One of the best things about the world of technology is that you can end up in it having come from any direction. The most successful founders, venture capitalists, designers, etc. have fascinating stories behind their success, and every week Charming Robot‘s Dan Maccarone sits down over our guest’s favorite cocktail, wine or beer to hear where they came from and what they’ve learned along the way.
Arikia Millikan is a journalist and entrepreneur with a resume that boasts digitizing traditionally print-centric brands. It’s a career that’s given her a fair share of behind-the-scenes experiences with the epidemic that’s overtaking the industry – the continued and steepening uphill battle of maintaining the right motivation in the world of news and content. Over Bloody Marys (with a fun twist) at Fools Gold in NYC, she explains how her unique approach in applying engineering principles paired with a “squeaky wheel” reputation help her press forward and innovate within this challenging space.
Topics we discuss include:
*Me being dragged kicking and screaming into learning about journalism business models.
*Why Medium is the worst.
*How I tried to help several print-centric media companies monetize their online content before that was cool and nobody listened to me, even though I was ultimately correct.
In this issue, we speak with Cyber Communication Specialist Arikia Millikan, about why she started using digital security and privacy tools as a journalist and her recent efforts hosting CryptoParty workshops to teach people how to develop personal risk assessments and how to make use of increasingly broad-based and user-friendly tools to defend themselves.
Last week, journalist Arikia Millikan reached out to women-in-tech listservs with some basic pointers on things like encryption, warning that “now is a good time to get serious about online security.” The response was strong enough that she followed up on Sunday with what’s known as a cryptoparty, where just under a dozen people gathered to learn more about protecting their online privacy. They went over security best practices and swapped “keys” — a phrase that has nothing to do with swinging and everything to do with vouching for the authenticity of each others’ encrypted accounts. The gender ratio was evenly split, which is rare for these kinds of events, she said.
There is a place in Thailand that, to me, is the most magical place on Earth. I found it by accident, but I think I’d like to die there someday. I won’t say where it is, but if you ever want to go, tell me and if you’ve been kind to me over the years I will hand-draw you a map. In the mean while, I think we could all use a little magic during these tough times, so I’ll show you what I found there.
It all began when I woke up in my cliff-side bungalow the morning after I arrived, and looked out the window. By the first light of dawn, I saw something interesting outside:
It looked like the entrance to a cave off in the distance. I’d stayed here once before but this was a new bungalow—two years ago the jungle was covering this particular view and I didn’t know the cave existed.
While eating breakfast I chatted with an adventurous Slovakian couple. After finishing, the man hopped over a low rail partitioning off the dining area from the rocky cliff, and waved goodbye. I turned to his partner, and asked where he was going. She pointed to the rocks below. I was amazed they were going down there, because not once had the idea occurred to me last time I was there. I assumed it was too dangerous and stuck to the several sandy beaches, each offering its own slice of nature that was more than fulfilling for me. Minutes later, she finished her yogurt and prepared to walk down to find her mate. Knowing nothing about them I thought perhaps they were the rock-climbing type, and asked about the decent. “Yeah the path is kind of treacherous but it’s worth it,” she said, climbing down in flip flops.
Surely if she was wearing flip flops, I could do it in sneakers. But she wasn’t lying about it being treacherous. When I climbed down later there was barely a path through the jungle overgrowth, and I crabwalked and bouldered down most of the way. When I finally reached the bottom though, it was magnificent peaceful rocky heaven.
I’m riding in the back seat of my aunt’s SUV, swaying along dark country roads while I try to focus on what I need to do to ensure my survival across the Atlantic this winter. She chats with her friend from down the street and my cousin next to me in the back seat talk about this television show and that, and I may as well be an alien in a pleated skirt and lipstick posing, poorly, as a suburban human. They talk about the newest episode of blah-blah-blah as I sit quietly, watching the rain cling in droplets to the window, grudgingly fracturing off into various paths and I think of Jeff Goldblum flirting with Laura Dern and chaos theory. They discuss which actress was good and which was bad while my mind drifts back to something my aunt said over dinner: about why the public discourse has shifted so drastically to the Syrian refugees when the Haitians have been coming over in boats and drowning trying for decades; about why there is such a debate about helping the Syrians when we haven’t even helped our next door neighbors living in the worst poverty one can imagine, before the subject was strategically changed by her friend who is of the opinion that politics should be avoided during meals and especially meals with family members from New York. I overhear so-and-so won the Emmy for something as I stare off into the woods watching the trees slice through the floodlights of faraway houses, and I am back in Haiti smelling the burning garbage and feeling my combat boots rub my heels raw while I walk with the author of the Lonely Planet Guide to Haiti for miles, past the markets where the sellers tirelessly flip the produce and descriptionless pharmaceuticals stuck to cones that brings in the $2 they need to survive for the day. They laugh at the screen death of a B-actor but I am standing with my nonchalant little sister over a mass grave filled with the bodies of victims of poverty, of America’s refusal to take responsibility for the power it has accrued, which led to the lack of help for our neighbors near and far, which led to the lack of stable concrete that burst into powder and smothered everything and everyone beneath it the fraction of a second the tectonic plate nobody had ever thought was a risk slipped beneath the hellish island from where my life snapped into existence on this plane. I exhaled sharply.
“Riki, are we talking to much about TV?” my aunt asks.
“No,” I say pleasantly and smile, loving her so much it overrides my building anxiety over the futility of our day’s events to change any bit of what is wrong with things.
“Are you thinking about all the work you have to do?”
Author’s note: I wrote this after consuming a substantial amount of whiskey, then edited it sober. Best read with a fake NY accent.
So I’m in my favorite bar in Brooklyn. It’s 2amish, when the regulars from my first Brooklyn neighborhood come in to get rowdy. They say the Subway is the great equalizer of New York City but we’re not allowed to drink alcohol on trains here. This cavern of debauchery—my Tuesday night worship center tended by Metalhead Jesus who serves whiskey instead of wine—doesn’t quite draw a random sample of city-dwellers; set back a considerable distance from the street with nothing but three stenciled letters reading “b-a-r” to identify itself, I suppose it self-selects for those inclined to be trusted with secrets; it transcends class, race, and income, while running the gamut of big city personalities.
This is the place that keeps me grounded; it’s how I make sure I never get sucked too deep into any particular bubble, my portal back to ordinary life—whatever that means in NYC.
I was at the far end of the bar laughing with Lily*, a woman who befriended me years ago by telling me all of her girlfriends hated me, then being impressed when I didn’t give a shit about who or why (because their boyfriends tend to get drunk and send me naked pictures, I guess). She asked if I wanted to go out for a smoke with her, so I broke out a pack of my duty-free Camels from Istanbul.
“You know these only cost $2 a pack in Turkey? Why are they so expensive here?” I complained rhetorically.
Unexpectedly, the guy sitting next to Lily, a “regular” so she claimed when she introduced him to me, uttered to no one in particular:
A record screeched inside my head and I let out a scoff.
“What?” I looked to Lily seeking some further context about this person, this statement, but with a subtle shake of the head as she turned away, she removed all ties and responsibility from this person.
I observed him as he started straight into the bar shelves. He nodded, one emphatic nod, and looked at me sideways as if to say, “you heard me.”
“Wait, what? Did you say ‘sharia’?” He sighed, seemingly exasperated that I didn’t get the connection, and sipped his drink. He expected me to drop it and go away. But sometimes I like to argue for sport, so I decided to call his bluff.
“No no, how would sharia law impact the cost of cigarettes in New York?” For a moment as he sat there looking annoyed, I doubted my own skepticism. I bended my mind to consider this new conspiratorial option. At the very least, I wanted to hear the punchline of a joke I didn’t get.
He made the face of a know-it-all fifth grader, and for a moment I thought I was about to get schooled. Then, all at once, he resigned, hunching forward.
“Yeah, I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about,” he admitted. “You got me!”
Lily gave me a congratulatory glance. I laughed. He was too drunk to care, but I could sense the onset of embarrassment seeping through the whiskey, so I said: “OK, well you wanna know my theory?”
“Yeah, what is your theory,” he said, finally turning to face me.
I said something about how the American public’s complacency with monopolistic industries that are capable of manipulating governmental regulatory entities has resulted in bulk inflation of goods that holds no bearing on the actual cost of the items outside of this legislative zone. Cigarettes were an easy target here because of the additional “sin tax” factor. Just a theory. I don’t really know, but at least I know what I don’t know.
He faux proposed to me, and Lily and I finally went outside to smoke.
I wonder in what other circumstance he might have blurted out an Islamic buzzword as an explanation for some other minor first world injustice, and how maybe another time no one would have called it out. Someone listening may have thought “yeah, that Muslim thing, that sounds right,” and inflated the image of Middle Easterners as abstract demons coming for every last one of our freedoms. After all, how many Americans believe that Islam started and is the present cause of all our problems? I would think there is some substantial overlap with the ones who think a set of religious laws that are used to generally oppress women and free thought, has anything to do with the price of cigarettes anywhere in the US.
I don’t really know who else would care enough to call out a drunk stranger at a bar. I hope a lot of people. I personally do it all the time, for practice and amusement. There’s an art to engaging with people who automatically assume themselves more clever than you, to setting them straight without pissing them off, to doing it in a way such that they respect you after. I wish more people would do it. This city is built on bluffing and bullshit, but what it really needs is a whole lot more caller outers.
Back inside, we all continued drinking whiskey around our corner of the bar and navigating other shaky political ground and laughing. If you want to kick it in the great equalizer, you can’t be so PC all the time. I’ll forever be baffled by the dumb shit Americans say. But I’ll keep listening to it.
Today I went to a seminar on happiness at the Kadampa Buddhist meditation center in Chelsea. I don’t know that I am a Buddhist, or that I am any religion. But out of the global sampler platter of spiritual practices I have encountered in my 27 years on Earth, I find that Buddhist philosophies make the most sense and offer the most practical advice. I’ve met a lot of monks in a lot of weird places, and they have shown me things through the most subtle gestures, sometimes without even speaking. My curiosities about Buddhism have never pressured me to adopt a delusional belief structure, attempted to rob me, or demanded I adopt the mandates of a patriarchal authority figure, or else. Every time I approach Buddhist practices with questions, its teachers simply encourage me to look inside myself to find the ways by which I can alter my perspective to maintain inner balance.
In this sensation-seeking body in general but especially in this roller coaster of a concrete jungle, I’ll take all the balance I can get.
In 2012 I sat in the main lecture hall at the Being Human conference in San Francisco. When a presenter walked on stage to commence a group meditation, I looked around incredulously and, unwilling to participate in this ritualistic exercise, took out my phone to tweet. Clear my mind? Was that even possible? Consuming mass amounts of information via the internet was my meditation then. Now, possibly out of frustration with the state of information on the internet and the increasingly invasive modes by which it is transmitted, I have found a new appreciation for mental stillness.
Back to the present day in this meditation class, a woman came in late, sat down next to me, proceeded to check her email on her phone and scrawl into a notebook with the loudest pen ever. As I struggled to maintain my concentration atop my annoyance, I felt a karmic poke in the ribs.
So the lecturer, Kadam Morten, proceeded to talk about finding happiness. Where is it? American society would like to have us believe that it is somewhere out there. You can touch it, taste it, feel it, buy it, fuck it, smother yourself in it—oh but not yet. You’re not quite there yet. But, if you keep working and spending and wanting, then maybe you’ll find it. No. According to Morten, happiness is inside of each of us, we only have to learn how to access it so we can find our way back there any time. This involves dumping all the worries and cluttered thoughts and to-do lists from our minds and just being with ourselves internally.
During a guided meditation, he instructed us to think of something that made us happy. At first I panicked because I realized that my happy places and people and moments also made me sad because I am now so far away from them. But then I managed to get back to a place in Michigan, sitting on the end of a pier looking out at a perfectly still lake next to my best friend, our heads resting on each other’s as we sat in silence. And I remember thinking in that moment that I wanted to save it like a file on my computer, to access at will always and forever.
And then he beckoned us to prepare to meditate on death, in the most light and jovial manner I have ever heard anyone approach the topic.
“The impulse to check in with external stimuli has never been stronger,” he said, referencing the entirety of what capitalism immerses us in. “Now is the time to check in with death, and be present in our lives.”
While it is oft considered morbid to think about death and especially to talk about it, Morten made a pretty compelling case for why we should think about it excessively: the fact that we will die is really the only certainty we have in life. ‘Death and taxes…’ whatever—we could all die before it’s time to do taxes. To live life in denial of our mortality is to live disconnected from reality, whereas to embrace death is to live in the moment, he said.
So imagine that tomorrow you will die. What would you do with your day? Would you spend it arguing with someone you loved? Would you spend it watching TV? Reading celebrity gossip? Being a drone?
Nah. You’d do something radical. You’d make a step toward creating the legacy you’re capable of leaving behind. You’d connect with people you love. That’s what I intend to do tomorrow.
Thanks to Talia Eisenberg for inviting me to explore this peaceful pocket of NYC.
Bonus items in video games are almost always hidden behind some array of dangerous obstacles. On first play, most people would avoid them. The primary goal, after all, is to complete the level. But when you immerse yourself in the virtual world for long enough, you begin to see the obstacles as goldmines. You know that the only reason that lava pit, or wall of bees, or freakish baddie is there is to guard the prize on the other side.
Maybe the first time you found one was on accident, when you lost control and saw the prize on the other side as you were falling to your death. So you went back. Your instincts began to invert themselves. Now, instead of running away from harm, you plow straight into it. You sacrifice your health based on some kind of faith that, once you break through, whatever is on the other side will restore you and give you powers you never knew existed—strength that will make the obstacles you once feared seem benign.
A few weeks ago I noticed my brain doing something weird. I was in Iceland at a Steed Lord show with two of my favorite Icelandic tech lady friends, and we’d had a few beers and a shot they call a “magic carpet” (Redbull and Amaretto, actually pretty good). I was in a crowded room and knew nobody, but those two, had never seen the band before, but I kept thinking that the performer’s look and everything about her was terribly derivative of Lady Gaga.
I started thinking about the fact that the people of Iceland really did not give a fuck about Lady Gaga, just like very few Americans probably knew who Steed Lord was except for maybe some of the Williamsburg types I used to order coffee from. I contemplated how where I was was as west as I would be, geographically and otherwise, for the next 10 months; that as I carried on eastward, my surroundings and cultural references would become dimmer and more removed from the reality that I’ve known my whole life.
As I surveyed the crowd of dancing bodies, singing along with lyrics that I didn’t know, my eyes caught on someone who looked like a friend of mine, tall with dark hair piled on top of her head in a loose bun. She has a face that’s unique when you’re the only half-French, half-Chinese chick in NYU, but in Iceland that kind of Bjorkish facial structure is quite common. I realized it wasn’t her in a split second, but the disappointment lingered. Because in my previous life, it could have been. Even though there are 8.2 million people in NYC, I developed patterns of behavior similar to so many of the ones I liked the best such that by the end of my time there, I ran into someone I knew almost every time I went out.
For the rest of the set, everywhere I looked I saw someone who could have been someone I knew, fully knowing that it wasn’t, that it couldn’t be. Some logical part of my brain had grasped my new-found geographical estrangement, while some mechanical pattern-abiding part couldn’t yet accept it. It was sad, exhilarating and scary all at once. Could I really last 10 months without seeing a familiar face in familiar places? I’d have to, so yes. I remembered that I went through the same thing when I first moved to New York. It took time, but gradually that strange and intimidating cesspool of human struggle and triumph transformed from an overwhelming blur into something so normal I couldn’t be bothered to look out the window of my airport cab upon returning home from a short business trip.
In that club, the reason I saw my friend in that setting is because she would be in a setting like that. Thinking about it now, the brain does this in so many ways — it looks for people and things to fill the roles we expect of them. It didn’t take too long to stop expecting to see my friends in Iceland, and to focus on meeting new people in the moment. So now I realize I have quite a bit of unraveling of expectations to do on many levels. The whole world is at my feet right now, and I can redefine my expectations of new people however I see fit. And so can anyone, no matter where they are. It’s all a matter of perspective. Because hey, I take spontaneous and sloppily planned trips to Iceland to encounter fake Lady Gagas and write about it so you don’t have to.
I moved to New York when I was 21 with two suitcases and a credit card. I had zero savings, zero checking, and didn’t know very many people in the city. I had a job lined up writing copy for exhibitions at the New York Hall of Science, but they called me the day before my flight to tell me that they’d just been notified they’d had a half million dollars of funding cut by the NY state government and couldn’t hire me after all. I had two choices: to get on the plane and figure it out, or stay in Ann Arbor, Michigan and figure it out.
In retrospect, there was only ever one option. I came here, clueless, nervous, broke, scared, but with a lust for life so great it propelled me past all the inhibitory emotions. I told myself from the very beginning that I would stay for five years. It was a seemingly arbitrary goal, but one that has never stopped making sense to me. Only after living here for five years, I told myself, could I say that I “made it” in New York City. But upon reaching five years, I would go, so as to not become jaded by the city. I didn’t have any ideas about how this would happen, but I had an image in my mind of the stereotypical New York spinster woman, hardened by success and embittered by all she’s seen. I decided this wouldn’t be me.
My first apartment was a second story walk-up on S. 4th street in Williamsburg with my very own fire escape outside of my bedroom window. Late at night, I would sit out there and smoke cigarettes while watching musicians move their instruments in and out of the practice space across the street. I wondered if I would ever be cool enough to hang out with them.
I had no idea what I was going to do for money or work, so I just began exploring. The guy I sublet the room from recommended a temp agency, so I decided to apply, but first I needed to make a copy of my passport. I was told I could do at a place called The Internet Garage.
For the first month I lived in NYC, I had no idea where I was going. I didn’t have a smartphone then (it was 2008 but I was poor), so I would look up my destination on Google Maps on my computer (a 4-year old Adveratec which needed to be kept on life support with an external keyboard, hard drive, and cooling pad) and write it down on paper or just try to remember the directions. When I would walk out of my apartment, sometimes I would walk the wrong way wind up making three more turns in that same direction so as to not get completely lost and go home, defeated. The first time I tried to find The Internet Garage, I went to South 5th instead of North 5th and wound up in a slightly sketchy area thinking maybe I wasn’t cut out for New York.
The next day I tried again, with my hand-written map, and I found the Internet Garage, right off of Bedford Avenue. I suddenly understood what Williamsburg was all about. It was a bunch of creative misfits fitting in amongst their peers for the first time in their lives. I asked the tattooed guy wearing a Yankees hat who helped me scan my passport behind the desk if I could work there. I told him I’d gone to school for engineering and was a fast learner. He arched an eyebrow at me and said most people who have worked there probably couldn’t do high school math, but if I really wanted to work there he’d think about it.
I applied with the temp agency and got hired at the world’s largest stock holding company, as a secretary. They told me I was to be an envelope-stuffing office monkey from 9-5 every day and must abide by their dress code by wearing corporate attire. I shuddered to think. The night before I was to go in for fingerprinting and processing in the financial district at 9am, I went out with my pseudonymous blog stalker and wound up getting wasted and staying up until 7am making out on a rooftop overlooking Manhattan.
I just looked up the actual email I sent to the agency when I woke up and realized I’d slept through the meeting, and it is pretty hilariously Arikia-ish:
I just woke up and realized that I missed my meeting. I don’t really know how it happened – I remember setting my alarm last night before I went to bed – but I have some idea as to why it happened. I don’t think I want to work at DTCC, and my subconscious mind made that happen. Actually, I don’t want to work at any corporation. I’m a writer and I want to write. I ‘m done doing meaningless work just because someone said so. That’s what a lot of college was, and I graduated.
So, please relay my apologies onto Michael and Jamie over at DTCC that I’m sorry for wasting their time. I suppose I’m sorry for wasting your time as well.
Best of luck to you,
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my real-life “Devil’s Advocate” scenario, and my decision set me on the trajectory that would fulfill all of my New York dreams.
The next day after my hangover subsided, I went to retrieve my passport, which I had forgotten in the scanner at the Internet Garage, and lo and behold, they hired me. For $8/hr, I got to blog my little heart out while I helped people use the Internet Garage’s ridiculously ’90s machines to get online. And I was happy. Some of my fondest New York memories were made in that place, and it provided all the fodder I needed to find my footing in the online media world.
With the Internet Garage as my base of operations, I became a fixture among the creative misfits, quickly becoming part of the barter system that propped up the struggling artist class in Williamsburg. If someone identified themselves as a Bedford Avenue vendor, I would give them prints and internet usage with a wink and a smile. To repay me, people invited me into their slivers of Williamsburg, and I got to experience it all. One night, some musicians I met at a bar invited me back to drink beers at the practice space across from my old apartment. I stayed up all night learning how to play piano.
In those days, I would sit on the rooftop of my Hope Street sublet and stare out at the Manhattan skyline for hours, wondering what paths I would take to make my way to the top of one of those skyscrapers. Last year, I would stare for hours out of the window of my office on the 19th floor of 4 Times Square, thinking about how I had managed to achieve my lifelong dream of working at Wired so soon, scared shitless about what that meant for the rest of my life. Had I peaked at 25?
Thinking about my five year quota now, with the deadline approaching July 8, it makes more sense to me than ever to leave. I won New York City. I did, I beat it. I came here with nothing, and I survived. I’m not any richer than I was when I came here, which to some, might not constitute winning. Before I started writing this blog post, I was being kind of mopey about just that — about the fact that five years later I am still struggling to pay my bills every month just like I did when I first moved here. But after reflecting on everything, I realized that what I gained in the past five years is impossible to buy: I made a name for myself.
Now, it’s time to leave. I am tired. The old rooftop where I used to perch is sealed off with fences and motion detectors, and the view is obscured by luxury condos anyways. The Internet Garage moved, and it will never be what it used to be. The way this city chews people up and spits them out is almost vulgar, and I am tired of watching it. I am tired of struggling to stay on top. I can feel my shell beginning to harden, and it’s not a good look for me. Plus the fact that I’ve sustained for so long makes me think I could be tossed into any environment and somehow figure stuff out and be OK. So, I’m going to try that, and hopefully find the same inspiration in new places that I once got from New York. I’m going to take my show on the road and keep looking for the things I didn’t find in New York: love, inner peace, financial success. I know that life may not ever be easy for me, I think I would die of boredom if it was, but right now I need to find environments that will nurture the skills I’ve been developing. I need room to breathe, as anyone who’s ever lived in New York knows, there’s not a whole lot of space here.
So, New Yorkers, you have three months and some change to squeeze the last of the New York hustle out of me, and I do intend to hustle. And then off into the world I will go, testing Frank Sinatra’s theory that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. It’s been real.
I have a shit storm of stuff to write and do tomorrow, so obviously when I drank a cup of Sleepy Time tea and went to bed at the responsible hour of 12:30 my brain was like, “LOL, YEAH RIGHT.” Now the lights are back on and I’m finishing all the good long-form articles I started and never finished in order to eliminate some browser tabs. Starting the week off right.
Operation Delirium — A look inside the military’s post-cold war super sketchy chemical weapons tests, by Raffi Khatchadourian
Death Will Tremble — not an essay, but an online sci-fi video series I’ve been meaning to watch, even though I don’t usually watch things especially if they come in a series.
The Ghost Writes Back — Amy Boesky on ghost writing part of the Sweet Valley High book series for Francine Pascal, the series that I was completely and utterly obsessed with as tween.
The Slate review of Domenica Ruta’s new book, With or Without you. Had to check out the competition in the crazy mom contest. It’s really no competition at all.
Many fewer tabs, but still awake. I’d hoped that the insomnia tendencies would subside when I quit smoking and started trying to be healthy, but it looks like this one is here to stay. A few months back I read an essay by Kathryn Schulz called Writing in the Dark, in which she discusses her life as a literary night owl. The first time I read it, I tweeted at her to say I thought we were brain chemistry twins. I’d never heard of my insomniac tendencies described so accurately, and from the perspective of a female writer. I said the word “lucubrate” over and over to myself. I love that she provides an evolutionary explanation, because now I don’t feel so guilty about having such a disposition. If I can’t sleep because I can’t turn my mind off, I’m going to turn the lights back on and hash it out, because this is my productivity zone. If you’re an early bird nine-to-fiver, you have the societal advantage since this country still operates like electricity hasn’t been invented. Good for you, but do me a favor and don’t hold it against the night owls in the workplace. Let them do their thing when they want to do it, and everyone will be better off. And remember — in the caveman days, you would have been eaten by wolves in the middle of the night if it wasn’t for our kind, so show a little gratitude.
I began re-reading this essay before I started writing this blog post and closing the browser tabs, and I will leave you with an excerpt before attempting to sleep again:
There is a word for that, etymologically if not literally: the wonderfully lascivious-sounding lucubrate. It actually means to write in an overly academic fashion, but it comes from the practice of writing at night by candle or lantern. There are, as you might imagine, a lot of lucubrators out there. Proust and Joyce were both self-proclaimed night owls. So was Shelley; so, one assumes, was any self-respecting Romantic. George Sand claimed to routinely start writing at midnight. Edna St. Vincent Millay must have been a late type, with her burning candle and her wonderful “Recuerdo”—surely the best poem ever written about staying up all night on Staten Island. I sometimes make a game of guessing other writers’ hours. Gerard Manley Hopkins: night owl, for sure. Robert Frost: lark, with occasional spells of insomnia. Jonathan Franzen strikes me as a morning bird (and no doubt he knows precisely which species).
As for my own schedule, best to call it like it is: crazy. Those who have shared my bed—when I am in it to share it, anyway—have observed my nighttime habits with reactions varying from indulgence to incredulity. (Almost all of them have been stellar sleepers: not something I actively look for in a partner, but, given my lifestyle, terrifically convenient.) It starts, as I said, around 10 p.m., when something ticks over in my mind, as if someone had walked into a shuttered cabin and flipped all the switches in the fuse box to “on.” For the first time all day, I get interested in writing. As a corollary, I get a lot less interested in everything else. My normal indiscipline, the ADHD-ish inability to keep my head inside my work, finally drops away. For the next few hours, I write steadily, cleanly. If my body is producing a drug during that time, it is a natural methylphenidate—a dose of pure focus, side-effect-free and sweet.