burn burn burn

First off, welcome to the newsletter’s new home at Substack — a much better, easier, and prettier platform, especially since TinyLetter has decided to let its usability slowly fade away until no one wants to use the product anymore. Substack also allows readers to donate to newsletter writers — or, alternately, allows writers to produce newsletters that are only available to paid subscribers. I’m not at that point yet, and will never make the newsletter closed, but for now, just enjoy the better fonts and formatting — and the fact that the posts are assembled in one place that looks, well, like a blog. (Newsletters are just blogs sent directly to your inbox, this has and always will be my stance).

I’ve spent the last week on the reporter’s version of bedrest, trying to recover from a case of burnout. “Burnout” is a relatively new feeling for me, which is weird, as I worked like a tireless robot throughout grad school and afterwards — but I think I was so terrified for my future, so immersed in work, that I never allowed myself to feel it. Denial! Workaholism! It masks so much! But I’ve also started doing a different sort of work since the midterms, one that involves a lot more travel and change and a lot less predictability, all of which have made it more difficult to protect against intellectual burnout by cultivating comforting routines. I should’ve felt it right after the election, but like so many reporters, I powered through what I thought was going to be a quiet recovery from election coverage (I can only imagine how hard this was for actual political reporters, who were operating at a much higher level of exhaustion than I was) and numbed myself to a number of things, including exhaustion.

I think I first really felt burnout right around Thanksgiving last year, the result of heading straight from covering the mass shooting at Sutherland Springs, Texas (which I had ended up covering because I’d been nearby in Austin for a book festival) to a week in Short Creek, Southern Utah, talking with women who’d escaped from the polygamist and abusive sect of the FLDS and had returned to the area to rebuild their lives. I was staying in a sprawling AirBnb originally built for the leader of the sect, Warren Jeffs, intended to be his home upon his release from prison (he never lived there, but I did stay in what was intended to be his master suite).

The town itself only very recently opened up to outsiders — before, outsiders would be trailed by enforcers from the church — and the vibe was, well, lonely. The sun set at 5 pm. There was no where in town to eat dinner. I’d sit in this room, the walls 12 inches thick to prevent any sounds from getting in or out, and eat Triscuits with deli meat and baby carrots. The internet went in and out. I went to sleep at 9. I felt underwater. There were two vanities in the room, one outside the bathroom and one inside the room, and I’d think of whichever of Jeffs’ favored wives was meant to sit at one of them and set her hair in the elaborate, old-fashioned hair-style he mandated. Journalism is rarely sexy. Often, it feels like the end miles of a marathon.

I’m so pleased with the story that came out of that week, but the weeks afterwards taught me to recognize what had been happening, what I was fighting to emerge from. I think sometimes we use “burnout” as a way of avoiding saying depression — and/or making sure to allude to just how hard we’ve been working, just how much we deserve to wallow in the burnout. But burnout, at least as far as I’ve experienced it, shares so many of the same symptoms: overarching fatigue that doesn’t go away with a few nights’ sleep, ennui, annoyance, inability to find your normal fun things fun, indifference, irritability, boredom, lack of ambition, great resentment of the fact that you have to wash your face AND brush your teeth AND take out your contacts AND floss and it all just seems like so much to ask of one person.

This time, I wasn’t in a tiny town in Southern Utah. I was on the road with a very energetic campaign, and then briefly back, writing like a hurricane, and then in Iowa for another story currently in the works. I’m an introvert, which is hard for people to understand about a journalist, but being on in the way that reporting requires drains me in the way writing never has. I came back from Iowa feeling like I was floating above my body. This time, I’ve also found the news cycle, and Twitter, and “the discourse,” broadly speaking, off-putting in a far more acute way than normal. I felt like everyone was reacting in bad faith to everything everyone, including myself, put out there. Blame it on two years and counting of the Trump-propelled political landscape, blame it on late summer claustrophobia, blame it on the wildfire smoke that gave me a headache and, I believe, truly made me stupider, more aggro. I felt self-conscious and self-righteous. It was an ugly place to be.

The problem with burnout is that, at least for me, fixing it is so fucking boring. I forced myself to focus on projects that had nothing to do with politics this week — specifically, a piece on Keira Knightley, who’s new film, Collette, is going to make a big splash next month. I watched twelve of her films. I read old, vague, titillation-free profiles of her. I really like Knightley, especially her period films, and I am not complaining about watching movies for a job. But I found it unsatisfying. It didn’t feel like nourishing myself. It felt, well, boring.

But I think that boredom was just the sort of “self-care” I needed. I don’t like that term for all the reasons others have pointed out, but also because I think that self-care sometimes involves doing things that don’t feel lovely or gentle. It involves doing the thing that will actually make it possible for you to do the things you like doing, to be the person you like being.

So I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone. I’ve stopped using Tweetdeck — a popular tool for journalists, in which tweets and notifications stream past you — and stuck with Twitter.com, which provides less stimuli. I finished reading a dumb book and started a new, better one. And yesterday, I woke up excited to write something about Knightley, and spent the day doing it, and finished it, and went to take my dog to the river. I feel ready, even excited, to think about the next thing, and the thing after that. The process of returning to yourself doesn’t always feel good, or fun. I resented what I was forcing myself to do, but I also didn’t have a better plan — I certainly didn’t want to go back on the road again, or write, edit, and publish another 10,000 words over the course of a week. Nothing felt good, but I was doing the thing that might make that nothing feeling go away.

Will it work next time? I don’t know, just like I don’t necessarily know what brings on the feeling of inescapable burnout — this series of reporting trips wasn’t necessarily any more arduous than others I’ve taken in recent months. I feel a quiet shame that I couldn’t just push through it. I feel self-indulgent even writing about this. But I think there’s a way to be honest with ourselves and others about the way the effects of our mental/emotional labor accumulate. I don’t want answers that will turn me into a better writing robot. I want to think through how I can be a more generous, thoughtful, open and inquisitive human, which includes the work that I do and the way that I am with myself and others. Which, at least in this case, meant a few days hanging out with myself and Keira Knightley, watching and really acknowledging that burnout, and slowly, gracelessly, walking through it.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

  • A very brief but incredibly compelling case for why Trump’s supporters don’t conceive of his actions as corrupt

  • A piece on a Guatemalan community in rural Colorado that does what very little of this sort of reporting manages to: explains why they came here (American intervention!); the work they do (that others won’t!); and the very real quality of life changes for individuals and the community because of DACA.

  • Long Live McMansion Hell

  • I deeply loved To All the Boys I Loved Before and Hannah articulates one of many reasons why this near-perfect little movie works so well

  • This is so deeply weird and yet possibly the funniest thing published on the internet this week

If you know someone who’d like this sort of hodgepodge in their inbox every week or so, forward it their way. Please excuse typos, weird sentences, and nonsense logic; not being meticulous about this thing is the way it gets done each week. I’m still looking for recommendations for faith leaders, on either side of the political spectrum, who have been preaching/doing outreach/talking about the political environment, whatever that might mean. You can follow Peggy and my reporting adventures here; you can subscribe to the newsletter here; you can tell me you like this new format simply (I believe?!) by replying to this email. And thank you, as always, for reading.