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Maintenance as a Creative Act
Why did I never question my desire to "grow my newsletter"?
Maintenance as a Creative Act
I have a confession.
Although I spent the fall writing lovely essays about nonlinearity and moving away from a journey or goal framework for how we see our stories, I also spent a not-insignificant amount of time looking at my newsletter subscriber graph and hoping that the numbers would continue to form a tidy line moving upward and to the right. Or, if not a line, perhaps even an exponential uptick. Surely not a decrease.
A number of readers left thoughtful comments on the previous essay, Ambivalence, Irreversibility, and Leaning Into the Wonky Parts, regarding the pervasive idea of moving on to “bigger and better.” “What is wrong with slow or small or right-sized for one's own circumstance,” wrote. But “bigger and better” is one of those amorphous and deeply ingrained goals, such that it goes unquestioned.
Similarly, my own goal of, “I want to grow my newsletter” went unquestioned in my own mind for a long time.
A good question might be, “Why do I want that?”
To be fair, I said that my goal was to reach as many people who would benefit from reading it as possible, which is certainly a lofty goal. It’s also a goal that involves reaching lots of people in general – some of whom would not benefit and who eventually unsubscribe. One can’t very effectively reach only the people who are the exact right fit. That’s why unsubscribes are such a beautiful act of curation for both the writer and the reader.
Wanting to “grow my newsletter” was such a common (and encouraged) goal that I never asked myself why I wanted that, or whether there would be a point at which I no longer felt that I wanted or needed to grow my subscribership. Whether there might be a number between today’s number and all of humanity that would feel like enough. How I would know what that number was, or when I had reached it.
I truly thought for a while that if I didn’t want to grow my readership, I must have a mindset issue. I must be “playing small” out of some sort of internalized fear. (Looking at this phrase today, “playing small,” it interests me—what is wrong with playing? What is wrong with small? What would the opposite of this phrase be? Is it “working big”? Is “working big” what we are supposed to be doing all the time?)
I thought I had either a mindset issue or a skills gap, so I tried to learn about how to advance my visibility as an artist. Some of what I learned was helpful, but I was also pulled into work that wasn’t right for me. I did not want to be on Twitter. I did not want to have a “content calendar.”has finally helped me to put words to why I felt this way. It wasn’t the game I signed up for.
I tracked my subscribership because “what you attend to, grows,” without giving the same structured attention to what was most important to me about writing The Menstruant – the comments and personal emails that I receive from readers. In fact, only recently did I start putting reader emails in a dedicated folder to look back on. Because an emphasis on personal connection wasn’t the narrative, even if it was what I truly wanted. The narrative was growth.
Many business ‘gurus’ will tell you that, “if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
I used to believe it, too. My experience was that, if I wasn’t doing what it took to grow, then churn would inevitably cause my business or influence to shrink. As a result, I played the growth game more than the game I actually wanted to be playing. And because I focused on growth, I couldn’t focus on improving my product or producing remarkable content.
The opposite of growth, in this case, wasn’t churn—it was maintenance.
So I might rephrase that adage: “If you’re focused on growing, you’re not focused on maintaining.”
McMullin asks, “What could an impeccably maintained work-life look like? What could an impeccably maintained company look like?” and I realized I had never asked myself that about this newsletter. Or much of anything.
I had to take some time to even think about the metaphors contained in the word “maintained.” Weirdly, the first two images that came to mind were of lawns and fingernails. Was I confusing “maintained” with “manicured”?
I then thought of things that were lovingly cared for – a well-maintained older car, for example, or a wood cutting board that its owner oils and sands on a regular basis. Things that were tended, but not necessarily quantified. I felt a spaciousness when thinking about these examples—maintaining a piece of equipment takes time and effort, but on a steady and regular basis. It doesn’t require a sense of urgency, scarcity, or overwork.
I then consulted Webster’s 1913:
Main*tain (?), v. t. [imp. & p. p. Maintained (?); p. pr. & vb. n. Maintaining.] [OE. maintenen, F. maintenir, properly, to hold by the hand; main hand (L. manus) + F. tenir to hold (L. tenere). See Manual, and Tenable.]
1. To hold or keep in any particular state or condition; to support; to sustain; to uphold; to keep up; not to suffer to fail or decline; as, to maintain a certain degree of heat in a furnace; to maintain a fence or a railroad; to maintain the digestive process or powers of the stomach
2. To keep possession of; to hold and defend; not to surrender or relinquish.
3. To continue; not to suffer to cease or fail.
4. To bear the expense of; to support; to keep up; to supply with what is needed.
I’m intrigued by the definition of maintain as “to supply with what is needed”—particularly because it invites the question of what, exactly, is needed. Not what is aspired to, not what may be wanted, but what is actually needed. What is enough.
I’m also fascinated by the root of the word, maintenir, “to hold by the hand.” “See manual and tenable,” the dictionary notes. I find this very interesting, the idea that maintaining is something that requires our “hand,” something that we do “manually,” –to me, this denotes care, unrushedness, a sense of personality, all the specifics and flaws associated with doing something “by hand.”
Maintain. What changes when I decide that I want to “maintain” this newsletter?
The first things I wrote in response to this question, interestingly, were not about maintaining. In the first draft of this essay, after this question, I wrote:
I could say, I want to go deeper. I want to facilitate more of a personal touch.
I could say, I won’t be focusing on growth numbers.
I could say, I will pay attention and make sure this does not begin to feel like a grind for me.
But, strangely, these seem to be articulating rules for yet another game.
Maybe the frightening thing about maintenance is the idea of deciding that the status quo is enough. That one doesn’t want or need more. The sense of wanting to slowly build up a little more, in case circumstances change, is compelling.
I’m chestfeeding my baby these days, and I have been observing the conversations I get into with myself about my milk supply. I haven’t had difficulty producing enough milk to feed my son, for which I am very grateful, but I don’t make much extra. I’ve struggled to build up much of a “freezer stash”—the little zipped plastic bags of my own expressed milk, forming little bricks in the freezer, which I think of as currency that I trade in whenever I am away from my son.
I pump some bags of milk, but then I have to go to work, or I have a dentist appointment, or I want to go out and see a friend. Then I need to pump again, to maintain what was there. To hopefully get ahead a little bit.
Get ahead of what, I ask myself. The baby has enough to eat. There’s always formula. Why do I feel like I need to have so much extra stashed away?
Why does enough not actually feel like enough?
In a culture where we are so heavily encouraged to maximize—maximize our time, maximize our potential—perhaps it’s scary to decide that something is enough. Are we leaving untapped potential on the table?
Maybe it’s time to ask: So what if we are?
The idea that an overfocus on growth can be negative because it can lead to burnout seems to be relatively well-understood in the current cultural narrative, at least on a superficial level, with the idea that perhaps we should find “balance” by incorporating rest and self-care.
I would suggest that perhaps the deeper problem may be that an overfocus on growth leads to a lack of curiosity about what we truly want, and what really is enough.
What happens if we consider maintenance as a creative act in itself?