Omens

On dumpster fires, publishing pitfalls, & what authors can still control

When I first moved to Philadelphia, I saw an omen. It was my first weekend in the city in the spring of 2018. I awoke late Sunday morning in the apartment we’d just rented in Center City and headed out to go get coffee. But as I emerged from the lobby I discovered a LITERAL DUMPSTER FIRE directly across the street. I stood there, mouth gaping, but so did a number of others. Everyone was calm, as if this is a thing that happens here often, and so I took my cue from them, snapping this picture with my phone and then just witnessing the fire burn.

After some time I wondered if anyone was going to do something or if we were waiting for it to go out on its own. It wasn’t spreading. But it wasn’t stopping either. Was I supposed to do something? Were we all? No one seemed alarmed. No one even spoke. Then, after a time, two people wearing all black came calmly out the back door of a restaurant and each poured a bucket of water over the fire, dousing it in a last hot breath of smoke.

It was over. People started walking down the street once more. A car passed. The morning went on.

But I admit I was shaken over the symbolism. I’m the kind of person who sees signs in everything, from a random song playing to the words or numbers in a patch of graffiti, so of course I wondered if my walking out at just that moment to see this was an omen of some kind.

You see, I’d just made the decision to leave the only real home I’d ever known, the city where I’d lived my whole adulthood and had always thought I’d grow old in. I might have stayed there forever, like one of those old nonnas in the building next door who’d walk so very slowly together to the market with their hair up in colorful kerchiefs, stooped over their grocery carts, sometimes needing help with the front door. I used to see those nonnas all the time… and then I didn’t any longer. I don’t remember when, or if one was left without the other, but at some point they disappeared from Sullivan Street. Just as I had, to move to Philadelphia.

Was the dumpster fire a not so subtle sign that I’d made the wrong choice? If so, it was too late to change it. The move was done, the lease was signed, the keys to the rent-stabilized apartment let go, the money spent. The boxes were stacked in the new living room, and there I was.

Moving to Philly didn’t end up being what I expected: the pandemic came for us all soon after and I went full hermit, so I’m not sure what my life here might have been if that hadn’t happened. I do know we didn’t stay in the apartment where I saw the omen. I’m now renting a house in a quieter neighborhood away from any dumpsters, with a spacious writing office filled with books. We were meant to survive the pandemic in this house in Philadelphia instead of in our old tiny box on Sullivan Street in New York, and this is not one of my regrets.

Still, every so often, I find myself thinking of the dumpster fire that greeted me my first weekend here. I find myself transported back. Standing on the sidewalk passively watching it burn—doing nothing, saying nothing, a growing sense of doom creeping up my legs.

If you write books and try to publish them, I might ask: Does this feeling sound familiar?

Authors know that pitfalls in our writing careers can come on suddenly. You step out the door one morning and there’s a dumpster lit and roaring and you never even smelled the smoke. Or you can have a sense that something’s rumbling under the surface in the industry and you just can’t put your finger on it… and then some news of a consolidation or a downsizing or a natural sea change in staffing happens and your favorite marketing director or fantastic publicist or beloved editor leaves and it all clicks and you think, Aha, that’s what I was waiting for. There it is.

The smaller things too, the personal cuts. The nos. The lack of invites or the lack of support. It can be anything at all, that one disappointing surprise you didn’t see coming, that gut punch, that sting.

It might feel like it’s about you, but is it really? It’s more the fact that once we step into this industry, nothing is in our control.

Does this make me a pessimist or a realist or a passive ostrich with her head buried in sand? All I know is the fear about what can go wrong can be debilitating. Worrying so much about impending doom doesn’t help keep it away… or get a (good) book written… it only has me standing on a sidewalk panicking and looking around to see what might go up in flames next.

Lately, I’ve turned my attention inward. What I tell myself as I revise this long-awaited* book is that I can’t control what’s going on outside my door. I cannot control one single thing out there. I don’t know when another dumpster fire might reveal itself on this street or another, or when something amazing might fall into my lap. I can’t read the signs, because really everything could change at any moment. But there is something I can control. It’s myself. It’s the words I put on the page. It’s my story, this book I’m striving to write—as well as the other partly formed beginnings and halves and appendages of books I plan to write next, books I believe in, no matter who else does.

I can control only my work and how much of myself I put into it, not what happens to it and not what any of you think. All I can do is make this book the best I can, for myself. And if someone sets it on fire or spits on it afterward, at least I can look back on the effort I put into it—the choices that are in my control—without regret.

Last year, I was on the bus headed home from teaching a class in University City when a series of sirens started going off on everyone’s phones. The bus was crowded with strap-hangers and people piled into every available seat, and a bunch of us were getting emergency alerts from the city about a tornado warning. We were to seek immediate shelter.

Rain came down. The sky turned an ominous color. And yet the bus driver kept going along South Street without an announcement and without a reaction, and after a few murmurs that there was maybe a tornado about to hit, one woman jumped off at the next stop and ran in a frenzy down the block, but everyone else simply stayed on. Everyone around me was calm, collected, unfazed. That’s the thing about the people of Philly that I’ve come to recognize: They really have seen it all. I kept to my seat, the bus kept moving block to block, stop to stop, wind and rain whipping at the windows. And though I’d never experienced tornado warnings in any capacity like this before, my overactive imagination was visualizing a SEPTA bus lifting up in the sky and the ceiling ripping open and our bodies flying out the gaping hole into the Schuylkill, which is a river not at all pronounced the way it’s spelled. I was rattled with doomsday images, thinking of the person I loved who I wouldn’t see again, and the book I was writing that I wouldn’t get to finish and maybe that was okay, maybe I didn’t need to finish it after all, and any of the bad things in my head could have happened because they happen all over the world every day, but what came next was this:

The bus reached my stop as usual and I got off.

I was soaking wet by the time I made it to my front door, my heart beating wildly, but if this was another omen it didn’t harm a hair on me. The tornado passed us by. And beneath it, I was left alive to write another day.


* I don’t know if you would consider my next book long-awaited—but I really want it finished, so I certainly do!

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