Nikki Reimer

Nikki Reimer: #RealTalking so hard

I also think it’s disingenuous to curate your social persona so that it looks like wine and roses all the time. When you do that, you’re just re-enacting capitalism. We’re not actually brands or products. We’re humans, with diseases and struggles and expiration dates. I think it’s ok to be real.

This week I talk to Nikki Reimer, who is forever in my heart. Nikki writes poetry, non-fiction and criticism, and sometimes makes digital art. Originally from Calgary, she lived in Vancouver from 2004-2012, which is when I first met her (as described below) where she was a member of the Kootenay School of Writing (KSW) collective and a board member at W2 Community Media Arts. Reimer has published two books: DOWNVERSE (Talonbooks 2014) and [sic] (Frontenac House 2010), which was a finalist for the Lampert Award. She works in higher education digital marketing/communications, is a founding director of the Chris Reimer Legacy Fund Society, and a Calgary host for The Dinner Party. She may tell you she’s a bit of a grump, but I love her curmudgeonly spirit. The day after this post goes live, Nikki and I will be huddled together at the Writer’s Summit managing our overwhelm in some dark corner. Come say hi!

SACHIKO MURAKAMI: So, Nikki. What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?

NIKKI REIMER: The hardest things for me about being a writer, at least at this point in my life, has to do with: 1. a lack of time, 2. jealousy, and, 3. my bodily limitations.

A disclaimer: I really dig my (“day”) job in digital communications and marketing. It’s fun, interesting, and challenging. It gives me a sense of satisfaction. But consists of 35+ hours per week with three weeks of paid vacation per year, and as such my time to “be” a writer is limited. If I want to carve out time for exercise and social time, the writing time is more limited still. I can never apply for the 5 week writing studio residency that several of my colleagues attend every year, which fills me, I will admit, with bitter jealousy. I have several projects on the go right now that are crawling at a snail’s pace, and I feel a sense of inner panic every time I see a social media post about yet another friend’s latest project that has launched into the world. I feel, most of the time, like I’m not a “real” writer. I’m not doing it. I’m not doing it fast enough. I’m not valid.

Why not quit my job then, or find a part-time position, or apply for a grant, and devote more of my time to writing?

I can’t. I have bills and debt to pay, as we all do, yes, but I also have several chronic, life-long medical conditions that are expensive as hell even with my salary and medical benefits, but which would absolutely lead to impoverishment if I had to manage them on a freelancer’s salary (I have tried. It sucked). And I often feel that this, too, makes me a fraud. That a “real” writer would better accept precarity rather than, I supposed, being part of the neoliberal machine.

SM: Yes, carving out writing time and energy when I have to day job is, for me, nearly impossible. I’m working a desk job right now, and it uses up nearly every one of my spoons. I need at least two free hours in which I am fed, well-rested, calm, and pain-free to get any kind of writing done, and I am never fed, well-rested, calm, and pain-free for two free hours on a work day. In order to get to a writing-state, I need to put in many hours of self-care. And then the acts of self-care ironically use up the last spoons that I was saving for writing.

But you’ve published two brilliant books since I’ve known you, and I haven’t known you for that long. You are doing it. Which makes me think about how we use social media. You and I both seem to post a lot about struggle and failure as much as about goats and kittens and book deals. One of the reasons I started this project and asked you to participate is because we see a lot about shiny product and not much about dirty process on social media. I want to open up more spaces so we see a more realistic picture about what it cost writers to get that book out there, because people aren’t usually willing to share that part. Seeing your posts about challenges you are facing reminds me the struggle is shared.

So – does that inner panic and self-doubt triggered by social media affect your ability to write? Does posting about difficult stuff or seeing other people do so help you?

NR: Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes, to everything you said! Also I feel like my extremely tardy response (4 days!) to your last message is testament to my previously stated position on time and health. I think I’m suffering from the virus that’s been traveling around campus as well pollen, so I’m taking antihistamines, Tylenol cold, and expensive bottled green smoothies which probably match sugar water for healing efficacy. We’ve also just moved, and I’ve started a new job, so I’m a bit fatigued. I apologize for the delay.

Social media is a manifold thing. It can be an enormously valuable tool and a tremendous waste of time. It can connect and inspire, and it can degrade and dispirit. We’ve seen how it can be used to harass and abuse activists. What I’ve noticed is that the affect it produces in me when I use it is somewhat dependent on the affect I had going in, meaning that if I’m having a good day and feel strong and secure, I can engage online and feel like I am making and strengthening connections with peers and learning things – and I do learn quite a bit from posts and links that I feel help me develop in my personal, professional, and writing life – but if I’m having a bad day already or feeling down on myself, then the successes and activities of others stand in much bigger contrast to my failures. TL;DR if I feel good, it makes me feel good; if I feel bad, it makes me feel worse.

I thank you for the compliment on my work, but that’s not how I feel about it. Not that I have humility or false humility about the work itself, but that I think it took me too long to produce. Parts of my first book were in process for 8 years, and it’s “only” a 92 page book of poetry. When I gave a talk at a university writing class after DOWNVERSE came out, one of the questions the students asked was how long it had taken between my 1st and 2nd book. My answer of 4 years made them all wrinkle their noses! (4 years was an eternity, I guess).

So with social, like you said, we see the end product of our colleagues’ labour, but not that they were also facing cancer or getting divorced or losing their job while they were producing the work. Or that they spent many nights on the couch beating themselves up for watching Netflix instead of writing. And – though it is in direct contrast to how I approach social as a digital marketer in my 8:30-4:30 life – I think it can be immensely valuable for us to pull back the curtain a bit and talk about where we’re really at. The group I’m part of for 20 and 30 somethings who’ve faced early significant loss, The Dinner Party, calls it #RealTalk. I’m all about #RealTalk. And I thank you for creating a space for it. That’s a thing you do well that I’m envious of – build digital social and creative communities. I’ve got my head up my own ass too much to do that, I think.

SM: I too enjoy the #RealTalk. I’m all for sharing the messy moments on social media. Actually, I’m much more inclined to share the messiness on Facebook, where I have this idea that it’s a semi-private/semi-public space, where I have control over who sees and who comments. Twitter is a terrifyingly public space for me, and for good reason, I think – we know, as you mention, how it is used for harassment and abuse. So me starting this very-public project is a very strange turn. I’m trying to not let it keep me up too much late at night.

I wonder how you feel about public image. You’re very open about where you’re at, to the point where – as I have heard you articulate on several of your posts – it has made people uncomfortable. Can you talk a little about your feelings around letting it all hang out on social media? You’re one of my social media heroes because you are so honest. How does it feel to be so open about your emotional life on social media where people are so heavily curating their online personae?

NR: It’s interesting for me to talk about this now, because I have been rethinking how I’m using some of the social media channels.

I’ve been very open in the past on social media about my grief following the sudden death of my brother, about my anxiety and depression, and about my endometriosis. I won’t apologize for that, because all of those experiences are central to who I am. That said, I’m finding a need at this point in my life to be a bit more strategic and guarded when it comes to my mental health struggles, because I’m realizing that certain channels (Twitter) are as much of a professional reflection for me as LinkedIn. And right now I’m also going through some health challenges that are too personal for even me to want to elucidate publicly.

On the other hand, I feel a sense of responsibility, particularly in grief and mourning, to be honest, because I think we have a very fucked up attitude towards death and grief in our culture, and I have seen how much it hurts people I know to have their needs in grief dismissed. The death of a central person in your life changes you radically, and you don’t stop having a relationship with them just because they are not with you physically. There is still a mainstream misconception that the healthiest thing is to “get over it,” and “move on,” to stop being, as one friend was told, “a sad widow.” That’s all bullshit. If I can help raise awareness about the realities of significant loss through my posts, than I’m happy to do it. And I will never stop missing my brother, loving my brother, feeling my brother’s presence in my life. Earlier in the process it would wound me deeply to be criticized for my openness about my journey through grief, but I don’t care, anymore, what people might think of me for being outspoken about it. I know my truth. I’m in a much more stable place now, four years and three months after, but the pain doesn’t end. You just learn to fit it into your body and your life.

I also think it’s disingenuous to curate your social persona so that it looks like wine and roses all the time. When you do that, you’re just re-enacting capitalism. We’re not actually brands or products. We’re humans, with diseases and struggles and expiration dates. I think it’s ok to be real.

SM: You absolutely do raise the realities of significant loss through your posts. As you know, my father died unexpectedly in 2008, and I kind of went off the rails. I look back through my posts from that time, and it’s kind of shocking to me – I was a complete and utter wreck of a person but I was trying so hard to make it look like I was doing just fine. I didn’t mention the night that I sat in my car drinking, calling the grief hotline and getting so abusive that the counsellors kept hanging up on me (and I kept calling back to yell at them for hanging up on me), or any of the other ugly, unsympathetic faces of grief I wore. Grief is a big, emotional, messy part of all of our lives and the pressure to perform it politely just makes it darker and harder to cope with, I think. All this to say: your honesty helps.

I think you raise an important point there about publics. Twitter is a scary place for me because it is so public. I’ve always felt more comfortable on Facebook. Even though I have basically the same number of friends/followers, it feels so much more safe. Semi-public.

I’ve become a champion lately of the semi-public, especially in the context of sharing vulnerable-making experience. There’s this impulse now to automatically record, document, share: to make public. When I saw/read Johanna Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory (video, text), I was immediately struck by how she addresses how much energy is required to be in public. It made me think about how some of the experiences we need to hear about most are from people who might not have the energy, resources, and support to deal with the consequences of speaking in public. That’s what I think about when I think about engaging in public discourse: if I say what I really think, will I have the energy to deal with the blowback? The harassment? Even just an argument? I need a lot of naps as it is. Does any of this resonate with you? How do you manage spoons and being real in public?

NR: Short answer: I don’t.

Long answer:

In a way it’s shocking to me that I have any friends left at all given the pitch of some of my public flame-outs in the darkest moments of my grief. Though maybe it rings a hopeful note about compassion and community, too, that not everyone turned away from me when I was publicly disintegrating.

I like your line of thinking about the semi-public, and I relate so much to Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory. I love her pictures in bed with her collection of prescription bottles and her lipstick on. Let’s bring the glam back to retching and flailing! Look at my heating pad burns and swoon!

I find that online public discourse takes less out of me than in person public discourse, though, which is probably why I engage there more readily than IRL. This past weekend was Congress in Calgary, and although I wasn’t a participant in the conference I did have significantly more social interactions than usual as a result of friends being in town. In addition to catching up with out of town friends, and communing with my grief siblings, I introduced myself to a group of poets by apologizing for my lack of credentialing (“I only have a BA”); locked myself out of a space I had rented and paid $70 for a locksmith, and attended a Congress talk where I was “that guy” who makes a statement that is most definitely not a question, and then everyone in the room has to sit in uncomfortable silence staring at each other. I came out of the weekend feeling very drained, very stupid, and mad at myself for the path my life has taken.

Public gatherings are very hard on me. My nervous system is easily over-aroused. Since the weekend I’ve been having an IBS flare-up, my stomach’s so bloated I look 8 months pregnant, my neck and shoulders have seized up, and I’m so tired I went to bed at 6:30 last night. And really, I had, what? Five interactions with other people over 72 hours?

None of the online harassment I’ve received – and I’m lucky, I’ve not been subject to an all-out campaign, just some minor abuse here and there – has ever made me feel as shitty as I make myself feel when I open my mouth in public. To me, digital public is the safe zone. You can block someone online, turn off your phone or shut your laptop. Poof. Gone. But social gaffes live forever, and it’s likely you’ll have to engage with people in person again after you’ve genuflected like a bonehead. Give me the internet any day.

Twitter did feel safer to me for a while, and it’s the only platform where my mother isn’t following me (hi mom!), but I’ve recently been followed there by most of my work colleagues, so I’ll have to manage it more carefully. If I were to be a true professional about it, I would start some alias accounts, but I’m certain I don’t have the spoons to manage them.

SM: Oh man, I was “that guy” at a conference recently, too. I feel you, Nikki. Malls, crowded streets, and open-plan offices are hard, but conferences are just the most draining. I get excited because I get to see people I normally see only on the internet, but then my self-esteem crap kicks in. I don’t have a PhD. It’s obvious I don’t have a PhD. So I just scurry around feeling small and stupid and overwhelmed by all the smarty-pants.

You’re coming into Toronto for the Writers Summit – yay! What can we do to mediate our desire to connect but the overwhelm we feel? Will you go for slow, quiet walks with me on the harbourfront? Cups of iced herbal tea sipped while sitting on a bench, scrolling our phones, shoulders touching but silent? Will you be my ghosting buddy?

NR: I will always be your ghosting buddy! Let’s huddle in a pleasantly dark corner of the conference and tweet each other. Let’s build our own restorative yoga studio in a supply closet! Let’s orchestrate plenary naps!

For reals though, why do we feel like we’re dumb for not having MAs (in my case), or PhDs? Why can’t we just be writers? Wasn’t there a time when publications were considered credential enough?

SM: My insecurity looks for anything that makes me feel less-than and amplifies it. I think I do better today than I have in the past. I remember when I first joined the KSW, I think right after you left, in 2007, and sitting in collective meetings and at readings with people who either were on faculty or seemed to be working towards an academic career. I was deeply insecure about being not good enough, not smart enough, that I didn’t deserve to be there, that I was woefully under-read, etc. I don’t think anyone lorded their academic qualifications over me – it was just me, feeling small, as usual. I remember cornering you at a reading and quietly raving at you about how I was pretty sure everyone secretly hated me. I still feel less-than but not as deeply and crushingly as I did back then. Maybe moving to Toronto? Growing up? Having three books? But still, I get pangs of jealousy whenever someone tells me about the creative writing class they’re teaching, while my main source of income comes from processing fancy peoples’ expense reimbursements.

We are going to walk into the Writers Summit without PhDs or tenure-track jobs, with just our books to qualify us as writers. And we are going to own that conference. From our dark corner of the supply closet. Where we are shallowly breathing. Together.

Any last words for the writer who is struggling with health, or grief, or publics?

NR: Heh, I do not at all remember that conversation. Which is funny, because I’m convinced that everyone I know is keeping a tally on all the times I’ve expressed my insecurities to them. Insert eyeroll emoji.

I don’t actually, for the record, feel bad about not having a PhD or a tenure track job. I’ve seen first hand what I struggle it can be, and I’ve never felt called to teach. And I really do like the work that I do. But I get definite pangs of jealousy and inadequacy about the MAs and important, public projects that all of my peers seem to have. I guess we all have our triggers.

Last words:

I think, easy as it can be to get caught up in one everyone else seems to be doing, that you’ve got to mind your own game. That there are times to roll with the low feelings, and there are times to get fierce and get out there. Only you can know what is right for you. It’s ok to be yourself, and it’s ok to be honest. Maybe less of us would have these panicked feelings of falling behind if more of us were honest about our daily struggles. So thank you for this space <3

Love Nikki? Be the 6th person to like her sad Facebook writer page. Or you can chuckle at the website she doesn’t have the time/energy to update. 

Next week’s guest is prolific, never-sleeping, always-working rob mclennan. How does he do it? Does this guy have an infinite spoon-pile? Find out next week!

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