This morning, I lied to a stranger about what I do with my life. I was at a coffee shop in Santa Fe, carrying a cup of Earl Grey tea over to my favorite seat — a modern, Ikea-esque wood bench with sea-green vinyl upholstery that looks like it belongs in the waiting room of an oral surgeon — when a young man complimented my T-shirt.
So far, so unsurprising. The shirt features a full-color illustration of the periodic table of elements and is regularly showered with praise from precisely this kind of dude: eager eyes, awkward smile, slightly unkempt hair, and a nerdy T-shirt of his very own. As I sat kitty-corner on the oral surgery bench, he pulled the fabric taut, revealing a cartoon spaceship.
“Nerdy T-shirt corner,” he quipped.
I laughed at his joke and admitted — I always do; it’s part of the shtick — that I was unfamiliar with the periodic table of elements and only bought the shirt because I liked the colors. I wasn’t really a “science-y person,” I explained, but more of a “creative type,” although I appreciated when the shirt encouraged the former to strike up a conversation.
He raised his eyebrows and drew his lips back into a nervous, horselike smile that showed all his teeth. Then he said something I didn’t totally follow:
Science, you know, so hard, explaining it to people, that’s his job, National Weather Service, the other day, etc.
I took it to mean what people usually mean at this juncture of the T-shirt exchange — science is embarrassing, creativity is cool, please be my friend — and said something reassuring in that vein. Then we got to talking.
Clarification: He got to talking. I got to listening, another time-honored routine sadly not limited to my exchanges with nerdy men. It turned out he needn’t have been ashamed of his love for science, as his litany of after-work activities showcased an impressive artistic streak. He was visiting Santa Fe from Vermont to guest star on his friend’s science fiction podcast. Before coming here, he’d traveled to Budapest for a “little reunion” with six former members of his college noise band. And every spring, he harvested sap from maple trees on his Vermont property, a weirdly official-sounding enterprise considering he didn’t give me the impression of someone who depended on maple syrup sales to survive.
In sum, he was a rich millennial; part of the so-called “creative class” of which I once considered myself an honorary member. Although I never landed a high-paid remote job, or discovered any mysterious disposable income sewn into the lining of my grandfather’s overcoat (seriously—where does it come from?) I had my own resume of quirky hobbies that allowed me to trade in the currency of the creative class, even if I didn’t feel like I totally belonged to it. I wrote incessantly, published short stories in obscure literary magazines, organized a zine festival, dabbled in amateur theater and circus arts, threw grandiose parties to celebrate my newest self-published books, and — most importantly — hobnobbed with Santa Fe’s young creative elite, a group of millennial artists, musicians, and writers that, around here, we only half-jokingly refer to as “Santa Femous.” At the height of my social prowess, I attended a party in a darkened, windowless back room at Meow Wolf, where a hodgepodge of local artists were drinking neon-green liquid from plastic champagne flutes. In the corner, sitting in what looked like a throne but was actually a plastic folding chair, haloed by glow sticks and exuding apathy, George R.R. Martin attended to a cluster of admirers. When I turned to the figure standing beside me to comment on the strange bleakness of the scene, I found myself staring dumbfounded into the dreamy brown eyes of Ethan Hawke.
Most of the events I was invited to weren’t so nightmarishly star-studded. But for a stretch of years there, I felt tantalizingly close to — if not drowning inside — the juicy center of Santa Fe’s creative in-crowd. It seemed like everyone I met was neck-deep in some ambitious and very important artistic project: completing a series of illustrations for an upcoming art show; filming a music video for their self-released solo album (on vinyl, of course); organizing a pop-up printmaking exhibition at their newly opened organic soap store (I wish I was joking); or negotiating with the city to fund their public sculpture project — a jumble of welded scrap metal that vaguely resembled a hummingbird, but mostly looked like nothing.
What I remember most from that time — roughly 2014–2019, after rising costs in cities brought more young artists to Santa Fe, but before the pandemic hit — was a pervasive feeling of excitement and possibility. Things were happening. And not just to other people. To me. I always felt just on the verge of opening an underground literary space, launching a fundraising project for a new zine, scripting an avant-garde one-woman show, or dashing off an application to an idyllic Alaskan writing residency.
All this creative expression cost more than it paid, making me — in the eyes of the IRS, at least — more hobbyist than entrepreneur, but that didn’t bother me. The real currency of masquerading as a member of the creative class was social. I could impress any artsy-fartsy Santa Fean who cornered me at a Friday night art opening or vegan donut pop-up and asked, “What do you do?” (or, from friends and acquaintances, the more familiar variation: “What have you been up to?”). And that — the feeling that, for once, my life actually mattered — was all the payment I needed.
Then the coronavirus pandemic pushed me, my social life, and Santa Fe’s entire creative class off the edge of a twelve-story building, and none have recovered since.
* * *
It’s become a cliché among educated liberals, most of whom stayed home during the pandemic, to minimize their quarantining hardships — the fear, the boredom, the uncertainty, the numbing pain of social isolation — because, compared to other people, they had it pretty good. I usually reject this logic of zero-sum despair, but in the early months of the pandemic, I clung desperately to the notion that I was safer, luckier, and had more options at my disposal than most people. I mean, I was an artist, for fuck’s sake. My one-woman creativity factory couldn’t be shut down by anything as pitiful as a deadly virus, right?
And so my creative life plowed forward as if nothing had changed. In the spring and early summer of 2020, I published a new zine, overhauled my website, started four different novels, and landscaped my entire yard — no small feat in New Mexico, where it takes a pickax and three days of wetting down the soil to dig a deep enough hole to plant a tree.
Eventually, I thought, a vaccine would arrive (I pictured Ryan Gosling in fitted silver armor, strutting across the COVID battlefield to save me), and my life would return to normal. In the meantime, what else could I do but write another story, plant another tree, and watch the sun out my living room window turn bloodred from wildfire smoke?
But sadly, my denial couldn’t last forever, and by September of that year, I realized with stark agony what should’ve been obvious all along: People give creative expression meaning. Without a network of local creatives fluttering around me on a daily basis, my boundless energy morphed into a hazy torpor I haven’t shaken off since. I kept writing — usually daily, often for hours at a time — but I couldn’t muster enough giving-of-a-shit to actually finish anything. While other event organizers scrambled to host Zoom poetry readings or asynchronous pop-ups, I stayed home, wondering whether now might be a good time to throw in the towel and never put on Santa Fe Zine Fest again. And forget about submitting for residencies, grants, or publications — for reasons I don’t fully understand and won’t go into here, nothing seems to function anymore.
Almost sounds like depression, don’t you think? Except everyone I know seems exhausted, unmotivated, overwhelmed, and a little sad these days.
Everyone, that is, except Maple Syrup Man, now chattering full-tilt about his guilty addiction to the show Ancient Aliens, the boundaries of the noise genre, and his recent success teaching himself to play the ukulele. His face was practically contorted with enthusiasm, like a cartoon villain whose rubbery skin allowed his smile to extend from ear to ear.
Normally, twenty minutes is well past the mark at which I graciously edge away from an incessantly talking man. Instead, I grasped the edge of my seat and, hypnotized, settled into another familiar role: The Fascinated Woman who interrupts the artist’s self-absorbed monologue only to utter affirmative sounds and phrases (“Oh, really? That’s interesting”) or ask vaguely prompting follow-up questions.
It was only when, spellbound, I lost my footing and responded with a blank stare and silence that his speech came to a halt. He looked at me confounded, like my face-screen had frozen. Then he gathered his wits and asked the dreaded question.
“So what do you do?”
I made an unintelligible sound. The truth was absolutely nothing, but I couldn’t pass up my first opportunity to verbally fist bump with a bona fide member of the creative class in over two years. I mentally reviewed my stash of elevator speeches: I’m a writer. I’m an editor. I’m an event organizer. I publish zines.
But they all sounded like lies. So instead I transported myself to another reality, one where my forthcoming line of bullshit was still accurate: 2019.
I pictured myself outside a converted warehouse on the south side of town, waiting for a friend’s multimedia art show to start. New Mexicans aren’t known for their punctuality, and it’s just me so far, standing by a clay pot of under-watered rosemary and watching the sky turn pink. As of yet, nobody has died of coronavirus. The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire that will destroy over 300,000 acres of forest in Northern New Mexico doesn’t exist. Down the street, on the corner, my favorite Mexican restaurant is still open for business; they serve enchiladas and pupusas until midnight.
I hear a car door slam, and someone who looks a lot like Maple Syrup Man (coiffed strawberry-blonde hair, expensive leather shoes, yogi-worthy posture) saunters across the parking lot. He calls out my name, beams a radiant smile, and we hug—no hesitation, no squeamishness about germs. Then he asks brightly, “What are you up to these days?”
Back in the coffee shop, Maple Syrup Man’s eyebrows were arched high with anticipation — or was it boredom? His formerly enthusiastic face had morphed into something oddly slack since he stopped talking about himself a moment ago.
“I, um, write,” I said, nervously rubbing my hands together. “Short stories. Dark fantasy, mostly. And I’m a freelance editor. I also organize a zine festival.”
I braced myself for a series of exuberant follow-up questions: What’s a zine? What kind of editing? What’s dark fantasy?
But as I watched his eyes slowly glaze, I remembered something that, in the service of nostalgia, I’d allowed myself to forget:
Creative people are energetic and passionate, but they’re also vain, self-obsessed, and easily bored by other people, which makes them atrocious listeners, even when you’re telling them exactly what they want to hear.
I felt a dreary shadow pass between Maple Syrup Man and myself. The wooden oral surgery bench, while visually fetching, was making my butt go numb. I wondered whether I should take this opportunity to end our tragically one-sided conversation — or if, perhaps, I should steamroll over him with a monologue of my own?
But there was no time to decide. He was already sucking a fresh breath through his nostrils. He forgot to tell me he’s working on a novel inspired by his recent trip to Budapest. I should really think about visiting sometime, he told me. It’s absolutely gorgeous this time of year.