Doll Heads - Erin J. Bernard

You’ll Get Bad Things and Like Them: Hate Songs, Little Mouth Cuts and Great Looming Silence

Have you ever had a little cut in your mouth that you couldn’t stop chewing on?

Poking at, worrying over, jabbing and stabbing against with your tongue, endlessly, compulsively? Even though it hurt, even though you knew all that biting was only prolonging the suffering? Didn’t you feel just inexplicably, irresistibly compelled to mess with it, even if doing so kept it from healing over?

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Spotted around Manhattan: Cheeky Vanity License Plates of Banking Industry Execs

Six-and-a-half years out from tanking the global economy, demanding that foreclosed taxpayers bail the ship, and then threatening to sue the government for offering a bailout at all, America’s Big Banks continue to winge over legal costs, battle regulation of every sort, and dole out spurious bonuses to their Fat Cat Execs.

Disgraceful behavior warrants a bit of satire.

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Camus, Sisyphus, and Life’s Big Boulders : meditations on the futility of writing

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Note: This was originally a letter I wrote to an editing client. But I liked it so much I’ve decided to share it here.


Hope the rewrites are coming along. I just came across a fantastic article in The Atlantic Monthly about author Fay Weldon’s perspective on the futility writing and it gave me the chills. A case of just the right words at the right moment, or at just the wrong moment, as it were, for me, lately.

Weldon riffs on on Camus’ old conceit that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” and presents it as an essential metaphor for anyone having a serious go at writing. I love the visual of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up and up the hill, and smiling all the while, because though his efforts are futile, there is a certain elegant rebellion to the act. We think of him with pity and consternation, because how could anyone be happy in the face of such a grossly impossible task?

Like Camus and Weldon suggest, maybe we’ve got this particular ancient Greek all wrong … Maybe we are painting him with the colors of our own judgments and self-imposed limitations. Perhaps he is improbably happy, if for no other reason than because his decision to doggedly pursue an impossible passion is an act of wonderful, ridiculous defiance. Defiance of the odds, of expectations, of conventions, of a universe that sometimes seems not to give a shit about us at all. What a metaphor for the creative process! And, of course, the larger article is a very nice meditation on the joyful futility of writing anything at all. Check it out here.

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Which brings me to your question: what am I thinking, career-wise? Hem. It changes, moment by moment. The last month has been rather hard on the heart. A whole lot of rejection, and a whole lot of me being unwilling to take the advice I so freely dole out to my clients, my writers: Keep on! Rejection is inevitable. Focus on improving yourself. Pout briefly, then keep going. Doors closing and opening, blah blah, etcetera, ad nauseam. The problem is, I’ve secretly hoped it wouldn’t apply to me. To everyone else, sure, but note me. I don’t want to take my own medicine. Why? Because it’s bitter as hell. Because it smarts going down. Because the lumps and bumps are for other people, but not for me. Alas! The horse-pill of writerly rejection is a non-negotiable. I get that now. We all want to be the exception, deep down. Maybe it’s the way we’re brought up in this country, made to believe that if only we apply ourselves and try sincerely, the world will welcome our talents and reward us generously with money and accolades. If only it were. We are all unique, special snowflakes, but only until the gods rain piss all over our tiny, precious dreams and we go melting immodestly back into the clay.

That said, over these long, lonely weeks in Mexico of pouting and simmering and broken computer cords and sipping rum and swinging lackadaisically in hammocks and bartering with the universe and making threats to myself to never try and publish another thing again, I come finally to this: frittered time, wasted opportunities and squandered talents ought to terrify us far more than they do. At the least, doing nothing with our gifts certainly ought to scare the shit out of us slightly more than taking up that dusty boulder for one or a thousand more gos up the hill. No matter where it’s all leading. Too many people give up on themselves. I’m an easily discouraged person, I suppose, but to deem myself, at the ripe age of 33, a washed-up, never-was writer strikes me as a wee bit dramatic, even for my excitable sensibilities.

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

In short, I’ve determined to keep at it with the personal writing projects. As far as money-makers go, I will continue to edit manuscripts such as yours, as this is fulfilling and heartening and perhaps a regular essential reminder that it’s all connected, and that the laws of the universe apply to us all, no matter how many fancy writing degrees we have hanging on our walls (or, as in my case, stuffed into my desk drawer with coffee stains on them). That’s a lumpy lesson, indeed, but an important one, and one that is being given to me over and over, so I might as well acknowledge it and get on with things. I’ve also decided to pursue professional copywriting more aggressively, again, because I enjoy it and because it keeps the lights on.

It’s a long game, I suppose. I get that now. So, to borrow a line from Camus and the article above, I’m going to imagine myself happy and soldier on accordingly. Here’s to boulders, and mountains yet to climb! Here’s to 2015!


Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Dissed and Dismissed: On Missing Body Parts and Writerly Rejection

I received strange news from the chiropractor today. It appears I am missing my bottom set of ribs. It’s a relatively harmless genetic quirk (my mom, apparently, is missing hers as well … who knew?) that affects some 6 percent of the population. Nobody ever even noticed my anatomical failing till now. But not to worry. I’ve got 11 perfectly healthy sets to mitigate the gap. And really, it’s only a small one.

It has been a month of coming up short, writing-wise, as well. Permit me to briefly complain?

I’ve lately made a few inroads with bigger, better-known websites and had established some very promising writerly leads for my personal essays. I’ve been trying for a few years, now, to get these published in bigger outlets, but, as is the case for so many would-be big-time writers, the results have been less than stellar. A lot of work for a lot of very politely worded “No Thank Yous.” This was, yet again, the case with my latest round of prospects, all of which have recently fallen through.

Then, just this morning, my biggest client, for whom I’ve been working on a weekly basis since I jumped the Sinking Newspaper Ship to go full-time freelance more than two years ago, fired me.

Oh, everybody’s had all sorts of encouraging feedback for me and nice things to say about my potential and my can-do attitude, but nobody seems to feel that the quality of my output is quite up to snuff, or up to style. Or both. Or either. Or whatever.

It’s not personal, I realize. It’s about creating a product that a client wants to pay you for. It’s a business transaction, calculated upon risk and reward. But being told, “No” feels … intensely personal. And sort of gutting.
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Being a freelance writer means getting hired (or fired) on a daily basis, and it takes a lot of mental-emotional winding up to deal with the unpredictability of that, week after week. I’ve been doing it for 27 months, and it hasn’t gotten remarkably easier, that’s for sure. The highs are still high, and the lows are still sucking mucky pits of disappointment.

And then last night, even before I’d been fired by my big client, this thought occurred to me: am I truly willing and ready to make the (possibly decades-long) time-investment required to succeed at a career in writing? Do I have the hide for it?

I’m still not quite sure. The hopeful part of me believes that such questions are merely the mutterings of ego, that it’s normal to be discouraged, and perhaps even noble to be rejected, but absolutely unacceptable to simply give up after a few mid-season losses. The less hopeful part of me says, “No. No, I am not willing.”

The less hopeful part of me thinks maybe I should have become an acupuncturist, or a teacher, or a radio journalist instead. The less hopeful part of me wants to curl up in my office recliner and pout like I’ve never pouted before. Noisily and copiously, perhaps while smoking a cigarette or having a lunchtime drink.

I’ve done neither of those things as of yet and it’s already after 12:30 p.m., but I’ll admit it: I have definitely been pouting. There were even tears, people! As a writer, I tend to wear my feelings on my shirtsleeves. It feels brave, but like those missing ribs, it also leaves me feeling pitifully overexposed in some moments. My fawning emotionalism isn’t a personality trait I’m in a hurry to change, but it’s also not necessarily one I’d recommend that anyone interested in a creative profession cultivates intentionally.

As an editor, I tell it to my clients all the time: Develop a thicker hide. Work on yourself and on your process and push through rejections and disappointments. You just never know what’s going to hit. As a writer, I have a bit more trouble taking my own advice.

How to stave off the Pity Party when the “No Thank Yous” become rather prolific and you find you are missing something essential? Me and my 11 ribs are off to Mexico Thursday morning. I’m photographing a wedding there this weekend, and have plans to stay on for much of December. My plate has been unexpectedly cleared of some of the work I’d planned to do down there, so I suppose I’ll have plenty of time to ponder all this. In the meantime, I’m curious to know how other writers cope.


Something Silly this Way Comes: Four Signs of the Impending Portland-Pocalypse

Photo/Text by Erin J. Bernard

Photo/Text by Erin J. Bernard

First: summer in Portland now lasts till winter. Or is trying its hardest to, at the least. We’re knee-deep in October, and though the leaves are dropping and fattened squirrels are milling about the yard and roof in a mild state of panic, temperatures are still hitting the 80s every few days or so. I’ve been sitting out on my front porch most evenings taking in the balmy air and it feels surreal to think that Halloween is a quick three weeks out.

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Under His Spell: In Scrabble as in Love, it’s the Little Words that Count

 Deep down, I think, what most writers really want is to be loved with words.

Forget the short-shrift gestures, the achy-breaky looks, the profound silences. Forget ever, ever leaving anything unsaid.

But, ah! The hand-penned poem, the stumblingly sincere email missive, the drunken, napkin-back confessional. These are the mightily longed-for asseverations of a writer’s native tongue. They are ardently imperfect. And they are beautiful.

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A History of Pop Culture Subversion: Nine Food-and-Drink Mascots Who Totally Ruined Your Life

Hey, you! Humanoid American of non-specified ethnicity or gender born between the years of 1980 and 1985!

Are you suffering from a low-grade case of of pre-midlife malaise? Are you currently jobless, newly dumped, or suffering a case of the existential snifflies? Are you beginning to suspect that maybe you’ve totally flunked your own life?


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