Tending the Fire of Your Writing Life

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It felt like the days when I’d first fallen in love with writing. During a long morning stretch on a comfy chair with a coffee, I’d written out most of an essay and had a fun morning of novel writing. The fun part, especially, felt like a contrast to what had felt for months like struggling, heels dug in, on the losing end of a mental tug of war. I got down an essential conversation between my two main characters, and I felt that giddy joy at liking my own work, which you know is the shortest-lived island of a moment in a sea of first-draft disdain. 

I’d swept away space as a gift to myself over New Year’s. Just me and my notebook, some books, and someone I enjoyed spending time with. Me, The AirBnB Whisperer, had found an A-frame in Oregon, overlooking the sea, and I was filled with awe at each glance at the waves hitting the huge rocks amid a mass of water.

I still had my notebook on my lap, listening to a mix called Classical Coffee time, all day ahead of me, when the person I was with said, “I’m going to tend the fire.”

To tend the fire.

This, I realized, is why I’m moving from Seattle.

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To tend a fire is to give it fuel, give it oxygen, make sure it has what it needs to thrive. God damn I love Seattle, but, in its new role as one of the most expensive cities in the United States, it’s started to choke my creative flame.

A decade ago, Seattle sparked a creative fire in me I now need to leave it to tend. 

A city is not just a place, it’s a time

In a piece I wrote for Thrillist in 2016, I said that when I first moved to Seattle in 2011, I “noticed there were many others, like myself, who led double lives. There was the bartender/letterpress artist, the retail worker/punk singer, the barista/painter. More people introduced themselves as their passion — rather than their job — and I found this charming. … Seattle was still pretty cheap then (five years ago), so a lot of people I knew worked three days a week at making money and spent the rest of the time making art.”

After a bumpy first few months in the city, I found a two-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill for $1,275. Over the next two years, the rent spiked to $2,000. In 2018, The year I wrote my book, I lived in a 150 sq. ft. apartment to be able to stay in the neighborhood I love. Then I finally moved half an hour south, and rented a room in a house with two roommates.

I’ve hustled to make it. I think if I have one reputation in Seattle, it’s as a worker. And as a former lazy little shit, I’m proud of my hustle. But I want my hustle to support, rather than overtake, my creative life.

I think sometimes we should be more scared of what we could keep doing than what we couldn’t. I could keep hustling and waking up at 5am and feeling like my art was something I checked off a to-do list before my work day started, half distracted anyway by the worries of running my business. I could keep living in other people’s rented rooms. I could keep surviving at the level of paychecks and bills, rather than really buiding my retirement and thinking about accumulating assets.

Here’s the moment I stopped running after the train: One of my favorite friends bought a house 20 minutes north of the neighborhood where we met, putting my buddy I used to meet on the corner for coffee about an hour from me. And he bought this house for about $800,000.

That same week, I overheard two people at a restaurant: “Amazon’s starting me at 165.” “They’re low-balling you.”

Seattle, I’m ready to take the hint. 

What else happened is that a bunch of my old friends have started living in Gainesville, Fl, where we went to college. On the cost of living index, where 100 is the national average, Seattle is 167. Gainesville is 90. Meaning it’s almost half the price. And I have as many inspiring people there as I do in Seattle, people who’ve lived in New York and Seattle and abroad and love creativity and life.

I hadn’t realized that my future had become such a murky fog of uncertainty until I decided to move. It gave me agency to fill in, to dream. What my house would look like. What my weekends would look like. That I could have weekends at all. I’m house hunting, and not just to torture myself. I could have an office.

I still hope to keep a hold on my Seattle community, to spend a good chunk of summer up in this paradise. But I cannot design a future as an artist in a city where the average house now costs $915,000.

Accepting the city that is

I wanted Seattle to be my forever plan, but you have to flow with what is, or so they tell me. My fire’s felt too dim for too long. 

I need the oxygen of time.

Of mental space. “I get nauseous when I see how busy you are,” said one of my contractors when I did a screen share. I don’t want my day to be a packed stack of meeting pancakes.

I need the material of reading time.

Truly exploring the work of others, the magazines I want to write for, the New York Times on the coffee table. 

I need the heat of real life.

Awe and experience, of relationships. Of hanging out. Ironically, I gave myself a grand finale during my last month in Seattle, hanging out with people almost every day. And I loved it. I’m alone all day, I need my social time, but in Seattle, it feels like it’s $50 to walk out the door. 

I learned so much in Seattle, and I have adored being in the middle of so many artists. But it’s time for me to execute all I’ve learned. To practice. 

I love being a writing coach, even more than I thought I would. I love designing the Writer’s Mission Control Center. But being a writer has to be the healthy, burning center of all that. 

You have to keep an eye on your fire. Even if it’s raging, you look away for one moment, and it might dim. You have to keep feeding it. You have to tend it, or the next thing you know, it will be out. 

Back when I was a in middle school church-goer, I went to a Christian rock concert. The band started and the lead singer said, “Stop the music, stop the music!” He said he couldn’t do it. That he felt like a fraud. He ran off stage, like we were all in an episode of Saved by the Bell. He wasn’t right with God.

I don’t want to stand on a stage in 10 years feeling like a fraud, like I’m not a writer, I just play one on TikTok. I don’t want to sit on a cold bed of ash, telling people, this is how you start a fire. 

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. ALR

    Brilliant, brillant piece. Enjoy Gainesville!

    1. Paulette Perhach

      Thank you!

  2. Congratulations, Paulette! Love the article. As a homeowner in the crazy market of Boston, I feel the squeeze of $14k per year in taxes. Trying to convince my husband to move to a smaller house. Good luck in FLA!

    1. Paulette Perhach

      Thanks Kristen!

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