Another Year In the Life...
Notes on how I spent 2020
The official start date of The Audacity is January 11th, but this is my newsletter and I can send a couple dispatches this week if I want!
First, I want to share that The Audacity will be edited by two incredibly talented women—Brooke Obie and Megan Pillow.
Brooke C. Obie, JD, MFA is an author, editor and screenwriter. Her debut novel BOOK OF ADDIS: CRADLED EMBERS won the 2017 Phillis Wheatley Book Award for First Fiction, the 2017 Black Caucus of the American Library Association Award for Self-Published Fiction and the 2018 Independent Writer's Award from the Accra International Book Festival. While Managing Editor for the Black film and TV site Shadow & Act, she was named one of The Root 100’s most influential African Americans of 2019 for her journalism challenging the movie GREEN BOOK, “How ‘Green Book’ And the Hollywood Machine Swallowed Donald Shirley Whole,” which shook up Hollywood and the 2019 awards season, leading conversations about appropriation, white savior narratives and systemic racism in the industry. In 2019, Brooke was also the summer writer-in-residence at La Maison Baldwin in Saint Paul de Vence where she worked on the BOOK OF ADDIS sequel. In 2020, her TV pilot screenplay adaptation of BOOK OF ADDIS was named a semifinalist in the 2021 ScreenCraft TV Pilot Screenplay Competition.
Megan Pillow holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature, SmokeLong Quarterly, Brevity, The Believer, TriQuarterly, Guernica, and Gay Magazine, as well as various other publications. Her nonfiction has been honored as notable in the 2019 edition of The Best American Essays; her fiction has been honored as distinguished in the 2020 edition of The Best American Short Stories and has been featured on the Wigleaf Top 50. Megan has received fellowships from Pen Parentis and the Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and has completed a residency with the Ragdale Foundation. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her two children.
Brooke and Megan will help me with reading submissions for the Emerging Writer Series that will be appearing in this newsletter every two weeks, managing the comments and discussions, and editing the writing that appears in this space. They are both talented writers so you may even see an essay or two from them.
They will also be working with Kaitlyn Adams (my assistant and book club co-director) and I on The Audacious Book Club, In case you missed it, our first book will be Black Futures, co-edited by Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Drew. Paying subscribers will be able to join the authors and I on a live Zoom chat toward the end of the month!
The beginning of a new year is supposed to hold promise that in the new year life will be better. Given how terrible 2020 was, I think a lot of us are hoping that something will change in 2021 even though we have little reason to harbor such optimism. On New Year’s Eve 2019, my then fiancée Debbie and I were on a plane from New York to Paris to Cairo. It was the first time in Egypt for both of us and it was a grand adventure. As we stood at the base of the grand pyramid, it felt like the new year would be just as grand. We saw ancient tombs and temples and overwhelming evidence of both how big and small and knowable and mysterious the world is.
Back then, I was traveling several times a month and I had grown to enjoy it—new cities and interesting people and electric energy from the audiences who come to see me speak. And then everything stopped. My last public event of 2020 was at the Arlington Public Library in Virginia. Already, people were starting to quarantine. There were a lot of hand sanitizer dispensers and no handshakes during the signing line but still, hundreds of people showed up. We didn’t know what to be afraid of and then we did.
Up until March, Debbie and I were in a long distance relationship. We saw each other a couple times a month for several days at a time. When we were apart, we had FaceTime and text messages and e-mails and romantic gestures. We had recently decided to live together full time, going back and forth between our homes in New York and Los Angeles and then a pandemic accelerated our timeline. We hunkered down in L.A. We learned how to live together and I mean really live together, all day, every day, no travel, no leaving the house unless absolutely necessary.
In an instant, I lost most of my income for the foreseeable future. I don’t know when I will be able to tour again and the uncertainty is terrifying but I have someone with whom I get to weather this storm and that it is something I am ridiculously grateful for.
And then I turn on the news. My disgust with the Trump administration expands every hour of every day and you’ll hear a lot about this in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, I feel more anxiety than I ever have. I am worried about the virus and the healthcare system. I am worried about my mother who has Stage IV lung cancer. Her treatment is going well but she is particularly immunocompromised. I am worried about how the most vulnerable people in our communities are going to get through this pandemic with so little support from the elected officials who are supposed to give enough of a damn about their constituents to legislate real stimulus and support. I am worried about teachers and children and the real essential workers who are working the line in restaurants and manning the register at grocery stores and delivering our mail and making sure that a semblance of life goes on. This has all gone on for too long. It didn’t have to be this way. I spend a lot of time balancing my anxiety with genuine fury.
Amidst all the worry and anger, I experienced a lot of joy. It’s strange to admit that because it’s such a new, unexpected thing, to have real joy in my life. In 2020, I had many adventures. I appeared on the season finale of The L Word: Generation Q. It was so fucking cool. I had my own trailer! I got my SAG card!
When we were in New York, in the “Before Times,” I saw some interesting shows—Paris, by Eboni Booth at The Atlantic, the West Side Story revival, the Oklahoma! revival, Emojiland: The Musical, and Stew by Zora Howard. Stew and Paris were particularly good, thoughtful, compelling. We saw Pauline Jean, a Haitian jazz artist, in concert and her music was really soulful and her lyrics felt like home. I got to hang out with some amazing butches in a photo shoot. The lovely hairstylist asked if she could experiment with my hair and I said sure, knock yourself out! Finger waves were involved.
I visited Congress and met with representatives to talk about feminism. And then I was home all the time. Debbie gardened and transitioned the academic department she chairs online in a matter of days. We both spent and continue to spend far too much time in Zoom meetings. I read a lot and didn’t write that much but… I thought about writing and put some energy toward some works in progress.
We were planning a big wedding for 10/10/20 but it quickly became clear that there was no way to get a few hundred people in any kind of space safely. In June, Debbie and I eloped in an office building in Encino—Instant Marriage LA.com. We are now the Millman-Gays. We are planning on still doing something public but given how terribly things are going, it doesn’t feel… likely. In October, we got a little puppy and his name is Maximus Toretto Blueberry Millman-Gay. I am not a dog person but he is adorable and confident and opinionated and a delight and frustrating and a lot of work. He is mostly potty trained. He is not that interested in food but he loves to eat cardboard, paper towel, tissue, socks, leaves, twigs, disgusting street trash and standing water, and frosting.
Look at this adorable nugget. Come on! He is the cutest dog in the world.
Toward the end of September, we went to Iceland for a work project you’ll be hearing a lot about this spring. We had to quarantine for five days in a cabin on a lake, and take three COVID tests and then we got to go to Reykjavik and stay at the Blue Lagoon and swim in hot springs under a full moon and see a geyser shooting hot water into the air and eat tomato soup in a green house and see waterfalls. But the most incredible thing we did was see the northern lights. I cannot begin to describe the awe of seeing these lights dancing around the clearest of night skies. It was a grand experience.
Though inspiration was… elusive, I did manage to get some writing done this year. For the New York Times, I wrote about the futility of looking for salvation beyond ourselves and then how we might save ourselves. I wrote about my disgust with the support Trump received during the presidential election and I had a few thoughts about student loan forgiveness. In May, I started writing the Work Friend column for the New York Times. It has been an interesting gig. So many people are in such impossible positions in their work lives, caught between the rock of needing an income and the hard place of terrible co-workers or working conditions. I also wrote some letters of recommendation for Wirecutter.
I had a conversation with Cynthia Erivo in The Hollywood Reporter, and profiled Janelle Monáe for New York Magazine and Sarah Paulson for Harper’s Bazaar. In Bon Appetit, I wrote about cooking and baking more to cope with, well, everything and for The Undefeated, I wrote about reckoning with Kobe Bryant’s legacy while acknowledging the profound loss his family, friends, and fans have experienced this year.
Over at Medium, I wrote about theater and race, notes on power in a pandemic, getting to know my partner with the increased intimacy of cohabitation, travel and the world opening up, and my ridiculous susceptibility to Instagram ads.
Fiction is my first love but I never get to write as much of it as I would like. I did write a couple short stories—“String Theory” for the Chronicles of Now and “Graceful Burdens” for the Out of Line collection published by Amazon.
I haven’t published a book since 2017 and a lot of people ask me when I will publish another book and I hope that the answer is soon. The pressure, some internal, some external, is a lot! But it’s fine! I just need to finish the two books I am working on. I don’t know why reaching the finish line is proving so impossible. I’ve literally done this like five or six times at this point. In the meantime, I had the real honor of editing The Selected Works of Audre Lorde which was reviewed in the Times. I also co-wrote a graphic novel, The Sacrifice of Darkness, with my dear friend Tracy Lynne Oliver, an incredible writer in her own right. I continued to co-host my podcast Hear to Slay, with Tressie McMillan Cottom who is a certified MacArthur Genius!
That’s enough of that. TL;DR: I wrote some things.
It is much easier to talk about successes than failures but it would be ridiculous to pretend I never fail. I fail all the time. I started an online magazine called Gay Magazine in 2019, with generous support from Medium. I published the final issue in April but for a year, I was able to pay writers well and publish beautiful, provocative work. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to develop a robust readership to sustain the project. Running a magazine is difficult. A handful of people have figured out how to do it profitably. I am not one of those people. One of the biggest, strangest problems was that a lot of potential readers assumed it was a magazine strictly for the LGBTQ community. Too many people didn’t know it was just… my last name. Next time, I will not have so much hubris. What was I thinking? I am not Oprah. I was disappointed to shutter the publication. I was disappointed, mostly, in myself, for not being able to make it work. I will try again, someday.
Deadlines and I were enemies in 2020. I hate it because I do care about punctuality and professionalism. I say yes to way too many things because, like many writers, I always worry that each opportunity will be the last. And with the loss of touring income, I’ve had to scramble to fill at least some of that financial void, in whatever ways I can. One of my biggest projects for the month of January is to really figure out how to get some of my To Do List done which includes finishing up a screenplay outline and a couple books and a feminist reader and then taking a deep breath to attack the rest of it waiting in the wings. But also I need to figure out how to say no and then hold that line when people don’t want to take no for an answer, and then direct them to other writers who will be just as good a fit.
On Twitter, I was engaging with far too much nonsense that would then ruin my whole day. Sometimes, I try to explain Internet Nonsense to Debbie who is online but not Online, and she just shakes her head. Trolls are going to troll. People are going to say ridiculous or terrible things. People are going to disagree with me and dislike me. I don’t have to spend so much energy thinking about it or responding to it so I am trying to be more mature, more thick-skinned, less reactive, less petty, more generous, kinder. It’s hard but I have the perspective to recognize how ridiculous it is to find something like that hard.
I have no idea what 2021 will be like. Will it be better than this last year? It has to be. But will it be significantly better? I do not know. I am saving my hope for 2022 because I think the coming year will be one of repair and recovery and re-assessment.
While I was in Iceland, I came upon a rock in the middle of a wooden walkway.
I was struck by the thoughtfulness of allowing that rock its place. I later learned that rocks are also home to Huldufólk or elves. Leaving the rock in place was a gesture of respect not only to the rock but to the elves. There is not a lot of cause for hope these days, but since I saw that rock in the walkway, I have been inexplicably moved. I think about it all the time. My faith has been renewed that a better world is possible, that respect for culture and the natural world are possible, that a better world starts with the most gentle of gestures.
How was your 2020? What are you hoping for 2021? What has moved you or renewed your faith? I would love to hear from you in the comment section!