I started last year unemployed and in need of creative inspiration to help me keep going on in—what felt at the time—the deluded belief that I could still be an employable writer. I am forever a literary nerd who is turned on by words, so it makes sense that it’s in the words of people I admire that I would find solace.
Here are the words I wrote down in my journal that helped me grit through six months of funemployment:
1. “I wrote my own deliverance.”
I’ve been told by musically-smart friends that “Hurricane” is arguably one of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s weakest songs in his musical “Hamilton,” but I’m still moved by his bold declaration. Miranda as America’s first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton is recalling when Hamilton was lower than low: a soon-to-be orphan who has just survived a hurricane that has crushed his island home.
“When my prayers to God were met with indifference /
I picked up a pen /
I wrote my own deliverance”
Even as all the family he knows is dying or killing himself around him, even as everyone around him sees little value in him, Alexander Hamilton maintains the arrogance it takes to keep on living, to see yourself as something worth saving.
It works. Young Hamilton writes a poem about his suffering that is so good it inspired benefactors to pay for his education. (Ironically, Hamilton is remembering this moment of confidence right before it sours into hubris, and he self-destructs his personal life, but we all are large, we contain multitudes!)
When I felt outmatched for a project I wanted to do, this is the kind of confidence I would remind myself to channel.
2. “I’m having lunch with my son.”
“I went to go see [the late journalist David Carr] in late January 2015 for lunch at the Times, during a workday. People were coming up to him in the lunchroom, and he just shooed them away, telling them, ‘I’m having lunch with my son.’ I was having a rough time with something at the time and he just kept saying, ‘I’m not worried about you. I’m not worried about you. You’ll be fine.’ We went downstairs afterwards, and I remember it was raining. He lit a cigarette, and we talked for a few more minutes. Then he hugged me, told me he loved me and went back inside. That was the last time I ever saw him. He just worked so hard, and yet, helping and mentoring me always seemed just as important as anything else he had to do.”
—Sridhar Pappu, journalist, former intern at Washington City Paper on being mentored by David Carr
This is the mentorship story I think about now that I’m employed and am in a position where I can give back the way people did for me. My “I’m having lunch with my son” moment happened shortly after I was laid off. I reached out to a successful mentor figure who I had only met a few times. It had been over a year since I last talked to him. I expected him to write me a short It Gets Better Kid email, because that’s what many others did when I told them what had happened. Instead, he did much more. He reserved us a table at a restaurant where we talked for hours. In between bites of delicious food, he listened to all my worries and earnestness and, most importantly, he took me seriously, more seriously than many of my previous bosses had. The next day, he CC:d me on emails to editors he knew, calling me a “talented editor” who they should meet. At that point, weeks of job rejections were eroding my self-esteem, seeing him vouch for me and call me a talented journalist helped me believe that I was.
I still think about that kindness. Someday, I promise I will return the favor. When others come to our table, I’ll shoo them away —“I’m having lunch with my son.”
3. “There is a supreme moment of destiny calling on your life.”
“There is a supreme moment of destiny calling on your life. Your job is to feel that, to hear that, to know that. And sometimes when you’re not listening, you get taken off track. You get in the wrong marriage, the wrong relationship, you take the wrong job, but it’s all leading to the same path. There are no wrong paths.” —Oprah Winfrey to Stanford Graduate School of Business students
I watched this video many times in 2017. I get emotional from pull quotes and proverbs on Pinterest, so any life advice from a master orator like Oprah is going to floor me. She’s so excellent at seeing the divine in the mundane. When I got my nth job rejection letter, I needed to hear Oprah tell me how to make a career story out of failure, and she did. “I have a supreme moment of destiny calling on my life!” was my mantra as I wrote demoralizing follow-up emails to interviewers who were ignoring my calls. It reminded me to play the long game and take the risk of betting on myself.
4. “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive.”
The fact that I have a tumblr tag dedicated to earnest quotes would probably have embarrassed me prior to 2017, but after a year of professional setbacks and a year in which a racist, coward, liar was sworn into presidential power, I feel no shame in saying that I needed visible written reminders on how I could keep going.
The one I keep returning to comes from James Baldwin. If you want to hear it spoken in with the weight of Baldwin’s voice, you can watch it here.
Baldwin taught me that survival in America cannot be an academic matter. You cannot just rely on academic theories of social justice, you have to live through it. When asked to explain the future of America and the future black Americans within it, he said that this knowledge forces him to remain hopeful. “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.”
It’s a lesson that guides why I am a skeptic who is purposefully choosing not to become a cynic. I still don’t believe in benevolent authorities but I do believe in my chosen people and the power of collective action.
So I will keep betraying myself to hope, because survival cannot be done alone. I must keep my unguarded side open to the risk and possibility of connection.
5. “I still believe in the changing the world through words”
During my first months of funemployment, I made the mistake of thinking that curating cheer was optimism. I was curating relentless cheeriness to potential employers (I…love…freelancing!), to worried family members (I love this free time!), and to friends I didn’t want to scare off (I’m a freelancer!). 2017 became the year in learning to overcome that impulse, let my face relax and be vulnerable. Being unemployed got much better when I realized it was okay to openly talk about how terrible it was.
Everytime I reached out honestly as myself —without shame of my self-doubt, without fear of vulnerability— it turned out to be the better move in writing and in life. I’ve learned from the best.
My college thesis advisor Dorothy Wang, a teacher who had the conviction to believe in my worth as a writer long before anyone else did, is the person who taught me to stand up for my ideas, especially if that meant you were going up against your own peers and superiors. When my career was adrift, she reached out and wrote me a note of encouragement that I still keep under the Baldwin and “Hamilton” quotes I tack on my bedroom wall. It helps to keep all of their wisdom written down within eyesight.
“I still believe in changing the world through words,” she told me. I still do too.