I spent yesterday going through a giant stack of unanswered story submissions stretching back to a date I will not make public. Sometimes my job feels less like an “editor,” and more like a professional reader of email. There are just so many people in the world, and it turns out a good percentage have my work address. Recently, I wrote a story about an email that came to me out of the blue from someone who would eventually become quite famous, at least among the media elite eggheads who fill my periphery. Here is that essay.
I am standing at the desk of an immigration officer at London’s Heathrow airport. The man flips through my passport.
“And what is your business here?” he asks, not looking up.
“I’m a writer,” I say.
It took a while to put that down on official forms. I usually put editor, and then sometimes I put journalist. To says you are a “writer” still feels like too much of a brag, like you are daring the world to call your bluff.
The man looks up. “A writer.” He says the word with a bit of music. “And what have you written which brings you to our fair shores?”
“I wrote a memoir, and it’s being published in the UK, so I’m coming here to meet the publisher.”
This grabs the attention of the middle-aged woman with glasses who has been shuffling through paperwork beside him. “A memoir, eh?” she says, looking me up and down. “But you’re so little.” I think she means young, but then again, I have been working out.
I explain that it’s a book about my troubled relationship with drinking, and more generally, about women’s relationship to alcohol. “Oh that’ll be good over here,” says the guy, and the woman beside him nods. “No shortage of women drinking,” she says, rolling her eyes.
“I have an idea for your next book,” says the guy, putting aside the passport now and leaning in, “and I hesitate to bring this up, because I don’t want you to go through another ordeal, but then again, you’re a writer, which means you enjoy unusual experience. But you know what would be a good subject for your second book? Women who have total breakdowns after the end of a relationship.”
I tell him I have some field experience with that one.
“Depression,” he says, his eyes going wide. “A real problem with depression here.”
“The heavy drinking is related to that,” I say. “It feels like it helps, until it doesn’t.”
He tells me how England has changed. It’s a pressure culture now, one defined by work and accomplishment. Gone are the Sundays at church, lazing around with the family. People can’t figure out how to relax. They’re estranged and isolated. Over in mainland Europe, he explains, you can still find that slow unspooling of the day. But in London, people are always going. Shopping, texting, rushing to work.
“Sounds like a toxic American export,” I tell him.
He nods. “Everything toxic from America drifts over here eventually,” he says, “and I wish we could just shove it back.”
The world may be rushed and too anonymous, but you can still find connection in the most unlikely places. He stamps my passport, and the two of them bid me farewell and best of luck with my book. And I move on to the baggage carousel, and into a city I’ve never been.
When I was 10 and 11, my next-door-neighbor and I used to talk on the phone at night. She and I were 50 yards away from one another, but confined to our own rooms, and so we would tie up the line telling each other fantasies about John Taylor from Duran Duran — how we met him after a concert, how he fell in love with us — which strikes me now as an early form of fan fiction. I was always writing stories about the pretty boys in my teen magazines, long after my neighbor moved to another school district and we lost touch. Judd Nelson, River Phoenix, Johnny Depp. I will always remember those years with great fondness, and a twinge of regret. I’m not sad that I lived in such a fantasy world — but I’m a little sad for how long it took me to stop. Let me explain.
1. Tuscan Red
The first thing I can tell you about the PR people for the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie is that they are very, very serious about spelling out the title correctly. Twice, in a hurry, I typed up “50 Shades” and twice — very politely, by the same person — I was informed that it is “Fifty” not “50,” and it is “Grey” not “Gray.” As someone who has spent a lifetime explaining that it is Sara-with-an-h, and H-e-p-o-l-a, I sympathize with their uphill climb.
2. Prussian Blue
I sat down at the movie’s packed screening between two groups. The woman to my left appeared drunk, and was talking in that overly loud way that drunk people do. Her male companion laughed at quite a few of the sex scenes, and kept looking over at her, like: This is funny, right?
I’m not sure what possessed me to volunteer myself to review “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but I did. And I’m not taking it back.
In October, I loaded up my red Honda and drove out west for two months. A tent, a Coleman stove, a guitar, and zip-up high-heel boots. I wanted to soak up both city and country, the spectacular hush of a canyon in the pre-dawn, and the gaudy 10pm bustle of Las Vegas. I had every intention of blogging this trip. I even had a first entry, which began:
Perhaps every road trip begins with a fantasy.
But I blogged nothing. Weeks went by: Austin turned to West Texas and then New Mexico, and I had this strange urge — or journalistic curiosity, or perverse longing — to see what might happen if I did not share a word. If I kept the whole experience to myself.
So much of life is lived online. We all know this — what a performance our existence can be. The Facebook status update meant to elicit clicks of admiration. The Instagram feed of artsy angles and flattering snapshots. Sometimes, I go to Twitter, and watch the river of article links from better-read friends, and think about how much in the world I will never know. And I have not been the first to wonder: What happens if I just opt out? I was becoming more private in real life. As the publication date of my memoir grew closer, I felt an uncharacteristic urge to retreat. Perhaps it was some attempt at equilibrium. The more I shared about myself professionally, the less I wanted to in real life.
I had blogged a road trip once, at 27, and I still thought about that time like an ex-boyfriend I could never quite get over. The astonishing freedom. Throughout the spring — as I struggled through the gruesome final edits of my book and let go of a cat who had lasted as long as he possibly could — my mind would turn toward a road trip. I deserved some kind of adventure, right? I had turned 40. I had filed 240-ish pages of prose. And my house had grown so still. Some nights when I came home, my eyes filled with tears before I even opened the door, because I knew no furry creature was breathing behind it.
And so I left. When you have no pet, no husband, no kids, and a part-time job that allows for mobility, leaving is extremely easy. Santa Fe turned to central Arizona, where cell signals go to die. I had entered the iffy-wifi zone of the Southwest. I wrote in an old journal at my little campsite, perched at the lip of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, and I began to remember how good it felt to spill words that no one would see. Nothing was a performance. It was mine, all mine. I never worried if some stranger liked what I had written that morning, because no stranger ever saw it. I took long hikes into the canyon, ate salty trail mix, and listened to “Serial” podcasts. I took selfies I never sent to anyone. Some days were divine.
Others were not. I was still working for Salon during this swath of time, which meant devoting two and a half work days a week to edit personal essays, read submissions, approve art. This was, to put it mildly, challenging. I chased wifi signals around campsites like a gnat you cannot swat. It was supremely frustrating. I felt like I was failing at my job, but I also felt I was failing on my trip. Never fully detached. Never fully in it. It’s as though I were on the lip of civilization, too — too far for anyone to hear my voice, but close enough that I could see them and think about them all the time.
So here is what happened, as the Grand Canyon turned into Bryce Canyon and a crowded campsite at Zion National Park, where I fell asleep on the cold ground listening to people at neighboring campsites get drunk: I grew profoundly lonely. Lonely and depressed, though it was hard to tease out either emotion because they became a big blob of self-pity that followed me around. I stopped writing. I stopped communicating with friends for the most part. I did not feel free. I felt very, very marooned. Something shut down in me. I took long drives with no music, no sound. A big stack of books in the back seat remained unread. The guitar did not come out of its case for weeks. My mother texted me every night, and I was so grateful for the joyful noise of that double beep.
I couldn’t figure out why this road trip felt so raw, and disappointing, when the first had been so great. Was I remembering it wrong? Had my expectations simply been too high? Perhaps it had been a mistake, to retreat from the world when I needed the world more than ever.
“Isn’t this what you went into the wilderness for?” a friend asked, during a rare phone conversation. “To battle with yourself?”
I guess. I just thought battling with myself would be a little more … fun? On that road trip 13 years ago, I remember this time I pulled into the Athens library, tired and beat down, and checked my email only to find a message from a stranger who had been reading my blog. I hear you’re in Athens. Here are some places to check out. It was so kind, so freaking cool. I wasn’t sure what I had been trying to prove, doing this whole trip alone, in the void. There is a difference between loneliness and solitude. One hurts much, much worse.
I began to remember another benefit of blogging on that trip: I did things I wouldn’t normally do, because I wanted to write about them. Visiting some tourist attraction out of my way, talking with some eccentric passerby. I would think: This will make a good story. And when bad things happened, I converted the pain into copy very fast: This will make a good story, too. You could say it was a performance. But you could also say that we are often better when we are accountable to each other. The way my room is much neater when someone is coming over. It’s hard to be your best self in an information vacuum.
Las Vegas became Los Angeles became San Francisco, and the loneliness receded, because I began to spend time with friends, laughing about my melodramatic sadness in the woods and the misadventures of camp grounds and California Airbnbs. It took three days and 26 hours to drive back to Dallas — a monotonous trip across the Mojave and through a New Mexico dust storm — and each night, I sat in another shitty roadside hotel and promised myself I would write but I mostly watched “Shark Tank,” which was being played ad infinitum on CNBC that week. I stopped thinking of the television as an entertainment device, and I started thinking of it as a “Shark Tank” delivery system.
I arrived home on the day before Thanksgiving. I felt defeated and way too excited about my duvet. “I can’t wait to hear about your trip!” friends said, but when we got together, I tried to direct the conversation to other topics, because I was tired of lingering in this blue valley and I almost felt like I’d failed them, too. Mine was not a hero’s journey but another tale of woe. I had an iPhone and a digital camera full of pictures — grassy meadows and unfolding deserts and empty beaches — and I didn’t want to look at any of it. I promised people I’d put it all online, a way to share the experience with friends, and I never did. I kind of forgot all about it.
More than two months have passed since I returned, and my life once again has a very small radius. I wake up, and write in my bed, and eat in my kitchen, and sometimes I go to yoga, or a coffee shop, or a friend’s house. Every once in a while, I stumble past two bags in my office, which are still waiting to be unpacked. They contain wrinkled maps folded incorrectly, and one of those long campfire lighters, and the Splenda I insisted on using in my morning coffee. I’m not sure why I can’t unpack them. Maybe because I’m lazy. Or maybe because as much as I longed for it to be over, I’m not ready to move on from that trip yet.
I think about that campsite on the Grand Canyon sometimes. It was so quiet there. I had not adjusted to the time change yet, so I would wake at 6am, when it was still freezing and dark, and I would brew a cup on my little camping stove while listening to music on my iPhone, and wander out to a big white rock that looked like a giant hipbone, where I sat and wrote as the sun came up. This was no small thing: To watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. The bird noises and the wind rattling through the aspen. I knew I’d miss it after I was gone. I was right.
For many years, I was a person who was going to write a book. Friends introduced me this way: She’s going to write a book one day. I said this to myself, in quiet moments of contemplation, or in grand rallying moments when what you want out of life gets scrunched up against your nose. I am going to write a book. Once, back in 2006, I wrote an essay for Slate about shutting down my blog to write a book. Guess what? I didn’t write that book at all. I think I wrote two pages, and then flipped on a marathon of “The Hills.” But people are so polite, and forgiving, and forgetful that they rarely asked me about it. Months passed, and friends didn’t care that I had publicly announced a book I never wrote, and so I cranked up the blog again, kind of like when a couple announces they’re divorcing and everyone gasps and then four months later you see them out to dinner. Oh, OK. Never mind?
In these years — decades, really — friends of mine wrote books. Successful books. Modestly selling but beautiful books. Books they’d rather forget, but books nonetheless. A book is nothing to shrug off, I would tell them. A book is a sacred fucking thing. And every time a friend of mine wrote a book it was a notch in the ever-growing column that told me book writing was possible. It was being done by people like me, on this planet, in this very moment. I didn’t need expensive high-tech equipment, or classes at MIT, or a signed waiver from George Saunders. I could start NOW.
Eventually, I did. And unlike the many times before, I didn’t stop. I kept going till I reached the end, which was longer and harder than I anticipated. I did it anyway.
On the morning I finished my book, I woke up at 4:30am, and I made coffee, and I sat down at the table in my pajamas, and I read from page one. Three hundred pages of a story. I read the book like it was something I had picked up in the airport, stopping into Hudson’s News on a layover from Miami. And you know what? It was pretty good. I liked it. It was funny in places, and very sad in places, and I teared up several times. I was also sleep-deprived, and had been subsisting for days on golden Oreos and cheese enchiladas, so it’s possible I was clinically insane. But actually, I felt sharp. A clarity that comes in the final moments of a game.
I sent my book in at 1pm, and while balloons failed to drop from the ceiling, I became someone different in that moment. I became someone who had written a book. I waited many years to say that about myself. Whatever happens next is out of my hands.
(The book, “Blackout,” comes out in June 2015 from Grand Central.)
Greetings, and welcome to SarahHepola.com. If you’ve come to this site, you are probably curious about me, or the phenomenon of public crying, and so we thank you. I’ve been on hiatus for a while now, but emails to central command suggest people have questions, which I will attempt to answer.
What is a Sarah Hepola?
A Sarah Hepola is a short, curious creature who stands approximately 5’2” in the wild (5’6” in urban environments, where she insists on wearing wedge heels). She has been known to write stories about things that happened to her.
What can I do about this?
Nothing. People have tried.
Where has she been?
I’ve been working on a book, called “Blackout,” which will be published by Grand Central in June 2015. The process of writing a book (as you may know from Charlie Kaufman movies) is a tortured, exciting journey, full of lonely hours, despair, and cheese enchiladas. I made the decision to unlatch myself from the distraction machines of the Internet during this time, but I recently turned in a draft to my editor, which presented me with a small window of opportunity for blog posting and obsessive scrap-booking. I should be officially done writing the book by the end of summer, which means these next weeks are critical. Creatively speaking, this is the moment in the movie where the stoner guy turns to you in the VW bus and says, “Dude, let’s make this the BEST SUMMER EVER.” Much work to be done, amigos.
That’s nice, but umm, how I get my story published on Salon?
You can email me a full draft of your personal essay, pasted in the body of the email, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Do not use my personal email, because it will make me cranky.
Last week, Julie and I saw the Richard Linklater film “Boyhood,” which knocked us both out. I have never seen a film like it, and the story will stay with me for some time. There is so much else to discuss, but it will have to wait. It’s mid-July, and you know what that means. Dudes, we gotta make this the BEST SUMMER EVER.
About a year after I moved back to Dallas, I went to see a psychic. I know this sounds crazy, so maybe it was. But the psychic sets up a booth every Saturday in the back corner of a cool vintage store near my house. Fifteen minutes for $15. I’d heard good things from friends: She’s the real deal. I doubted that, but the lost and desperate will climb any mountain, and 15 bucks was hardly an incline.
And so, one frustrated afternoon, I drove to the vintage store, rummaged through a few nifty dresses, and sat down across from the psychic. She was thin. Her long white hair was pulled back in a bun. She had huge, popping eyes and glasses that swallowed half her face. She reminded me of Joyce Carol Oates.
She took my hand and peered at my palm under a desk lamp. “You’re creative,” she said. “Oh, my. And you are impatient.”
My right leg was jostling (an old habit), and I stilled it and nodded. I’m never sure what psychics are reading — the energy of the universe, my body language, a script from the Internet — but her initial diagnosis didn’t impress me. Here I was, patronizing a quirky store that sold 50s prom dresses and Victorian coffins: Of course I was creative.
But as we continued, her observations grew more specific, and I felt my skepticism calve like a glacier. She told me my mother was a compassionate adventurer. She told me my father was quiet, he had learned to follow her lead. She told me I was lucky I’d changed my old habits, that I had narrowly missed smashing into a wall. She told me the man I was hung up on had the heart of a champion. And even if none of that was true, it all sounded right to me.
“You’re working on something big right now,” she said.
“I’m a writer,” I told her. You’re not supposed to tell a psychic what you do for a living, but the clock was ticking. I needed to get to the point.
“A book?” she asked, and I nodded. “You’re going to succeed.”
I know what you’re thinking: Of course she would say that. She tells people what they want to hear. She doesn’t intuit the future; she intuits a person’s needs.
And indeed, it was despair about that book — a memoir about drinking — that pushed me toward her that day. I had left New York, and my full-time gig, with total confidence that I could sell it within four months. That was my time line, and it seemed as simple as a finger snap. I was an online journalist; sometimes I wrote a piece in the morning, and it was published by dinner. Four months was like a lifetime to me.
By the way, I didn’t even have to write the book. I just had to write the proposal, a marketing document to sell someone on the idea of my book. So easy! No problem! I had a fancy big-time agent behind me. I didn’t see how I could fail.
But I was learning. I spent 12 months burrowing into rabbit holes and cowering there. I froze. I sputtered. A book can be written an infinite number of ways. You don’t realize this until you start trying them all.
So I needed to sell that book. Soon. I needed the assurance of a paid professional (apparently any would do) to convince me that I had not, in fact, ruined my life by stacking all my chips on this particular square. Hell yes, I wanted to hear that I was going to succeed.
“Three years,” she said, and the torpedo hit my stomach.
“It’ll take you three years,” she said, with the haunted eyes of Joyce Carol Oates, and I kept nodding, and smiling, but my stomach had burst in flames. Men leapt over the side and into the waters.
You see, I didn’t have three years. I didn’t have the money for three years. I didn’t have the energy for three years. And I sure as shit didn’t have the patience for three years.
Later, as I sat on the couch in Mary’s apartment, my legs propped on her coffee table in a slumping posture of defeat, she tried to raise my spirits. “Maybe she meant three months,” she said.
Yes: Maybe she meant three months.
Then again, maybe she did not. Because soon after, I was dropped by my big-time fancy agent. I was devastated, and no psychic or vintage dress could save me. And I thought this was the saddest part of my story, but actually — it was the turning point. Because I stopped working on the stupid marketing document, and I started working on the book. I quit torturing myself about the infinite number of ways the story could be written. I simply chose one, and walked through that door. Through a series of lucky circumstances, I found a different agent, the one anyone who loves me would have chosen for me, because she saw me the way they did.
And on June 13, 2013 — three years to the day after I quit drinking — I sat in the office of the publishing house that would eventually buy my book. There were three women from the publishing house sitting around me. There were three books on the shelf in the back, and each of them was a best seller. It was raining that day. We spoke intensely. At one point, I got so emotional that I cried. And afterwards, my agent and I emerged into the damp streets of Manhattan and looked at each other like: What just happened?
And it takes time to answer that question. (In my case, it took about nine days.) What just happened is that I had met the people who were going to buy my first book. And now I was going to have a year to write it, and it was going to be due in June 2014, exactly three years after I moved to Texas.
I told this story to a friend one night. “Three years,” I said. “Isn’t that spooky?”
He agreed it was strange. But he wasn’t persuaded. “Psychics are storytellers,” he said. “They sketch out enough of the picture so that you can shade it in with your own specifics. So that the story feels like your own.”
Maybe so. But I know that life works in mysterious ways. I know that I have one year to write a book, and I know that whatever happens: This story feels like mine.
Like every bitter single woman, I have an online dating profile. Sometimes, the men folk look at the pictures on that profile — here I am, smiling sweetly into the camera; here I am, laughing at someone’s joke — and they send messages. Almost invariably, the messages are dumb. They say things like, “Hey, what’s up?” Only it’s more like, “hey what up.” Like, no one could be bothered with a comma, or a possessive. Like a question mark was just too heavy to lift.
The other day, I got an email from a gentleman. It was very nice. It read, “Someone needs to say this: You are stunning.” Now, I’m not sure anyone needed to say that. And I’m not sure he meant it. But I can assure you that the girlish hole in my soul — the one that wants to pour the world’s compliments over my face like champagne in a rap video — found that email delightful.
I clicked over to his profile: 29. Cute. (Very cute.) In his ABOUT ME section, he said something about how his parents were still together. They had true love. The kind of sparks-flying, best-friend chemistry that he wanted in a partner, and he would not settle for anything less. And then: His profile said he was a passionate conservative.
Well, damn. I can date a lot of types in this world. I could even date a conservative (maybe). But passionate conservative? Our romance was over before it began. I wrote him a note, telling him that his email made my day, and explaining that a passionate liberal such as myself would be a poor match for him, but I wished him all the best.
He wrote back : “Shoot, I was just hoping we could exchange dirty pics. ;)”
I did not respond. And that, friends, is love in the 21st century.
Now, I have written a different story about online dating, which has nothing to do with this gentleman. I studied the dating profiles of Dallas women, and I found cleavage, glitter, and the American way.
So much life is happening over here at Sarahhepola.com, but before all that, let’s catch up on what we missed. One day, I went into a private room at Southwestern Medical Center and was latched onto a bizarre suction machine that purports to freeze your fat. Do you want to guess how this turned out? That’s right: I’m 20 pounds lighter, 50 degrees colder, and finally happy.