bloggers like this: