On milestones and "self-conscious emotions"
Plus a reader appreciation sale!
Last Friday I got an email from Substack informing me that In Pursuit of Clean Countertops, a newsletter I started because I couldn’t contain my feelings about this fellow, was a bestseller.
Being a “Substack bestseller” is a totally arbitrary metric of success, and it’s not the new orange check next to my name that makes me feel any sort of way, it’s the fact that what started as a vague experiment now feels (for the first time) like it is becoming something solid, something that matters. To me, certainly, and the over 1,000 people who are supporting me with paid subscriptions, something I do not take lightly, especially given the glut of newsletters trying to stay afloat and hold readers’ attention in a media landscape that makes it nearly impossible for writers and artists to earn a living.
When I started In Pursuit, I did so with the goal of using it to promote Momfluenced, for which I received a very small advance. Idealistically hopeful I could build momentum through the newsletter to impact sales of the book (and make money on the back end through royalties), I started writing silly essays about Cocomelon, serious essays about trad wives, and weird essays about fitness mommies.
I spent a lot of time writing some essays only to see them fall relatively flat, and less time writing others that did surprisingly well. In the beginning, it often felt like I was throwing spaghetti at the wall, never knowing what might resonate or strike a chord. And at first, I didn’t love newslettering.
Every night before publishing something, I’d feel a little (sometimes more than a little) panicky. How many typos had I missed? Did I center my own experience too much and miss the larger cultural context? Was there definitive literature on _____ I had failed to discover? Did I seek out the most relevant experts as interview subjects? WOULD I HURT ANY FEELINGS. I HATE HURTING FEELINGS.
I also really, really missed the support of an editor. To validate whatever I was writing about was worth writing about (by accepting my pitch or assigning me a topic to cover), and by validating that what I’d written wasn’t complete trash (by editing the piece and helping me sharpen it, or at the very least, reading it and identifying copy errors).
Prior to starting In Pursuit, I had spent 5ish years in the trenches of freelance journalism. The most I ever earned for a freelance gig was $4,000.00 (a profile), but the average was $350 or so per piece. Many times it was less than that. As a freelancer, I rarely published more than 10 or so pieces a year, which, if you bother to do the math, reveals that my freelance career was not a lucrative venture! As a stay-at-home parent (still waiting for somebody to come up with a better term!), I supplemented my sparse freelance income with a job at the local university’s writing center, and because Brett and I weren’t paying for much childcare, we were generally ok financially, despite the fact that I lost out on cumulative earning potential due to those years cobbling together a few hundred dollars here and a few hundred dollars there.
My youngest child is now in preschool three days a week (which is not free because America), and does a little half-day outdoor program on the other two days (also not free). Next year, ALL THREE KIDS will be in public school and yes I will be throwing a party.
Prior to publishing Momfluenced, the entire world told me that unless I was Stephen King, I should not expect to make a living from writing books. I nodded along like the good student I am hard-wired to be, but I couldn’t stop myself from unreasonably (subconsciously?) hoping that maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe against all odds and flying in the face of reason, my first NONFICTION book published by a small press would be wildly successful. I’ve written before about how it’s disarmingly easy to fall prey to this sort of magical thinking because the lead-up to publication is so frenetic, so all-consuming, and often very exciting. I had an excerpt in The Cut! A rave review in Glamour! Good trade reviews!
I only asked my agent for the sales numbers of Momfluenced once. She did her best to cast them in a non-depressing light, but Momfluenced did exactly as well as a debut nonfiction book by a non-celebrity typically does. And the entire world was 100% correct in warning me that I should not expect to make a living from writing books. That being said, I really loved writing Momfluenced, and I have so many seedling ideas for a second book that I hope to one day share.
This is the part of the essay where I try very hard to avoid writing some sort of sentence about shame. If any other mother—stranger, friend, or beloved family member—expressed embarrassment that she hadn’t succeeded by capitalist metrics during the years she was creating life, protecting human life, and nurturing human life, I would OF COURSE burst into righteous flames on her behalf before mounting my soapbox and ranting about how her worth should not be defined by the fact that our culture values some kinds of work and devalues others.
So instead of expressing embarrassment or leaning into shame about my history of low earning potential, I’m going to instead express something else. Pride. In March 2022, I started a newsletter with the intention for that newsletter to support my book writing. But as of this writing, I’m projected to make over fives times more from In Pursuit this year than I did from the advance of Momfluenced in 2021. This newsletter is supporting my book writing, but not in the way I expected. It’s providing me with enough financial cushion to even consider writing another book. Were it not for the income generated from In Pursuit, I would need to get another job, and I am not sure what kind of alternative job would allow for the flexibility or mental capacity to even flirt with the idea of writing a second book.
In psychiatry, pride is referred to as a “self-conscious emotion,” meaning it can only be accessed through self-analysis and self-awareness. This is why parents are often encouraged to ask children if they feel proud of themselves for their achievements rather than emphasizing parental pride. Receiving external praise or someone else’s pride is not the same as a self-generated feeling of pride. The former relies on someone else’s assessment of your worth, and the latter depends on inner knowledge of worth.
As someone who’s always chased the high of external validation, it’s no wonder that pride is a difficult emotion for me to experience. And then, of course, there’s the gender of it all. People socialized as girls are trained from birth to seek out external validation as a way to situate themselves and their value in the world. We either grow up being told we’re pretty or we grow up watching other girls be called pretty. We either grow up being praised for our helpfulness, flexibility, and compliance or grow up watching other girls be praised for their helpfulness, flexibility, and compliance. We become women who agonize over apologizing too much or not enough, women who self-describe as people pleasers, who struggle with imposter syndrome, who chalk up our achievements to luck or good timing, who feel more comfortable shrinking ourselves than taking up space.
In March 2022, In Pursuit of Clean Countertops was not much of anything, but I have made it something, and making it something has been hard. Many times I toyed with throwing in the towel. Many times I felt foolish for continuing to try. But I did keep trying. And I’m proud of that. Considering how difficult it is for me to feel proud, I’m also proud of feeling proud!
None of this would be possible without this community of readers. Whether you’ve supported me through paid subscriptions, forwarded my essays to friends, shared my work via Notes, or referred new readers to me, you are integral to the success of In Pursuit of Clean Countertops and I’m so grateful for you making this work not only worthwhile but also sustainable. Every week, I’m surprised, enlightened, encouraged, and inspired to buy yet another hair oil or dabble in a little Keeping up with the Kardashians because of you. Your generosity and thoughtfulness in the comments make this a truly delightful virtual place to be. Thank you.
To celebrate a big milestone for me and to celebrate you all helping me achieve it, I’m offering 20% off of subscriptions here, and also inviting paid subscribers to my first EVER live AMA which I am very nervous that no one will show up to so please please show up! Save the date - Tuesday November 7th at 7PM EST. If you want to submit questions in advance, you can do so here. We can talk about Bath and Body Works signature scents, we can talk about trad wives, we can talk about publishing, we can talk about newslettering! I’ll be there with bells on until 8PM EST at which point, I’ll swan dive into an episode of Lupin. See you there!
As one more hearty thank you to the folks who make this newsletter possible, here are my three big takeaways to creating a successful newsletter.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to In Pursuit of Clean Countertops to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.