Monday, September 9, 2013

On Important Anniversaries and *the* Importance of Making Yourself Happy

Last Thursday, September 5 marked two important anniversaries: it was the two-year anniversary of Rookie Magazine, which I've had the honor of writing for since the beginning (in case you want to revisit it, here's my excited post about Rookie's launch) and the two-month anniversary of my arrival in Seattle.

Actually scratch that. It marked three important anniversaries. It was also the two-day anniversary of me feeling that happiest I've been since 2009.

I haven't been wholly and completely miserable since 2009. Some really wonderful things have happened. Like this:

 And this:

And even this:

But that last thing was kind of where the trouble began. About three weeks before Ballads was to be released, during a horrible week when I'm guessing but can't be bothered to check that Mercury was in retrograde because we were having the kind of killer heat wave that made me hate Chicago, my air conditioner was broken, and I was having so many problems with my home internet that I'm surprised I didn't bomb Comcast, my then-agent called to tell me to STOP EVERYTHING and promote Ballads because the publisher wasn't really doing anything for it and the print run and sell-through numbers were half of what they'd been for I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.

Since they are sorta like children, I don't think you are supposed to love one book more than another, but I did love Ballads more. It was the book I felt like I was born to write--or that I'd survived my teenage years to write. I'd poured so much of myself into it that the ulcer problems that I'd had at sixteen resurfaced and were worse than they'd ever been.

And with the way my agent was talking it sounded like that book had failed before it even hit stores because my publisher had already written it off. I don't know how much of that is true and how much of that was my emotional response. What I do know is that I did everything I could. I was actually already doing everything I could. I mean, if high school had majors, mine would have been "Punk Rock D.I.Y." I'd taken everything I knew to support both of my books. With Ballads, I'd even hired a publicist.

But, to this day, it's sold only a third of what I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone sold. I don't know why. It's the better book. Up until I finished The Grief Book in May, I was pretty sure it was always going to be the best thing I'd ever written. I think that it is always harder for second books, even when the publisher is giving them a big a push, and when the publisher isn't, well... But I don't want to play any sort of blame game. I still have nothing but love for my editor and the people I worked with at MTV Books. I honestly don't really know what happened. All I do know is this:

It was out of my control.

But it has taken me four long years to come to grips with that.

I'm a perfectionist. An overachiever. Even when I was a stoner fuck-up, I was a straight-A student (aside from gym which doesn't count toward your G.P.A., so um, it doesn't count). I couldn't shake the idea that I had failed somehow. I had this big dream of "making it" as a writer, but instead I was (barely) supporting myself on bartending income, which was not at all where I envisioned myself with my fancy MFA degree at the age of 30. I beat myself up for months, for years thinking I wasn't good enough, my writing wasn't good enough.

My writing suffered as a result. There was the whole saga of The Bartender Book. I spent two years on that book, going through paralyzing periods of writer's block, ignoring so many people's gentle advice to just let it go--advice that maybe I should have taken because it hasn't sold--because I felt like I needed to prove that I could finish a book. I thought things would get easier after that, but then there was The Modern Myth YA that I couldn't finished and my biggest crisis of faith about my writing, which came in the middle of writing The Grief Book.

Other Hard Things were happening too. I had friends who were going through Terrible Awful Things. I was still reeling from the death of my friend Marcel in 2008. My house kept flooding because the weather in Chicago was pretty much constantly wretched. My beloved cat, Sid, who'd been my best friend and companion since my awful junior year of high school got really sick and then last November, he passed away.

Out of his death came the decision to move, though. I felt like he was setting me free. Like he knew I wouldn't go anywhere with him sick  because it was too risky to be away from our trusted caregivers. But when we were saying goodbye, I felt like he was telling me to make myself happy.

My therapist definitely was. I went back to therapy in July of last year because I knew my depression was the worst it had been in fifteen years. I was thinking about cutting. I was even sometimes thinking about suicide. I felt very much like I had at sixteen, but I knew more. I knew I didn't want to hurt the people I loved and that I didn't want to keep hurting. I knew that I could help myself. So I did.

In therapy I quickly had a bunch of revelations, especially about control--what I could control, what I couldn't and why I was so obsessed with it (the still-lingering effects of the controlling/abusive relationship I was in as a teenager).

There are many things about my writing career that I can't control, namely who buys my books, meaning both publishers and then how many people buy them after they come out. I can only write the very best book I can, promote it in the ways I know how, and hope for the best. I can't base my happiness on this. So I needed to be proactive and do the things I knew would make me happy. That thing was moving to Seattle and starting fresh in a city that I love.

It was absolutely petrifying because it meant relinquishing a lot of control, which I wrote about in part two of my series on making the move for Ms. Fit Magazine here. I came out here without a job aside from the work I do for Rookie and Ms. Fit and an online teaching gig, which all together would pay maybe a month's worth of bills. I had savings and a credit card with a high limit. I have a very supportive mother. I had to trust that this would be enough and that finding my own happiness would be worth the gamble.

My friend Marcel wrote his Instructions for Life on a paper towel and after his death, another friend had them printed on paper towels for a bunch of us. I keep mine in a shadow box above my desk. This is his first instruction:

"Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk." My friend, the one who had the paper towels printed for us, reminded me of this before I set off. I insisted that the shadow box with the paper towel accompany us in the car, that it be the first thing in my new home because I believed that knowing me as well as he did, Marcel would know that for me, a person who has struggled with depression for most of her life, a greater achievement than publishing a book would be learning how to make myself happy. In fact, I'm sure if I'd been able to call or write him during my struggles in the past four years, he would have said something like that. I know that he would have been proud that I finally figured it out on my own.

 My third piece for Ms. Fit, which I hope will be published soon, was written a month after we arrived in Seattle. When I was mostly happy because,um, well, I live in a place where I regularly see views like these:


But I was also freaked because I still hadn't found a job and/or sold a book, which I thought would click right into place if this whole moving thing was meant to be.

Deep breaths.
Great Risk.
It'll be worth it.
You can do it.

Job hunting is a slow process, especially in this economy. But much like when my husband and I found the right apartment, when I found the right job, everything sped up and it happened fast. I started last Tuesday as the administrative assistant in the English Department of a local university, one that is only a 15 minute bus ride or a a half an hour walk from my house. It's a gorgeous campus in one of my favorite parts of the city. Yes, it's office work. Yes it's full-time. Yes, this is a huge change from the past four years or so of my life. But it is an English Department and the people I've met so far are inspiring and amazing. For the first time in a long time, I feel stable, secure, hopeful, happy. 

I know there will still be challenges, the biggest being how to fit writing into my life. I know for sure that I will keep writing for Rookie because that is writing that has brought me nothing but joy for the past two years. I've always written fiction, but I've been writing essays and rants and zines since high school and I take just as much pleasure from that. Also, the Rookie staff has become my best support network. Even though it is an online publication and we work from all over the world, we take good care of each other. It really is one of the best parts of my life.

Of the two projects I mentioned in my last blog, I'll probably focus on the essay collection/zine thing because Rookie has given me the most joy as of late and because it will be the easiest to piece together while I'm learning to juggle writing and a full-time job. However, The Grief Book is the best thing I've written. It's better than Ballads. It's what I survived my teens and twenties and early thirties to write. I believe in it with all of my heart and soul. I'm finally ready to set free all of the old guilt and pain and stress I've felt about my writing career for the past four years and I hope that will unlock the universe somehow and the right editor will read it and want it and you all will get to read it soon. That would definitely take my happiness to the next level, but right now I'm just happy being here, in my heart city with the love of my life, the support of incredible friends all over the place, and knowing that I've done some damn fine work for the coolest magazine on the planet and I've written books both published and unpublished that I'm very proud of.


TeriBrownwrites said...

Wonderful and honest and true. Great post.

Annika said...


Paradox said...

Always such an inspiration!!

Megan said...


I love your blog...well writing in general because it is so honest and raw. You are so inspiring to me personally, because you have helped me understand myself and to be myself regardless of what other people may think. Especially because I am an older fan, almost 30. I know you have been an inspiration to so many other people and I hope you realize that. I was watching Tavi's speech on youtube she did in Australia about being a fangirl and it's safe to say you have fangirls/boys out there too. I look forward to reading anything you write so never stop! xoxo

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thank you all so much <3 And Megan, Tavi's speech is amazing, and thank you so much, you totally made my day by saying what you did :)

Indigo said...

Thank you! I can't say it enough. I started out my writing journey with a partner. In the end three books in, I discovered they wouldn't be published. The partnership was a bad apple from the beginning and dissolving that tie, created problems. I now have three books to rewrite, recreate that are all me.
The last was my most promising.

Then I lost my working dog for the deaf to Luekemia...3 days after she was diagnosed. A year later I'm still struggling, she was my muse. Kind of the reason I started writing before the rotten partnership. (There is more to this story.)

It helps to know I'm not the only one life threw a punch at, the one who forgot to duck. (Hugs)Indigo

Audrey (holes In My brain) said...

There are so few books that I like more than Ballads of Suburbia, and I have all the faith that in a just world, I will be able to buy your Grief Book from a bookstore one day and add it to my list of favourites. I've followed your blog for a long time, and I'm so glad you're feeling happy :)

Kristi said...

Oh Stephanie, this was such a great post. you are an inspiration to writers and artists everywhere. thank you.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Hugs to you, Indigo. I'm so sorry about all the curve balls and especially the loss of your dog. Our animals are our family and my Sidney was my muse in a way too so I definitely understand. Good for you for picking yourself back up after all of this and I wish you the best with everything in the future!

Audrey, thank you for your sweet words about Ballads and the Grief Book. I hope to get it out there for you soon. And you have been such a loyal blog reader! I appreciate your support more than you know :)

Awww Kristi, thanks!!!