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Amy Zhang

Zadie Smith Told Me I was A Cute Little Boy and It Helped Me Understand Things

When I started writing, I was thirteen. I was deeply unhappy. I had a middle part and a pair of extraordinarily unflattering glasses. My music taste bordered on emo. I was pretty damn lonely because I was extraordinarily uncooperative when it came to making new friends. I’ve told this part of the story before. I moved, I hated it, I hated my parents, I hated a lot of things. I wrote a story about kids who were strong and thin and brave and happy. It was not passion. It was living vicariously. It was a safe space.

At night I dreamed of getting published, going on book tours, signing stacks upon stacks of books, rolling in money, having fans. During the day I went to school and thought terrible things about just about everyone around me. In the afternoons I wrote furiously.

Six years later I’m a month away from publishing my second book. I have toured. I have signed. I have made money. And it has given me so much anxiety that earlier today I cried because I couldn’t figure out how to upload the back of my bookmark.

Look, I know how incredibly fortunate I’ve been at every step of the way. I ended up with an endlessly supportive agent and an endlessly supportive publisher. But I am still terrified. I am scared of my professional social media accounts. I am scared of everything I’ve missed in my two (three?) year hiatus from said social media accounts. I am scared of the mob mentality on the internet and the way it tears people down over small missteps, because I have made so many small/medium/fucking huge missteps. I am scared of the fan mail in my inbox because I’ve let it stack up so much and for so long that I can’t even log in without feeling nauseous, which is horribly ungrateful of me and horribly unfair to everyone who’s written. I’m scared of being that sophomore that wrote a book. I am scared of everyone I’ve disappointed and everyone I will disappoint.

I am afraid because I am nineteen years old and I have an essay due tomorrow that I have barely started. I have a book due in a few months that I’ve also barely started. I’m afraid because last year, on a Saturday night, I got an email from someone who read my book, saying she was going to commit suicide. I was drunk and the suicide hotline I called in a panic put me on hold. I’m afraid because someone else emailed me calling me a role model. Look, I sleep through class pretty regularly. On purpose. I shop excessively when I’m stressed. I just bought a pair of fishnets I’ll never wear (just kidding. I’ll definitely wear them. But I absolutely did not need them). Sometimes when I’m feeling especially terrible I read my one-star reviews on Goodreads just for kicks. Guys. Don’t be like me.

I’m truly terrified that I will never finish writing anything again.

I think what it comes down to is this: last semester, Zadie Smith saw one of my baby pictures while flipping through my journal and told me I was a cute little boy. A little before that, she gave a talk about the philosopher Martin Buber, who wrote that there are two kinds of human relationships: I-Thou and I-It. Mostly you have I-It relationships: an encounter, not a real meeting but two concepts bumping into each other to say, hi, how are you today? It is a monologue, not a dialogue. And then there are I-Thou relationships, which are true and rare and authentic. In 2014 Falling Into Place came out and all of a sudden the I-It relationships I had outnumbered the I-Though by far, and I got overwhelmed. I’m easily overwhelmed. This should surprise no one, least of all me. I have never handled expectations well. Pressure shuts me down far more often than it motivates me. I’m not the sort of person who handles an abundance of I-It experience well.

And the difficult thing here is that I am grateful for these relationships. I understand how infinitely lucky I am to have them at all. But this is still something I decided I wanted at thirteen, newly in love with my safe space. I didn’t understand what I was signing up for. And it’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with writing–I haven’t. But I am vaguely terrified every time I open Word. And I love vegan Instagrams. I love Selena Gomez’s new album. I love the radio show I have with my roommate. I love bathroom selfies. I like taking pictures. I love chia pudding. And guys, I really, really like college. I love being here. I love my I-Thou relationships here.

So, that’s about it. I’m sorry I’ve been absent. I’m sorry I’ve been basically unreachable for two years. I’m going to try very, very hard to revive my various social media accounts. I have an Instagram project for THIS IS WHERE THE WORLD ENDS, which I just now realized is supposed to start today (plz go like my insta thx). I’m working on some other marketing things. And most of all I’m trying to understand that it’s okay to be afraid of I-It encounters, so long as that fear no longer paralyzes me.



22, 2016 |


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One Response to “Zadie Smith Told Me I was A Cute Little Boy and It Helped Me Understand Things”

  1. Kate Coursey says:

    Stumbled across this on Twitter and just wanted to say I’m glad you’re back! I didn’t publish as young as you did, but I signed with my first agent while in high school and started to feel just a smidgen of that pressure you’re describing as I began working with an editor at a major house. I checked out for a while in college—two years, actually. The work and the social media became overwhelming, and as you said, I grew enamored with my I-Thou relationships. College was so magical—the friends, professors, classes, new city, all of it, and it’s hard to live in a social media world when you’re so busy living in the real world. I graduated last May, and I’m just starting to reenter the writing community and get used to working with a new agent. Jumping back into writing-related social media was extremely overwhelming for me…I still barely tweet, and I don’t blog even remotely close to the way I used to. But little by little it’s getting easier. Anyways, I almost never comment on blog posts, but I just wanted to say something because this post resonated a lot with me. I’m sure the experience is magnified for you, since you already have a book out and one more on the way, and that adds to the pressure. I hope everything goes smoothly! Good luck getting back into things—you probably needed the break 🙂 <3

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