This happens at the end of almost every quarter. I leave a few extra days of buffer to kick around Evanston without any work. The problem is, I don’t know what to do with myself here without work. I can have great intentions of relaxing by the lake or heading into Chicago, but I never get around to it. Other people have left, or are busy studying, and busyness has been so engrained in my experience here that I have trouble remembering that I just don’t have much to do.
It always gives me a bit of an existential crisis. I sit in my house, knowing I’m not doing anything but unable to think of a reason to leave. An endless cycle: Facebook Twitter email other email Facebook Twitter news Facebook. Sometimes I try to turn on the television, only to remember that the only thing that’s ever watchable on our cable plan is Friends, and after two quarters of access to 24/7 Friends, it’s no longer watchable either.
Sitting on my floor yesterday trying to sit through Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, I finally broke out of the stupor. I dug around for my sweatpants, which I’ve worn so few times in the last six months that I didn’t remember where I’d put them when I moved in. I took my bike, which I haven’t seen since fall, and blindly headed north. I ended up in a park I’d never been to, admiring the choppy lake waves against the rocks and basking in the total lack of students. There were kids there, maybe 8 years old at most, and I felt oddly peaceful in the realization that fallen tree branches will always, always be an invitation to stab each other. Some things are universal.
Unwilling to return home, I stopped for coffee at a small cafe that had no tables when I arrived. But by the time my cup had finished brewing, people were trickling out. 5 p.m. on a finals Friday, and all the students were leaving. Soon it was just me, reading my book, and a family in the other room. It felt good just to be unencumbered by my computer. Northwestern has created an unbreakable bond between me and my laptop. It’s an addiction. I feel disconnected from social interaction when I don’t have access to Gchat. I feel antsy without the ability to cycle through email, Twitter, Facebook, news. A few days staring at my constantly updating Twitter feed means I know a wealth of facts about random subjects and world events, but as useful as that knowledge can be, I get stuck. It wears me down. I forget how to just exist in the non-WiFi world. There are relaxing activities outside of Netflix, but I find it hard to seek them out.
I didn’t leave my phone at home, and I was far from completely disconnected. I could still check my email, even though I knew no one was emailing me. And I took breaks from my reading to text friends, but that too felt healthy, strangely. It’s easier to share unimportant 160-character banter across a thousand miles than to admit that sometimes words must be shared simply because we haven’t done that in a while, and that’s how friendships just fade away. The pastor/barista was talking parenting strategies with a suburban mom — can you let your kids take the train alone? Can you let them wander Evanston without adult supervision? I wonder how I would have turned out if I hadn’t been allowed to tramp through orchards tripping in drainage pipes, if I had been prohibited from riding my horse into back hills and isolated valleys, if I wasn’t able to go to the mall with my friends and fail at taking Ventura’s less than useful public transportation. I’ve been a student in a college town for long enough that it’s rare to overhear the problems of the 40-year-old-with-kids set.
Though there are still stories to write and essays to research, taking an open-ended amount of time off — dictated only by how long my book took to read and how long my legs could keep moving my bike forward — was a necessary recharge period. I hope my trip home this weekend will be the same.
The North by Northwestern magazine, of which I am the managing editor, went to press at 8 a.m. on Monday morning, after 22.5 straight hours of working on it. My staff and I began planning and working on it in early June. At 10 a.m. on Monday, I was reading an essay assigned for my creative nonfiction class, which I had vowed to attend despite my mental incapacity. Latte in hand, I would periodically suddenly find myself coming out of a dream, editing orphaned words in David Foster Wallace’s prose, seeing NBN logos and lockups swimming before my eyes. When I went to sleep, finally, I dreamed still of editing, always editing, make every word perfect, every colon semicolon comma.
By next Friday, my work will be done, another managing editor will have been chosen, and I can move on with my life.
I didn’t want this job. I was afraid of the responsibility, afraid that I would ruin something that has evolved to be a truly great publication created entirely by an unpaid staff during nights and weekends and odd moments of free time. There were multiple times over the course of this quarter that I thought that I would vomit from sheer stress, or at least cry. Though we met three times a week, there were only a few select times that I walked out of the building saying “yes, I think we’re going to make a magazine.” It still won’t be real to me until I can hold it in my grubby little hands. I may not even open it, for fear that I’ll discover one of the inevitable mistakes and know that I could have done better. Though probably no one else sees it that way, every mistake is in a small way failing the entire organization, which funds the absurdly expensive printing process, which expects perfection from a product that’s been shaped over the course of months rather than nights.
In the end, I don’t regret it. Not because I can stick it on my resume and send a hard copy to my entire family, but because I think it pushed and pulled me until I became better. A better writer, editor, person. It tested me in ways I would never have wanted to test myself. I’d never pulled an all-nighter before.
More importantly, there’s a responsibility I hadn’t been able to understand before in being the person that has the last say. I thought I just didn’t have the answers, but when it comes down to it, no one has all the answers. Someone just has to step up and make a decision. I formed opinions on things I didn’t realized I felt strongly about. And yeah, sometimes I just felt excited to be in control of this collection of stories and art that we were desperately pushing to the finish line. I realized that there were so many steps in the process I had never seen before, that somehow just appeared when I was editing — art direction, photo shoots, illustrating late into the night, getting a cover, features editing, last minute copy, negotiating with printers. I have a much greater appreciation for the editors I worked under, who dealt with all the pressure and stress and small bullshit but never let on.
Too late in the quarter, I was searching in my inbox for something when I came across an email from our former editor-in-chief, on the eve of the election for the print managing editor for last winter quarter, the quarter I began working on the magazine. In it he suggested we take to heart this quote from Lillian Ross:
A helpful editor should have the following qualities: understanding of and sympathy for writers; the editorial talent to recognize and appreciate journalistic and literary talent; an openness to all kids of such talent; confidence and strength in his own judgment; resistance to fads and fakery in publishing; resistance to corruption and opportunism, to exhortations from people, including writers and other editors, who are concerned with “popularity” and “the market”; moral and mental strength, and the physical strength to sustain these; energy and resourcefulness in helping writers discover what they should write about; literally unlimited patience with selfishness and egotism; the generosity and character required to give away his own creativity and pour it into a group of greedy and usually ungrateful writers.
This kind of editor is a rarity. If you’re lucky, you may find one. Avoid the following kind of editor: one who does not like writers.
I think at a certain point I lost sight of that. I wasn’t perfect. If I could go back, I would have been more compassionate, more patient, and never have let the little arguments and conflicts break through my composure. But that’ll be for next time. All in all, I think we did good. You can decide for yourself come next Friday.
It’s probably because I’m from a part of California where “weather” means sunshine and wildfires, but I kind of love storms. It’s gray, it’s wet, I can’t feel my hands when I come home and my screen door keeps blowing open and closed violently in the wind. But at least it’s interesting. I like the way the wet leaves make imprints on the wet sidewalk and the way all the streets shine as puddles throw headlights back at the cars. It’s the perfect curl up on my couch with a book and coffee weather. And hey, I like the challenge of being blown backwards by the wind on my walk to any given destination.