It seems adulthood is a series of choices we make to prove we’re not our parents. Take hand soap, for example.

Growing up, mom bought non-name-brand-but-not-quite-knock-off hand soap. It came in small, plastic dispensers wrapped in little designs, like seashells or flowers. And the soaps’ scents would be a version of something you might smell in nature, such as “spring rain” or “autumn spice.”

Mom never bothered with reusable soap dispensers. Maybe she didn’t want to fuss with cleaning them. Or, perhaps as a working mom of two who lived on a farm with a huge garden, she needed to take something off her plate.

A plastic bottle of hand soap on a bathroom counter.
Photo by Dan Farrell on Unsplash

So our family of four pumped the hand soap out of the plastic dispenser in which it came. When it neared emptying, mom would drop a little water in to make sure we got every last bit of soap. Then when the watered-down soap was thorough, into the trash can went the now-empty soap dispenser, and out came a new, full plastic soap dispenser.

It’s a cycle I followed as a young man. I bought hand soap sold in a plastic dispenser and used it until it was empty. Then I tossed it into the trash and got another plastic dispenser of hand soap.

But when I reached full-fledged adulthood, defined by my ability to eat at a fast-casual restaurant whenever I wanted without worrying about the cost, I decided to leave my childhood hand soap ways behind. In hindsight, I switched to a brand that was probably explicitly created to capture that “early-stage Millennial out to prove they’re not their parents” market. 

This hand soap brand boasted that its packaging came in recyclable materials. Sure, other brands’ plastic dispensers were recyclable, too, but this new hand soap brand talked about recycling. And it smelled like something you knew, real stuff from nature, such as rose, honeysuckle, and lavender. Plus, the hand soap’s label looked like something the soap maker made in her home. You felt like you were buying a more environmentally friendly hand soap while also supporting a small business.

And for a time, you were supporting a small business. But then a big company bought the hand soap maker. The hand soap’s name, labels, and scents remained, though you could no longer pretend that the brand’s namesake was mixing the soap in her kitchen.

Then, one day, you toss a used soap dispenser into your recycling bin, and you recall an article you recently read about how China is no longer buying as much trash as it used to, creating a glut of plastic and glass that we in the U.S. hoped would be recycled. And you remember all the stories you’ve seen about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive collection of gathered trash somewhere between Hawaii and California.

That’s when you understand that all this time, you thought your hand soap purchasing decision was superior to your parents’, but you now realize it’s not. 

You must do better. You wouldn’t take a boat out into the ocean and drop a plastic soap dispenser into the water, yet you’ll toss plastic into a recycling bin, knowing full well it’s as likely to ride the high seas as it is to be recycled. And even if the plastic soap dispenser finds a new life as, say, a milk jug, eventually, the plastic’s usefulness runs out

You wouldn’t take a boat out into the ocean and drop a plastic soap dispenser into the water.

Nicholas E. Barron

The plastic that was once your soap dispenser that became a milk jug that then became something else runs out of life. That’s when the plastic ends up in a landfill or floating in the ocean. And that’s what led me to recently making a switch in our home.

First, we bought reusable glass soap dispensers. Secondly, we changed to a hand soap that comes in non-plastic containers that are recyclable but will disintegrate if they end up in the ocean. And the soap’s made of all-natural ingredients.

The husband and I feel good about this change. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

Of course, it’s possible down the road we’ll have another epiphany and decide we’ve been wrong about our hand soap buying all this time. 

Because that may be the next stage of adulthood for us all, we first prove we’re not our parents. Then we find out we don’t want to be ourselves, either.

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Maybe it’s that when I read this Nathan Heller essay about Joan Didion, I was entering my annual winter yearn for sunshine and palm trees. Still, I found the piece an enlightening exposition on a writer whose career could serve as a template for people like me.

Didion is synonymous with California, Southern California in particular. You can’t read a Didion essay or book without feeling the California sun on your skin or the Pacific Ocean’s waves in your ears. And so, as my desires shifted from snowy cabins to beach cabanas, I was an eager audience for Heller’s article, which let me mentally escape our gray East Coast winter.

Yet easing my mild case of seasonal affective disorder isn’t the biggest bonus to Nathan Heller’s essay. What makes the article stand out is his focus on Didion’s career.

Joan Didion
Joan Didion

“For all her success, Didion was seventy before she finished a nonfiction book that was not drawn from newsstand-magazine assignments,” Heller writes.

Heller explains that throughout the 1960s and 70s, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, took writing assignments to pay their bills. Didion published a few novels, her first, Run River, in 1963, but to make ends meet, she wrote what businesses, mostly magazines, were willing to pay her.

Didion chose interesting subjects, from San Francisco’s hippies to Sharon Tate’s murder. And Didion wrote illuminatively, brilliantly, in ways that set her apart from others and catapulted her to the iconic status she holds today.

Didion already rested at the forefront of America’s literary mantle by the time I discovered her. Her essay collections are phenomenal, some of the best nonfiction stuff I’ve ever read. Reading them, I assumed Didion pitched publishers on the books, they agreed, then she went and wrote the stuff that went into the books I later read.

Nathan Heller’s New Yorker piece proves otherwise. Most of the essays in Didion’s early nonfiction books, such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album, come from columns and articles media companies paid her to write.

Many writers have a loose idea for how we’ll publish books. We get a book deal, then write the book. Next, the publisher releases the book we’ve written. We’ll write a book once someone pays us to write a book.

That may be some writers’ experiences, but it’s not how it went for Joan Didion. She and her husband had to eat, pay bills, and care for their daughter. That took money, so Didion and Dunne took writing assignments that paid.

It’s after Didion produced many articles and columns that a publisher was willing to release her book. Years later, Didion published her first nonfiction book that wasn’t a collection of work someone had already paid her to produce.

Most of us writers have to work for a living. We can feel frustrated and ashamed that we take writing assignments or work nonwriting jobs because we need electricity, food, health insurance. We want to write books, produce art, and yet we’re doing stuff we’d prefer to not in exchange for money.

But that’s OK. It might even be good. The work we do now can lead to the material we publish later. Perhaps it’s writing we repackage into a book, a la Didion style, or maybe it’s experiences and people we meet informing our future writing. 

There isn’t one path to getting published. Joan Didion forged one way, and now we get to walk through it.

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