Saturday, October 17, 2009

Who I Am

I know, I know. I haven't been blogging.

It's because I've been thinking. Ruminating. Churning.

When Ethan turned five last month, it also marked five years since I traded in my long career as a freelance journalist -- much of it writing about celebrities -- to be a stay-at-home mom. My last big professional undertaking was in 2004, helping the fabulous Carson Kressley write his first book. While in New York one frigid January weekend to have a trial work session with Carson, I had my first-ever hot flash. Green to the gills, I swigged ginger ale through our entire meeting. The two pink lines showed up that afternoon, and I was offered a book contract the next day. "Did you ever think I'd come in here and the fact that I had a book deal would be the second most important piece of news I had?" I asked my shrink, one eyebrow raised. When it rains, it pours and all that.

Ethan Alexander made his debut two weeks early, on September 2 of that year; the book, of which I was enormously proud, arrived in stores three weeks later. And Carson, being the world's best fairy goduncle (his term, not mine), sent us the tiniest, most adorable Gucci tuxedo loafers you've ever seen. (One foot is embroidered with "Hug," the other with "Me.") Alas, Ethan had precious few black tie events on his calendar as an infant; we mostly just trotted them out to visitors to ooh and ah over.

Anyway, like so many professional women before me, I made the decision to hit the pause button on my career right about then. Billions of words have already been devoted to the agony of making this choice, and I don't pretend to have anything insightful to add. Largely because I found the decision surprisingly easy and angst-free: after ten long years slogging it out in the freelance trenches, I was really ready to take a break. I'm well aware that I'm extremely lucky to have had this option, which isn't available to every family. I'm equally aware that as a freelancer, making the decision to quit my job was a lot less traumatic and complicated than it is for most women, since technically, I didn't actually have a job. The assumption was always that at some point down the road, I would just hop right back in. It's just like riding a bike, right?

Lately, I've been starting to wonder if that point (And yes, that's partly because Ethan's school tuition costs more than my college tuition did.)

Anyway, I think the seed may have been planted last January, at my semi-annual Miss America party, where I brought together a bunch of friends both old and new. There was some trading of celebrity gossip. My wonderful friend Heidi, who I met while our kids bonded over turtle time at My Gym, admitted she didn't know that I was such a pop culture junkie. My wonderful friend Maggie, who I've known since college, but haven't seen much of since we both became moms, was completely dumbfounded. "What Jen do you know if not the one that's a pop culture junkie?" she asked. She turned to me with mock horror. "Who are you?"

Good question. Lately, I think I may have become that person I always looked askance at: the one who couldn't identify every starlet on magazine covers, the one who couldn't give you the elevator pitch on every movie on a given marquee. I no longer read a daily newspaper or subscribe to EW. Yes, I'm still razor sharp on American Idol, but I confess I had no idea who Lady Gaga was when she made a guest appearance there. Bryan Cranston won an Emmy this year for Best Actor on a show that...I had never, ever heard of. Not once. I used to be a People magazine reporter, for God's sake. This will not stand. (And if this all seems ridiculously trivial to some of you, fear not: I know the world will not be substantially bettered if I am conversant with Lady Gaga. To me, it's just shorthand to indicate that I am clearly no longer at the top of my game, professionally speaking, having -- cue the schmaltzy cliche alert --traded Lady Gaga for Lady Topham Hatt. Silly as it might sound, knowing who Lady Gaga is was actually part of my job.)

Enter Serendipty, stage left.

A few weeks ago, my former Slate colleague Dahlia Lithwick had the brilliant idea to try to write a chick lit novel in under a month. She asked for input from readers on everything from character names to plot twists. And suddenly, it was like the floodgates opened. Though I haven't written a word of fiction since high school and have never once considered trying, I found myself mesmerized by Dahlia's exercise. As Dahlia asked questions to propel her story forward, I found answers almost effortlessly. Characters began to emerge from my head, etched out in painstaking detail. It was like all the experiences I've had as a reporter, meeting scores and scores of interesting...well, characters, began to brew. Why yes, I knew exactly what the heroine's husband's name would be, and came up with a back story for him on the spot. Actually, I did know what the publisher of a DC legal blog called Bar Czar would eat for lunch. I could hear that woman's voice and see the way she dressed for work. I knew what she smelled like, for God's sake. It was like I began to flex a muscle I wasn't quite aware I had. And it felt really good.

While following Dahlia's project, I learned of a brilliant program called NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, in which participants agree to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. And I'm having this crazy idea I should give it a whirl, though the idea seems alternately ludicrous, terrifying and exhilarating. Literally within a day or so of first hearing about Nanowrimo, one of my oldest friends randomly e-mailed me out of the blue (or maybe not) to ask if I was familiar with it. I took that as a sign.

Then, Tweet Deck randomly (or not) recommended I follow someone on Twitter. I clicked on the profile, only to learn that she was longtime freelance magazine writer -- a diehard pop culture junkie who's profiled scores of celebs -- who has become a bestselling novelist. I took that as a sign.

Randomly, (or not) I also noticed that an old college acquaintance I haven't thought about in 20 years had replied to a mutual friend's Facebook status. I looked her up, only to learn that she now runs a way cool business as what she calls a "writing/creativity/life coach." She helps creative people focus their energies and find their specific creative calling. I took that as a sign.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning writer I admire enormously then randomly (or not) sent me a message about my Twitter profile. "Hey, whoever you are: Your name and your bio are excellent," he wrote. There was that question again. Who am I? I took that as a sign.

But then the real sign came. My agent emailed with a potential ghostwriting project. I found myself getting genuinely excited at the idea of working, of flexing those dormant muscles again. The project didn't work out this time, but it's left me craving the chance to do something creative, though I confess I'm not sure what that should be. (The novel? I might just be talking smack.) I find myself unmistakably hungry for the storytelling process that was my lifesblood for so long, for the maddening but blissfully satisfying art of forging something beautiful with words. It's who I am.

A footnote:
To help answer the burning question of Who are you?, (or maybe, more precisely, to answer the question of Who were you?) I've created a new sidebar on my blog. Though until now, CTTK has largely been nothing but a personal forum to showcase how impossibly cute my kids are, I've linked to a small and probably somewhat haphazard sampling of some of the magazine work I used to do. In other words, I've resurrected my professional persona and it will now vie for attention in this space with those two little boys I adore beyond words. I'm hoping in the case of this particular fight, we can find a way for everybody to win.


  1. I think you should challenge yourself to write a book next month. I would certainly like to read it and I'm confident it would be great! P.s.- I still can't believe you were a pop culture junkie. Your "wonderful" friend Heidi:)

  2. Go for it!! I wish I had a creative bone in my body. I can occasionally write non-fiction that doesn't suck, but I'm envious of people who can write quality fiction. Let me envy you! I'm off to check out your links...and by the way, I have the exact same "Who am I??" angst every time I realize how out of touch I am with pop culture these days. I had to google Megan Fox one day to find out who the hell she is and why everyone is talking about her...this from the former video store clerk who used to get impatient with anyone who couldn't name every actor/director/film that came up in conversation. Sigh.

  3. Hey, Jen. My story is similar to yours: I quit my full-time job at USA Weekend to freelance when my kids were young, then started a novel once they got into middle school. Long story short, I got a good advance for my first novel, which came out in hardcover in 2008 and paperback this summer, and am now THIS close to finishing my second, which I'm optimistic about selling, even in this market. I hope you're doing NaNoWriMo, and even if you're not, I hope you're writing that novel. Best of luck.

  4. Our stories are so similar... I was a journalist before having kids (I even free-lanced for People once!) and after my first son was born, I quit my full-time job to occasionally free-lance. But man, did I miss writing. I turned to fiction a few years ago and just had my first novel published - call it chick lit or commercial women's fiction. So many of us struggle to figure this stuff out.. that's why I love it when people like you write about it and start discussions!