On Keeping The Restaurant Open

on December 7, 2015 in MU Blog

There’s a little storefront restaurant in my new hometown that serves the best food. The owner is also a caterer and everything he prepares in his kitchen is the same quality that he prepares for his catering clients. Everything is fresh. Everything is flavorful. The portions are great.

The customer service there is excellent, too, and one time it was so exceptional I went to leave them a review online. I was shocked to see that the majority of the reviews already there were negative. Okay, not that shocked… it is an axiom of customer service that you’re more likely to hear from someone with an axe to grind than from someone who got exactly what they came for.

What was surprising was the content of the complaints. It wasn’t that the food was bad. No, the food was great. It wasn’t that the prices were high. No, it was good for what you get. It wasn’t that the service was bad.


It was the hours.

They were leaving negative reviews because the place wasn’t open long enough or often enough to suit them. Now, this is a small business, ran by a guy who also does catering. I imagine the two business complement each other to a bit, as the catering subsidizes the storefront and the restaurant gives him a place to work out of. But his availability as a caterer means the restaurant doesn’t have the same hours as your typical fast-food chain.

And one of the reviewers left a review that ended with a line to the effect of, “This is ridiculous. You obviously don’t want to run a restaurant. If you’d rather be a caterer, you should quit jerking us around and close the restaurant.”

I was gobsmacked when I read this. It really hit me hard, for reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time. This person loved the food to the point that their only complaint was that they couldn’t have it as often as they wanted, and their response was to basically demand that the restaurant be shut down. I mean, can you even imagine?

Well… actually, right now, I kind of get the feeling that some of you do understand that feeling.

I didn’t immediately realize why I was so flabbergasted to read that sentiment, but I’ve figured it out. It’s because for more than eight years now, people have been telling me I should just “close the restaurant” every time I don’t meet their expectations.

Back when I started, I used to tweet about my progress. “Story up within the hour!” I’d say when the finish line was in sight. It was exciting. I was excited. And it usually worked out great, except for the time that I noticed a snarl in the story just before my announced deadline and had to go back over it.

And then I’d get the rebuke: “You shouldn’t tweet that it’ll be up within the hour if you don’t mean it.” In my email, my Twitter, my (now long abandoned to trolls) Formspring account… any line of access I had to the public. Sometimes from just one person, one person among many who neither complained nor bothered to state the obvious fact that they understood the first tweet was an estimate based on the situation as it stood and that things happen.

And whenever I was at my best and most confident, those kinds of comments just ran off me like water off a duck’s back. But if I was already self-conscious both about the failure to hit my own self-imposed deadline and the writing problem that led to it? Well, even water erodes. A bit over time at first and then a bunch all at once as the rock crumbles, but it erodes.

I’m a people-pleaser, at heart. That doesn’t always come through online, but it’s the truth. And the thing about people-pleasers is that it’s not so much that we want to make people happy (though we do, as much as anyone else does), it’s that we fear to have people be hurt and disappointed and angry because of us.

And the thing is, I think more people saying those things were disappointed than angry. None of them were trying to be jerks. Many of them probably thought they were being helpful, like all the people over the years who’ve told me I shouldn’t have a schedule at all if I’m not going to keep it.

So bit by bit, I stopped tweeting my merry progress reports. It’s not that I sat down at any point and performed a cost/benefit analysis and made the decision to stop. It’s that every human being, every single one of us, performs a psychic cost/benefit analysis when we set out to do a thing, and if the cost is too high, we stop in our tracks. We forget about it, or convince ourselves it’s not the right thing to do, or we just do something else, something that hits the reward button in our brain a little harder.

If I heard about it every time I missed a “within the hour” mark, you can believe that every time I have trashed a chapter at the last minute for quality control reasons or had writer’s block or been pushed out of my office for a day, I heard about that, too, and worse.

It’s always interesting to hear how you look through the eyes of others, especially people who only know you distantly or through a single facet. It’s not always healthy to hear it, especially not in a full-pressure firehose stream, which is why years ago I outsourced the task of approving comments—necessary to keep it from being anything other than a morass of spam in this day and age, though some people have always taken it as a tacit sign of censorship—to my partner Jack (moofable). If I didn’t do that, I would have turned off comments long ago and just kept them off.

There’s one thread, one theme, that pops up in the comments from time to time, often enough that I feel like it’s part of the background music of my life. It’s related in my head to “This is a great restaurant, but…” and it’s the idea that I’m a fantastic writer but I’m not trustworthy or dependable or committed enough.

This one… this kills me. If I were in a good place, a secure place, emotionally, I think I would laugh at it. It’s almost charmingly naive.

Right now, when I have been failing to write well or frequently or—for weeks at a time—at all for months on end now, it’s pure grade-a Twilight Zone levels of ironic world-gone-wrong dissonance to realize that people feel like that.

People, those stories that I’ve started over the years and not kept going? The One Called Wander, Harper’s Folly, and the ones before those two? They didn’t end because I forgot them, or abandoned them, or made the decision to move on from them. They didn’t stop in their tracks because I fleeced enough rubes $1 and $5 at a time to retire to the Bahamas and I had no more use for them.


My failure to keep them going is my failure as a writer. It’s a failure in my attempts to keep a plot going, failure to find inspiration, failure to sort out what happens next. And none of these things are failures in a permanent, final, or absolute sense of the word. And when I’m at my best, when I’m in a secure place, I know this. But it’s hard to be resolute about these kinds of things when the people who reach out to you to let you know how they think you’re doing treat your setbacks as signs that you are a bored dilettante who is squandering her talent.

See, this is what I mean when I talk about Twilight Zone stuff. You know what one of the worst feelings in the world is? People coming along when you’re struggling and telling you that the thing you’re struggling to do is easy, that you’re just not trying hard enough, that there’s no way it can be as hard as you make it out to be.

The more people tell me “You’re a great writer. So, just write.”, the more it seems obvious to me that I am a terrible writer and that passing myself off as one is an enormous fraud. It changes the situation in my head from “Well, I’m not able to deliver right now.” to “I can’t deliver on this. What was I thinking?”

A fear of failure is bad for anyone, I’m not going to say writers more than everyone else. But it’s poison for anyone whose hallmark is spontaneity and whose lifeblood is experimentation. Everything I do is an experiment.

Tales of MU was an experiment that I expected to fail, badly. I just wanted to do something new. And in my moments of strength and clarity during my recent depression, I have wondered… has the experiment run its course? Is it time to pull the plug? I didn’t expect it to last eight weeks, much less eight years. Do I really have this many millions of pages of story in me about one person’s college experiences in a world that’s “like m medieval fantasy, but for the modern world”?

Should I just close the restaurant?

I have come so close, so many times, this past year to just throwing in the towel.

The thing that stops me is the certainty that the axiom of customer service is true, and that for every person who acts like they would rather I just quit if I’m going to be inconveniently human on them instead of a reliable word-generating automaton there are many, many more people who would be crushed if I walk away from it, even if they never tell me this.

So, no, I’m not giving up on MU. I’m trying something new for how I write and update it. It might work. It might not. For me to try at all, I need to—and this is a bit technical, so excuse me while I deploy a term of art—completely not give a tiny shred of a single flying fuck if I fall on my face, which means I can’t worry if you, all of you, care if I do, either.

If my experiment goes well, updates will resume on January 4th. This is after the date I announced on my blog. I have lost two weeks of my initial writing frenzy to outside circumstance. Once things are up and running, that kind of interruptions will matter less, but I really need this first burst to go well. My instinct was just to delay things until we’re past the holidays, but that would be mid-January for me.

On the subject of blogging: this the last time I expect to make a blog post on this site. This site? It’s not a communication platform between me and you. It can’t be that and also be the place I post my writing. That doesn’t work. Anything that furthers the appearance that this is a place for dialogue just leads to hurt and confusion down the road. If you want to know what’s going on with Mackenzie and company, you come here. If you want to know what’s going on with me, there are two things you can do: read my blog and stay off my back.

I like keeping people in the loop. I would rather everyone who wants to know what’s going on with me all the time. It’s actually really great for me to have an outlet to process things, make plans, lay out my experiments. But I need space to do that in, just like I need space to write.

For people who don’t want to know what’s going on with me, don’t want my thoughts on various topics or updates on my life or my experiments with poetry or anything else that winds up on my blog… okay, don’t read it. If you then want to know what’s going on with Tales of MU, come here and see if there’s an update, or sign up for email updates, or follow the Tales of MU twitter. Some people have inquired about having that embedded in the front page again. That’s something I’ll work on at some point before updates resume. I’ll also make an effort to tweet links to any blog post specifically about Tales of MU through it, or set it up so that moofable can do so.

Just so everyone knows what I’m doing now: the current experiment is I spend four weeks writing as many chapters of Tales of MU as I can in a short burst, and then doll them out a week at a time. When I’m down to 4 chapters, I’ll start writing MU again. The theory behind this experiment is that I do my best writing on MU when I’m most deeply immersed in it, but that’s never sustainable so I’ve spent years trying to find a more moderate pace that I can reliably produce chapters at.

If this works, I should be able to write at the frenetic pace that produces my best work and then stop, take a breather, deal with other things. There’s a lot of flexibility built into it, which is important. My goal is 8 chapters in 4 weeks, but there’s enough of an incentive to shoot past that and room for falling short and failing gracefully.

In a perfect iteration of the cycle, though, I’ll have a chapter up every week, and my writing of MU will be four weeks on and four weeks off, and the four week off will be time that new chapters are ready for posting but I can spend on other things, guilt-free… things like side stories I’ve never actually given up on in my heart, like The One Called Wander, things like poetry, things like my humor writing.

That’s the plan. I’m putting it here so you know what’s going on, because so many of you have asked what’s going on. I’m not putting it here for debate, or public comment, or anything like “If you think you can write 8 chapters in 4 weeks half the time why can’t you just write a chapter a week all the time?” I feel like I’ve reached my lifetime limit of explaining that writing a story is different from the pure mechanical motion of lifting up your fingers and bringing them down on a keyboard 15,000 times in a row.

That—and to ease the strain on poor moofable—is why I’m closing comments on the site, for now at least. The plan is to re-open them when the chapters resume, though I’ve always had mixed feelings about their presence and recent events haven’t exactly made me feel warm and fuzzy about them.

But if this works, you’ll get a chapter a week and I’ll get to continue my most successful experiment. If it doesn’t… I don’t know. I’d like to say I’ll keep going, but at this point, I don’t know. Maybe it will be time to close the restaurant. One of the reasons I do side projects like Wander and Harper is because after years of writing the same thing, I miss the early-days excitement of “What am I going to do next?”

So if this doesn’t work out… maybe it’ll be a sign that it’s time to figure out what I’m going to do next.

As always, thank you for reading. Even if my experiment goes down in flames and MU ends with a whimper, forever frozen mid-story, I’ll still be proud that it lasted as long as it did, and be grateful that so many people came along for the ride.

<3 AE

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