This past weekend, I made the most amazing brunch. I wish you could have seen it. But you didn’t. And you can’t. Well, you could if you looked at my Instagram, but imagine you couldn’t. (No cheating!) And also, imagine me after brunch: Sitting on my bed after my friend left, looking at the table (because, yes, I live in a studio apartment where the place that I sleep and the place that I entertain brunch guests are the same thing), stuffed and sleepy, debating whether to nap before or after the dishes…
I looked at the table with great satisfaction, basking in the glow of my impeccable culinary prowess and Grade A hostess skills. Foods that were once organized in straight lines and circles were now crooked and strewn—half on, half off the plate—mixed together, piles emaciated. Bread crusts pushed to the side of plates, crumbs proudly littered where our mouths had been. Cups coated with half-dried coffee and champagne, some with tiny pools at the bottom of the last sip we didn’t need.
If you had walked into the room and looked at the table without any prior knowledge of what had taken place before, you would have known a delicious brunch had happened there. Without ever having seen a scrap of food, the evidence would have given away that a feast had occurred, an experience, a moment that mattered. People were nourished and felt something and then went on with their lives. This is what the most important typographic memory of my year—Hell, probably of my entire career thus far—is like. Because although I can’t tell you about the project or any of its details, I can show you the table afterwards. I can tell you the story.
Last winter, I was Broke as Fuck with a capital “B” and a capital “F.” I had no paying work for roughly four months. I talk about this period of time pretty often; typically in conjunction with how the art practice I currently work with was unknowingly formed in that time. I don’t try to spin it, but I do brush over it fairly quickly to get to the point. In this case, I want to paint a picture for you of exactly how bad it was:
I had moved out to Los Angeles two years prior from New York with no job and no plan except to work in a full time freelance capacity. I had no concept of the kind of professional I wanted to be. Well, I thought I did. I was wrong. My second year in business wasn’t completely financially awful; however, coming off the heels of my first year—which was financially awful—and having still not totally learned how to manage freelance finances and all of their anxieties, I found myself in a very bad position.
$20,000 in credit card debt (six cards maxed out that I hadn’t paid in months), no money of my own with no jobs on the line, a mother who was helping me but could only do so much, and —quite frankly—an attitude that, I only very recently realized, has been incredibly denialist for thirty years, all plagued me. Not only were the logistics of the situation bad, but I was overcome with insecurities about my professional identity and personal worth, countless questions about my business model and where I went wrong, and severe depression that had me writing constantly about how I couldn’t see color anymore, only black and white.
I was paralyzed. I almost got evicted. I couldn’t go see friends on the other side of town because I couldn’t afford gas. At one point, an internet friend I had never met Venmo-ed me $500 to pay my health insurance after a chat session simply because he sympathized and had the ability to help. I was, quite literally, a charity case. Somehow I managed to get drunk a lot in spite of it all. I guess when there’s nothing left to do but escape, you find a way.
One night during this period of time, I had plans to meet a friend who works as a headhunter and another designer she knew for drinks. I didn’t want to cancel since it had taken us about a month to schedule the date, but I was a wreck. I felt so unlike myself. I didn’t know how I was going to be able to function in a casual social environment. But I told myself to put on makeup and some clothes (you know how: one leg then the other, one arm through the sleeve then the other, head through and pull down), and go give it a try for an hour. Go through the motions. You can do it.
So I did. And I did not grow three heads when I shared what I had been going through. I did not melt or crumble or die like I felt like I was going to. When I had to recite my current state of affairs, I was always afraid the reaction would be disgust or annoyance; but to be honest, I think I was the one that was the most disgusted and annoyed. It was like a triple punch: First, I have to live this nightmare; then I have to explain it to others; then, I am reminded that this is my story all over again and how much that sucks. But my company was graceful and sympathetic and full of insight, it turned out.
One of the women shared some advice in passing as if she were handing me a kerchief to wipe my nose with (I don’t know why that’s the metaphor that came to mind. I’ve literally never had a kerchief handed to me or known anyone who even owns one since my Grandfather when I was little. And even he eventually switched to Kleenex). In any case, the point is, I could take it or leave it with no hurt feelings. But what she shared, I took.
She said that the previous year she had suffered from chronic knee pain. And (she laughed it off like an absurdist joke), “I know it sounds silly, but every night before I went to bed, I would say, ‘Tomorrow, my knee won’t hurt anymore’ and sometimes it worked. So I know it’s kind of cheesy, but maybe it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.”
It was just a few days before Christmas. I noticed that I definitely had been telling myself for weeks at that point that no work was going to come in for the remainder of the year, and I had to sit tight through this nightmare of a moment until the new year came along—and with it—its Q1 budgets. It had been so long since I had even let myself hope work would come in, that that night when I got into bed, I toyed with letting myself feel it again. I closed my eyes and thought of that email coming in that contained a solid lead tied to a sizeable chunk of money. I felt what it was like to be needed on a project, to feel worthy and required in my craft. And I went to sleep.
The next morning, I woke up to a message on social media from a designer who works at one of the largest companies in the country (the world?). She had followed me for a while, and we had interacted a time or two but never really spoke in depth. The message generally went to the tune of, “Hey, I know this is really last minute before Christmas and it’s a long shot, but what are the chances you might have time to do a round of lettering for this project we’re working on?” Welllllll, Miss Designer from Big Company USA. You’re in luck! It just so happens that I AM available. (I played it much cooler than that though…) We chatted, I was briefed, and that day, I locked down a paycheck for roughly a month of expenses. This was good.
But wait. There’s more! Not long after this project was delivered, it continued on for another round. And another. And another. Four rounds total. And then…I got the email that they wanted to purchase the exclusive, full, forever rights to the work.
By the end of January, the project and buyout were finalized with the total amount paid equaling an amount that is more than most people make in a whole year. I paid off all of my credit card debt, refurbished the life that was neglected in years and months prior when I had to go without in many areas, kept my accountant on speed dial so as not to be an idiot this time around, and even got to enjoy a little of it. Oh yeah, and invested in a LOT of extra therapy to work through all of those feelings of insecurity, unworthiness, and financial PTSD (that stuff is REAL).
Business is still challenging and erratic and anxiety-inducing. The holidays are upon us yet again; and yet again, finances are hard. I realize now that this is how it will always be in some form or another. This is the nature of things. And to choose this career path means having to choose ways to deal with it that don’t lead to falling into the Emotional Hole of Doom at every dip or downfall. Because just like it was my choice to imagine a barren work environment for myself compared to a flourishing one, it is also my option to find peace as opposed to panic in any given moment.
There are no promises or lights at the end of the tunnel here. I have no pearls of wisdom or grand conclusions for you… just my own self determination and a story. But this story, much like the disheveled aftermath of my brunch spread, is one that I look at with contentment and wonder. This story is the one nail that keeps the floorboards from shifting out from under me and allowing me to teeter into the endless depths of despair in darker moments. This story, when I start slipping into the easy abyss of doubt and confusion, is the one subtle savior that gently braces my shoulder from behind and says, “Not yet.”