Who You Are vs. What You Do

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by Alanna Okun and Aude White 

When we were younger, years before we met, we wanted to be a lot of things: mermaids, spies, artists in Paris, Mowgli from The Jungle Book’s girlfriend. We both, at one point, wanted to be farmers. We also wanted to write. 

It didn’t occur to either of us that what you would be and what you would do to make a living could be separate, or the same thing, or some nebulous combination of the two. We knew about money, as far as allowances and lemonade stands and maybe some hushed parental worries went, but not to the extent that we understood how the question of being something was also a question of how much. We didn’t know that putting a lot of yourself into one thing meant there would be less of you to go around elsewhere. We certainly didn’t know about a little thing called burnout, that there are times when you have nothing left for anything.

 
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The two of us — Aude and Alanna — began our job hunts in the same house, at the same time, during the summer when we first met. We were propelled by different energies: Alanna sublimated her anxiety with a manic ferocity, applying to a dozen publishing-or writing-adjacent jobs a day without paying much attention to what they were or if she wanted them at all. She just wanted to start, to go, to feel like she was getting somewhere. 

Aude was the opposite. Her anxiety made her slower, spikier, and more inward-facing. She’d open her laptop to the screen that displayed her resume only to slam it shut, over and over again.

“That’s not it,” she’d say.

“This must be it,” Alanna would say.

 
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Eventually, we both found jobs that suited us: Alanna as a writer for a website, Aude as a publicist for a magazine. We didn’t work together but we GChatted throughout the day, met each other’s coworkers (and sometimes made out with them), and analyzed the ins and outs of The Media.

In our different ways, we love our work. Alanna loved that she was paid to do what she had always wanted, to work with words. She loved that her reason for going to an office every day got to look pretty similar to her reason for getting out of bed in the morning — it felt neat, symmetrical, and validating. She liked that she was recognized as being good at the thing she’d long cultivated. 

But there were times when that closeness became suffocating. When she wished she had more distance between what she was and what she did, when her inability to produce, her exhaustion or her disenchantment, felt like judgements on who she was as a person. Maybe she was lazy, she was faking it, she had used up all her energy and talent in one of those early manic bursts and would never be able to replenish them. She felt lucky, to be sure, but that only made those moments of ambivalence feel even more like ingratitude. 

 
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Aude loved discovering she was good at something she hadn’t considered or even really known about back when she was an aspiring mermaid. She liked doing something that was unique and useful, something that required nimbleness and creativity without asking her to tap into her inner life on demand, something that allowed her to live at the center of the publication’s energy without needing to shovel the content coal that drove it daily. 

Except that she still did, sometimes. It began gradually, but soon she was making drawings and publishing them. She sold others to friends and friends of friends, and after years of snarling, “I’m not really a writer,” she attached words to some of her pictures as well. She hadn’t wanted to claim those labels — writer, artist, “creative” — because of their implicit hubris, their decidedly uncool assertion that you were naive and un-self-aware enough to think your work might matter. She hadn’t wanted to deal with the rigamarole of it all, the dick measuring, the disappointment. She’d wanted to protect her heart.

And so now, seven years after that first summer, we both find ourselves inching toward the center. Aude uses the safety and solidity of her publicist job to carve out space for only the creative projects she really wants to do, and Alanna became an editor so she could help other people shape their stories and worry less about Being A Writer™ on a daily basis. We still like to make things, now together as well as separately. We are learning, each day, that there is no one right way to do it, and that even our own methods will change shape over time. 

Something we’ve always talked about is the idea of spiraling. There’s the bad kind, when we obsess over small problems that unfurl themselves into shapeless, unmanageable snarls. But there also might be a more positive version of spiraling (or at least neutral), where we realize that we’re moving ever closer to what and where and who we want to be. We’re never going to reach it, though our childhood selves would be dismayed to hear that, and the goal will keep shifting, but we’re correcting for it as we go. We are, as of press time, still not mermaids. 

 
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Alanna Okun is a senior editor at Racked and author of The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater.

Aude White is a graphic artist and publicist at New York Magazine.

 
Peter Moskowitz