journal coffee and oracle cards

Hear me read this piece here:


Years ago, in another lifetime and blessed with another life, my friend Danielle and I attended the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Conference together — the United States’s largest national conference for writers. We were having lunch at the Artists’ Cafe in Chicago, having just finished attending the only panel I went to during the entire conference; and, as usual, we were seething with criticism, because that was the default mode of our friendship at the time.

In particular, we were talking about desperation. I thought that the writers who’d raised their hands during the panel, asking about publication, seemed desperate. Danielle had a few favorite phrases. One was, “The cream rises to the top.” Another was, “Go big or go home.” Both applied to writers and writing careers.

She began talking about publication and small presses. She would, she said, get picked up by one of the big, prestigious houses, or she would not publish at all. Go big or go home, she said.

And she meant it. A year later, sitting on my couch in San Francisco and crying, she told me that she wasn’t sure she wanted to be a writer at all, and that perhaps she’d actually do better as a banker. She was brilliant at so many things, and I knew that the idea of publishing her first book, which would turn out to flip her life upside-down, was a terrifying one for her, whereas becoming a banker was not. She would do it big or she would not do it at all.

Danielle would end up publishing that first book to enormous acclaim and a huge advance. She would receive more awards and accolades than I can count on both hands. In other words, she went big. She is, as far as I can tell from my distant view, still writing.

I try to state all of these facts with as much objectivity as possible. I envy Danielle for particular things and not for others. While she went on to traditional literary success, the future of my first novel remains uncertain, and I’m working on a second book and building my business in the meantime. But the line that we both said over and over again, with various amounts of fervor, still nags me.

Go big or go home. Go big. If you don’t go big, you might as well give up. It was a concept that spoke plainly the ideals I held at the time. I believed in enormous novels — if not physically, then at least in concept and scope. One of the letters I received from an editor recently was that my novel was a “big, important” first book — which was exactly what I’d wanted when I was writing the damn thing — and winning the Nobel Prize. I believed in writing fiction eight to ten hours a day without getting up except to go to the bathroom or to get more gin or coffee or maybe both. I believed that if I worked hard enough, and dedicated myself with the right amount of furious commitment, I could triumph in the literary world. I believed this not only about the literary world, but about everything in my life, including my day job, my household, and the way that I loved people.

I look back at that self of not so many years ago, and I think, What hubris. I think this a bit sadly, and not unkindly. But that self didn’t understand a few things that I’ve since picked up and put in my pockets, either willingly or unwillingly.

That self that believed in go big or go home believed in a kind of control that doesn’t exist.

That self didn’t understand that circumstance often dictates the adjustments we must make in life.

That self had been dealing with mental illness for years, but still believed that “going big” to the tune of working herself to the bone was always going to be a possibility, when it wasn’t, and isn’t, and isn’t for so many people, including those who aren’t living with a severe mental illness. Which includes people living with other circumstances — children, partners who need care, multiple day jobs, different socioeconomic situations — essentially, any fluctuation in what I thought was supposed to be a perfect tuning.

I thought of this belief a lot when I was, in my mind, falling by the wayside in terms of both business development and my literary career toward the end of 2013. At the same time, the concept of ease — particularly within Danielle LaPorte’s Metrics of Ease, and my pal Alexandra Franzen’s interviews and writings about the gift of creating whatever is simplest to make, which was a terribly foreign concept to me, akin to eating with my feet — was lighting up around me. Popping up on my radar in small, ease-filled blips while I fell apart, mentally and physically, and berating myself for the inability to work hard enough, which also meant to be good enough, which also meant to work hard enough (be good enough) so that I could deserve to have an abundant, and fulfilling, business and literary career.

I berated myself while I lay in bed, my eyes unable to open, my medical situation so confusing and strange that my doctors thought it was likely I was suffering from a neurodegenerative disease.* I berated myself while trying to keep my eyes open long enough to tap something out — some pathetic, small paragraph of a book — and berated myself again when I put the tablet down and collapsed into half-consciousness for the rest of the day.

The belief that we must go big or go home is a dangerous one. It can keep us from making any steps at all, yes; but it can also destroy our idea of self-worth, if that self-worth is entwined with the notion that we must do everything or fail and become our failures. Self-worth dwindles in this model if there is no space for work; and when there became little space for work in my life, the belief I espoused so fervently in Chicago bred the belief of worthlessness.


*According to medical tests, I don’t have a neurodegenerative disease. Thank you kindly, and with love, for any well-wishes sent my way.

Click to tweet:

The belief that we must go big or go home is a dangerous one. – @esmewang, (tweet)

Intrigued by this piece about the danger of “go big or go home.” @esmewang (tweet)

“Go big or go home” relies on a control that doesn’t exist. @esmewang (tweet)

Question: Did you ever hold this belief, and in what way? Where in your life have you been “going smaller” as part of a conscious decision?