The agony of being digestible, or I owe you an explanation

Where I've been in the past two years, why I was gone, and what I want this newsletter to be in the future

I have a Scorpio 10th house, and that is why I hate being perceived.

Or at least, that’s what I tell myself.

But that’s not an explanation, not really. It’s been two years, I owe y’all an honest recounting of where, how, and why I’ve been gone.


So where to begin? The where itself, I suppose. Since I last wrote, Bear graduated residency and we moved from North Carolina to Pittsburgh for his fellowship. We’ve been here since June 2019 in a rather nice apartment just a few blocks from the hospital where he works. In many ways, this is exact the sort of city apartment I dreamed about living in ever since I was in my teens—brick-faced, full of quaint charm, and modern amenities. I have a Very Large Bathtub, an upright piano, my own little office tucked in the back corner of the building, a covered two-car parking deck, and best of all, an enormous deck with a fire pit large enough to host a party of people.

There is an enormous cemetery nearby with creepy angel statues. I’ve been there several times.

The neighborhood is walkable, full of Very Knowledgable baristas and Ethically Sourced Coffee-selling cafes, aesthetically pleasing bars with pretentious yet punny cocktails, a store that sells beers from local breweries, ethnic eateries, a bowling alley, even a tiny indie movie theater with 50s-style marquee lights.

Or there was, before the pandemic hit. I’m not sure how many of those businesses are there still.


In 2019, I had every intention of writing a newsletter.

And then 2020 happened.

Of course, I can’t blame my absence on a year that hadn’t happened yet. No matter how terrible 2020 was, it doesn’t have the ability to travel back in time. Or does it? When I try to remember what happened in the nearly two years Bear and I have lived in Pittsburgh, my mind slides around, the memories too slippery to hold, nothing to find purchase. Sometimes my phone will show me photos from 2019 and I find myself staring, scrolling back and forth, back and forth through my albums, trying to remember not just when said photograph took place, but whether the event it depicts took place at all. Pictures of my parents’ dogs when I went back home to Los Angeles for Christmas, activities we did together, photos of food eaten in restaurants, laughing maskless faces. I’m Gandalf in the Mines of Moria. I have no memory of this place.

I was living a life. I open up those albums on my phone and look at a face and a person I can’t recognize. I’m happy for her, I really am, the way one feels distantly happy for someone you vaguely know when good things happen to them. The person in the phone went places, traveled abroad, had hobbies.

They say trauma erases memories, or rather, that trauma protects your brain and soul from further damage by ushering you away from that which you cannot bear, not yet, yet. I look so happy.

I was completely, utterly, deeply miserable.


trigger warning: suicidal ideation, bipolar disorder

In June 2020, on the day I was supposed to turn in a draft of the first Guardians of Dawn book, I fell apart.

I was not coherent, barely able to speak, wanting nothing more than to disappear, to die. My agent had people perform a wellness check on me, and I went to a mental health crisis center. I was suffering from a horrific mixed-state episode and was prescribed Seroquel, an anti-psychotic.

My psychotic break had been a long time coming, perhaps. I’d been medicated with antidepressants for the past few years, but the psychiatrist at the crisis center told me that regular antidepressants often did not work for bipolar disorder. I had been out to sea with a life saver, only to realize that it was tethered to nothing and that I was still adrift, still drowning.

Looking back, I could see all the signs, because of course I can now. They stretched as far back as when I started this entire publishing journey in the first place. In old newsletters, I wrote about burnout over and over and over again. It was burnout, and it was bipolar disorder, my monster, my madness. I was digging and clawing my way out from under the weight of my own brain at all times, and I was exhausted. It took all my energy just to function. To feed myself, to sleep, to exercise, to talk. To smile and pretend and believe that of course everything was fine why wouldn’t it be I just need to try harder work harder to be normal just like everyone else.

I was fine. I really was. If you saw me, you wouldn’t know. My friends didn’t. My family didn’t. Not even Bear seemed to know. Not until it was almost too late.

I am very good at pretending, you see. Pretending is just lying to yourself, and honestly, I’m probably the best at it, not to brag.

I’m better now. Lithium, therapy, and BTS have helped. The support of my family, friends, and Bear even more.


It wasn’t just bipolar disorder, of course. I really do have a Scorpio 10th house.

Which is to say that I am an intensely private person. Secretive, even. It’s probably why I’m so good at pretend, why I was called mysterious and unknowable by hapless swains at college events when I was younger.

There was a period of time, especially around the publication of Shadowsong, that I had started to resent being an author. In addition to writing the next book, I had slice myself down to digestible parts, to place them on a platter for the delectation of an Audience.

The Audience was in my head, of course. The Audience is a ghost in every author—every public figure’s—mind, the shade that haunts everything we do. That imaginary god to whom you sacrifice your time, your image, your self-esteem—all in the hopes of pleasing them. We don’t know the Audience’s wishes or moods, so we just cut away more and more of ourselves, praying all the way that maybe this time it will work, this time you will be enough to be loved.

I’m good at pretend, but I’m really bad at people pleasing. You can blame my Aquarius rising for that.

And yet, despite my smug revulsion, despite my naïve belief that I was above it all, I fell prey to the call of the Audience anyway. I carved myself down into bite-sized pieces, trying to figure out which bits of me were relatable, which bits were inspirational, and which bits were aspirational. All the while trying to figure out how to be private yet public, friendly yet not a friend. I wanted connection without intimacy, and I thought I could thread that needle.

The agony of being digestible was becoming unbearable. Had become unbearable. Had been unbearable for a very long time. I felt reduced to parts—a hand, a leg, an eye, a smile—disparate and discrete. I was no longer a whole human; I was an image behind the screen.

In the process of importing all my previous newsletters to Substack, I came across the newsletter where I wrote about the writing of Shadowsong and came across this line:

Every day I struggle with the parts I give to others, and the parts I keep for myself.

I reread my old newsletters and hate the person I see, or rather don’t see there. Because I’m not there at all. My writing contains a perfectly calculated sort of distance that makes all my hair stand on end and my teeth tingle with the whir of the dentist’s drill. It’s the uncanny valley of one’s own writing, something that’s so close—but not close enough—to be convincing. Even the way I write about bipolar disorder makes me cringe. The reality of my mental health is sanitized to an inconvenience, a line on a characterization worksheet, only there for color.

I made a mistake. I thought I wanted connection without intimacy, when in truth, I do want intimacy with my audience. I was so terrified of being known, of being perceived, of being accountable to other people that I forgot that intimacy is connection. Intimacy is emotional honesty between souls. I’ve been intimate with crying strangers on the subway, connected to their grief and shouldered a portion of their sorrow. Then I’ve said farewell as the doors slid shut at Astoria Blvd, never to see them again.

That’s what I want. I want emotional honesty. No more slicing myself down to digestible parts.


so where do we go from here?

Ideally, I would like to go back to sending these newsletters once a month, but I won’t hold myself to that. Conversely, I may end up sending several newsletters a month, depending on whether or not I have something to say. Or news. If I have news.

I like this essay format, honestly. So I anticipate most of my newsletters will be an essay for me about…something. I have a lot of topics on which I Have Opinions.

are you going to talk about your books and what you’re working on?

Yes, indirectly in the essays and directly whenever I have updates. I have contemplated putting some content behind a paywall, like the unadulterated Wintersong scenes and the annotations. I’m not married to this, although I will say that I’m not comfortable making the unadulterated Wintersong scenes available to the public, so if I do put them in a newsletter, they will definitely be behind a paywall.

If we do the paid subscriber thing, then I would probably be talking more behind-the-scenes stuff there. But there’s my Scorpio 10th house again—I’m possessive about my work. I would prefer not to share before it’s ready, although I suppose behind-the-scenes stuff could be things like inspiration and worldbuilding stuff that won’t fit in the text of the book. I have a lot of writing that probably qualifies.

Let me know what y’all think!

can i hear more about guardians of dawn?

Not much to tell at the moment. Things are proceeding a lot more smoothly now that I’m medicated though. I’m working on revisions for the first book and I can’t wait to introduce you to the characters and the world. Maybe once this revision is turned in.

For now, I’ll give you an abbreviated cast list.

dramatis personae

Zhara, a magician
Suzhan, her stepsister
The Second Wife, her stepmother

Han, a himbo
Xu, his long-suffering friend
Anyang, his little brother and a magician

Jiyi, a courtesan
Yulana, a princess

That’s all for now. Until next time. <3

사랑해,

JJ