“A strange empty day”
From May Sarton’s journals—plus, more on paid newsletters
Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. My sincere thanks to everyone who weighed in on my paid subscriptions proposal/dilemma, your comments were incredibly helpful. I’ve written up my tentative conclusions below—but, first, a normal newsletter issue featuring the poet May Sarton.
May Sarton (1912–1995)
After much flailing around with my next book project, and many days of feeling utterly stuck and helpless, I’m pleased to report that I’m finally making steady forward progress, to my tremendous relief! But I still, of course, have off days, when I can’t seem to concentrate and when my usual interventions—taking a walk, taking a nap, drinking more coffee, reading something for pleasure, watering the houseplants—can’t dispel the fog of unmotivation.
Last week, I was browsing the poet May Sarton’s 1973 book Journal of a Solitude (BTW, I love this book and highly recommend it) and found an entry that reminded me of something I know but have a hard time recalling at times like this: that, for creative work, these “off days” are just as important as the more conventionally productive ones.
Here’s the entry from Sarton’s journal, dated January 18:
A strange empty day. I did not feel well, lay around, looked at daffodils against the white walls, and twice thought I must be having hallucinations because of their extraordinary scent that goes from room to room. I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything, even a few lines in a journal. I am still pursued by a neurosis about work inherited from my father. A day where one has not pushed oneself to the limit seems a damaged damaging day, a sinful day. Not so! The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever. Tonight I do feel in a state of grace, limbered up, less strained. Before supper I was able to begin to sort out poems of the last two years … there is quite a bunch. For my sixtieth birthday I intend to publish sixty new poems and, as I see it now, it will be a book of chiefly love poems. Sixty at Sixty, I call it, for fun.
A state of grace, limbered up, less strained—may we all achieve such a state! And may we all, as far as possible, greet our next strange empty day not with a busy-bodied, Puritanical scolding but with a warm and languid embrace.
In the last issue, I wrote about Alexander Pope’s paid subscription model, circa 1713, and my thoughts about potentially adding a paid subscription option to this newsletter. And I invited you all to weigh in with your thoughts, which you did in droves—thank you! After digesting your comments, here are my biggest takeaways:
Many of you would consider supporting this newsletter financially, because you find it valuable and because, more broadly, you believe that writers and artists should be paid for their work. I find this very heartening!
However, many of you also feel that $5 or $6 per month is a little steep for an email newsletter, especially when so many newsletters are now asking for reader support—which, yeah, I hear you. Fortunately, I’m realizing that there are ways to effectively charge less than the Substack-sanctioned $5/month minimum through a deeply discounted annual rate and/or an introductory discount.
In addition—and this was a surprise—many of you do not necessarily want more newsletter issues in exchange for your support. There was a palpable feeling of email overwhelm in your responses, and a number of you commented that my current every-other-Monday schedule actually feels just right. Honestly, it’s been feeling just right to me, too, so this was especially nice to hear.
Instead of more newsletter issues, many of you would appreciate some other subscriber benefit—something that does not feel like another thing to add to your to-read pile but rather a fun perk or “extra,” perhaps with a behind-the-scenes component.
This is all extremely valuable feedback! And now I’m thinking more about that last point in particular. What could I add to this newsletter that would feel like a bonus rather than an obligation, and through which I could show my gratitude to folks who opt to chip in?
Personally, the thing that drew me to writing this newsletter in the first place is my never-ending interest in stories about how writers and artists got their work done—because I find it so hard! It’s both comforting and galvanizing for me to read about how others confronted the daily obstacles in their lives and learned to “wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”
And what has been most wonderful about sending out this newsletter for the last two years is hearing back from readers who feel the same way! Or who needed to hear the same thing that I needed to hear when I wrote a particular issue. Sincerely, it’s given me a lovely feeling of community, especially during pandemic times when so many of us have been sequestered at home. (Though, honestly, that is pretty much my life during non-pandemic times, too.)
So I’d love to think of a subscriber extra that builds up or reinforces this feeling of community. One possibility I’ve considered is adding a regular “open thread” (like this one, from 2020). This would be an opportunity for you to tell me and each other what you’re reading, watching, thinking about, or working on. So—could be good. But it would mean another email (sigh) and, to be honest, I find that threaded comments can feel kind of disjointed and unnatural.
Another possibility I’m looking into is Discord. Discord started as a video-game thing, I guess? Anyway, for a long time I never really understood how it worked or why I kept hearing people mention it. But I’ve recently been spending some time there, and it’s really growing on me.
Basically, a Discord “server,” as they’re called, is like a cross between a message board and a chat room. And within a server you can have different sections devoted to different topics. So a Subtle Maneuvers server could function as a virtual space where readers can drop in to chat, share progress, ask for advice, posts links to things they’re reading, or otherwise find support and camaraderie. And it wouldn’t mean more emails—people could check in as they feel like it.
The downside: It requires yet another user account on yet another platform, and it does take a minute to get the hang of the interface.
Anyway, those are some of the things I’m mulling over at the moment, and I appreciate you all helping me think them through—please keep the comments coming! I’m aiming to make some decisions about a paid plan by the next newsletter, on April 18.
A VERY UNCOMMON GENIUS
Speaking of subscription publishing: The day after I sent my Alexander Pope issue, the brilliant Anne Trubek wrote about the poet Phyllis Wheatley’s 1772 attempt to sell her first book of poems via subscription. Wheatley took out ads in Boston newspapers, writing: “It is hoped Encouragement will be given to this Publication, as a reward to a very uncommon Genius, at present a Slave.” But the plan failed—read more in Trubek’s post.