When I landed a two-book deal during the coronavirus shutdowns on Friday the 13th, my husband asked, "Have you noticed you always thrive, business-wise, during disasters?”
A liberal Jewish New York workaholic, I felt guilty and ghoulish. Although inadvertent, I hated to admit it was true. After 9/11, when everyone I knew was mourning, getting drunk, stoned and having trauma sex, I had trauma sobriety that I chronicled in a splashy memoir I sold to Random House. On Hurricane Sandy's blackout, I got an offer for my co-authored book on the Bosnian war from an editor who said, “At least I'll make someone happy this week.” In December, groggy from the anesthetic for knee surgery, I texted a driver to take me home, only to find that while I was under sedation, a top publisher bid on my middle-grade project. And now, amid widespread panic over the pandemic, I was planning future pub dates and publicity launches.
As someone who toiled from home in sweats and a T-shirt daily, my go-to comfort zone was already antisocial self-confinement. So no adjustment was needed. I knew I was lucky to be healthy and happily married, with no dependents to look after. Yet I'd struggled with mistakes, failures and rejections for decades. What helped me through many crises were following rules I'd learned in addiction therapy to quit smoking, drinking and drugs 20 years earlier.
According to my substance abuse specialist, Dr Winters, every day I had to keep a steady schedule (for work, diet, exercise and sleep) as well as on weekends and holidays — unless I had a plan pre-approved in advance. Otherwise, it was unacceptable to change anything based on my mood. If I was seriously sick or somebody else bailed, no problem. But if I just felt weird, tired or depressed, I wasn't allowed to play hooky, cancel a meeting or ask for a rain check on a whim. If I made a commitment, I kept it.
If someone with an addictive personality lets feelings dictate their actions, they gravitate towards using again, my therapist explained. He reminded me that I was never recovered, always in recovery, and that “feelings misinform.” It might feel unnecessary to work and workout when armageddon is approaching. But he counseled me to keep calm and “beware all excitement, because it takes you out of yourself. And you always have to go back to yourself.”
Something else I'd discovered as a broke freelancer: during catastrophes, editors and producers still needed fodder to continue printing and broadcasting. Even more so when their regulars were fleeing or freaking out. Thus the stalwarts staying in town, pitching and pounding away at keyboards, were rewarded with less competition and rare recognition. Of course, when the better-knowns returned from their glamorous respites in the Hamptons, I’d probably once again be relegated to chopped liver. No matter. In the meantime, it wasn’t a bad time to diligently offer my services, humbly follow-up and nail some long-coveted bylines.
A well-off mentor once advised me to “give back 10 times what you take from the world.” To balance my privilege, myopia and obsessive ambition, especially during traumas, I made sure to help colleagues in need, give to charity, tip waiters and delivery people well, and leave food baskets or flowers for elderly and widowed friends in my neighborhood. I also tried to respond kindly to hundreds of my current and former undergrad and graduate journalism students. They were all suddenly emailing me questions, essays and queries 24/7 on how to survive coronavirus with OCD/bipolar disorder/anxiety/kids/visas or without dorms or health insurance, and asking for names of my editors over their cancelled Spring Break vacations.
Who was I to refuse them? After all, I'd quoted the adage “the harder I work, the luckier I get” to my classes, mentioning lots of geniuses who’d given up while hard-won persistence was what won the marathon of making it in Manhattan.
The only conundrum I couldn't solve during a lockdown was how to handle regular hunger. My husband insisted we stock up our fridge and cabinets with way more food than usual. Yet when he’s fast asleep and snoring at one in the morning, I fear I’ll put away two weeks’ worth of preserves while Netflix-binging on Outlander. Hopefully while figuring out how to Zoom my courses by computer to keep my paycheck coming, my shrink will give me a discount on emergency Skype sessions.
Susan Shapiro is an award-winning writing professor and the bestselling author of 13 books including Unhooked, Lighting Up, Byline Bible and the upcoming The Forgiveness Tour
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