I. Last weekend a friend and I were having a drink before going to a party, laughing about how there promised to be “new faces” there. We were laughing because this is a Didion Joke; you are on tumblr, so you probably get it. But in case you don’t: There is a famous line in Joan Didion’s 1968 essay “Goodbye To All That” where she writes about being twenty-three in New York City, trying to convince a man to come to a party with her by promising there would be “new faces” there. “He laughed literally until he choked,” she says, “and I had to roll down the taxi window and hit him on the back. ‘New faces,’ he said finally. ‘don’t tell me about new faces.’ It seemed that the last time he had gone to a party where he had been promised ‘new faces,’ there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men.” My friend and I finished our drinks and walked into a bodega where we each bought a can of beer that the cashier put in two squat paper bags and we said no when he asked if we needed straws. We walked the wrong way down the street for a couple blocks before the iPhone turned us around, and we made it to the party and she ended up knowing more of the people there than she thought she would. There are many people who believe, myself included, that “Goodbye To All That” is one of the truest things ever written about being in your twenties.
Yesterday was Joan Didion’s birthday, and actually it was my birthday too. I turned 26, which means I am more than halfway through my twenties. So upon this occasion I would like to risk making a declaration that might put me a bit against the general grain of the worldwide web: I do not think I know anything about what it’s like to be in my twenties.
I did not actually know anyone at that party on Saturday, because I just moved to New York a couple months ago. Prior to that, I’d been living in Washington, DC since my late teens. I complained a lot about DC the last year or so I lived there, and these first couple months in New York I’ve been sorting out the things I complained about that were specific to DC versus the things I complained about but are just the facts of living in a city; I wasn’t able to tell the difference until I left. For example: the suspicion that the tallest escalators in the Metro system are also the ones that break most frequently, and the experience of having to trudge up one of them in a sluggish commuter line like the cogs in Metropolis? That is very DC. But the fact that a subway will always stop on the tracks for about ten minutes for no apparent reason when you are in a hurry? That’s just a thing.
A lot of Didion’s most enduringly wise personal essays give reverence to the subtle gradations of feeling in perspective you go through in your twenties: in her cosmos, it’s a far voyage between “twenty-one” and “twenty-three,” which is itself a couple of lightyears away from “twenty-eight.” We think this way on the internet too, and I think it is a valid reaction against the tendency to lump all “millenials” under this very vague demographic umbrella.
And yet, just a thing I’ve been thinking about. Do you know how old Didion was when she wrote “Goodbye To All That?” 33.
Earlier this year, Nathan Jurgenson wrote something that stuck with me, about how Facebook (but also, I think the Social Internet writ large) “fixates the present always as a future past.” There is this pressure to make sense of everything in the moment, to accelerate the creation of the meaning we derive from an experience. I think — and I already told you I am 26 so maybe this is just an old lady talking, right — the overwhelming deluge of all this “Fuck! I’m in My Twenties!” stuff written and liked and reblogged by people who are actually in their twenties accelerates this unnecessarily, and creates these self-defined, self-fulfilling norms. So I wonder if, the way I could only separate the universal and particular shittyness of public transportation only after I left DC, I won’t know what it meant to be in my 20s until I they’re behind me. Maybe the stuff we’re saying “fuck!” about is just what it’s like to be a conscious adult in this moment of history; maybe this is just the way we live now.
II. When writing feels hard to me and I am having trouble finishing something (which is like always, but I was really wrestling a piece to the ground late last week), I read Chekhov. Or I read about Chekhov. I have been always fascinated with great writers who managed to do great work while they had another, very time consuming and emotionally demanding job (Chekhov was a doctor). I use facts about these writers’ lives to bully myself out of laziness and afternoons spent watching Gossip Girl reruns, and every so often it works. Chekhov would be able to finish this record review and travel to a small seaport town to perform an autopsy afterwards; what’s your excuse?!
My writing heroes in college were Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace, but now that I am hoping that I can be lucky enough to sustain this writing thing over the long haul and as I said, getting very very old, I’ve been trying to pick some more positive professional role models in terms of mental health. Which are not terribly easy to find because we’re talking writers here, but you could do worse than Chekhov. He wrote in quick, productive spurts, and he had a general reputation of being a jolly and well-liked dude who threw great parties and could rock a pince-nez like a boss (reports James Wood: “He was deeply charming; seasonally, a different woman fell in love with him”). “There are still a few people living,” the critic Robert Payne wrote in 1963, “who can remember his infectious laughter.”
As someone doing work that is very different from/not even sort of intellectually rigorous as (and, I am trained to think, “more subjective than”) that of the Great Russian Dudes, I find a lot of what Chekhov has had to say about writing profoundly comforting and surprisingly relevant to my particular creative anxieties. “I can only write from my memories, and I have never written directly from nature,” he once said. “The subject must first seep through my memory, leaving as in a filter only what is important and typical.” I read this on the subway last week, while a toddler across from me was laughing hysterically because she’d just put a sticker on each of her eyelids. I don’t know about you, but the word that jumps out at me in that Chekhov quote is “seep.” It implies a passage of time, a non-immediacy, a kind of patience. The internet has made me feel like I need to know and name the important stuff the instant I see it, and I’m not sure I’m very good at that. So this was comforting to me, this idea that the important and worthwhile stuff will just lurk somewhere between remembering and forgetting, and it will bubble up to the surface when I need it. Because that train was packed with other people, but what I remember is that toddler with the stickers. And I remember, tipsy as I may have been, the cashier who suggested that I might want a straw with my can of Rolling Rock. Chekhov loved clean, minimal strokes and that particular flavor of absurdity. He would have laughed.
III. Last week, my mom went to a party where there actually were some new faces, or maybe they were old ones. Everyone there was speaking Spanish, and she started chatting with a woman there from South America, and the woman asked my mom where and when she learned her Spanish, and she said Spain, and they started talking about the past and one thing lead to another and they realized that they’d gone to the same college and graduated a year apart. They were less surprised at the amazing serendipity of having gone to the same college and now finding themselves at this small party in a suburban New Jersey living room as they were — shocked, my mom said — to discover that they were staring at the face of someone who is the same age. “I would have guessed you were in your mid-thirties,” the woman told my mom. They both had this weird, unexpectedly existential moment in full view of each other. “After a while, you live your life and you just don’t see yourself for the age you are,” she said to me on the phone when she was telling me about it. “Unless you just sits and stares at yourself in the mirror, you don’t take the time to stop and contemplate how old you are and what that means very often, you know?”
I was checking my gmail while I talked to her. She is always asking me questions like, “But how do you know where to find the funny election jokes on Twitter?” She’s not on Facebook and doesn’t know what a tumblr is and she would look at me a very blankly if I tried to explain or complain about “the Thought Catalogization of the internet.” I think I envy her a little more with every year.