Still Catching Air.

By: Jen Shoop
"Maybe I have just been sprinting and jumping into short loops of flight across a very long runway. Not bad, I don't think: I am still catching air."

Maybe a year ago, I was catching up with a girlfriend, and we talked a little bit about Magpie and my recent writing. She said: “Jen, it’s been fun to watch you take off.” I was startled and flattered — especially because I don’t feel like I’ve “taken off,” and I hadn’t known she was watching, either. Or maybe there are many ways to take flight and I was grasping the words too literally. I’m not flexing faux modesty here, I promise, but for the past fifteen years, I have sat behind this same, chipped white desk from college and written with the same blinders on and imagined the same set of Magpie readers at the other end of the screen. Some of you have aged right alongside me, pressing palms across the digital chasm, as we’ve felt our way through the joys, wanderings, and griefs of our 20s, 30s, now into 40s, which is kind of a gorgeous provisional fellowship, if you think about it? (By what stars did we fall into alignment with one another?) Anyhow, my point is this: I experienced a stirring kind of frisson seeing myself through my friend’s eyes. After, I thought about the stages of flight. Am I taxiing? Am I just at lift-off? Or have I been cruising at peak altitude, wind beneath my wings, for a good clip now? It certainly doesn’t feel that I’m alight: I am learning every day, even in the finer points of administrating this publication, fifteen years in. But maybe we never feel life, lived out in its daily minutiae, unturbulent? (And, God forbid, am I in descent? — I can’t be!)

These questions tangle around my experience of my own writing, itself a recursive practice that continuously deposits me at the bottom of a steep hill. I am writing my way to the crest, but I find myself tumbling downward with occasionally despairing frequency. The ending isn’t right, or the words fall flabby, or the pointed end of the pen buries itself in a penumbra. Bottom of the hill, bottom of the hill, bottom of the hill! Now we know the myth of Sisyphus in technicolor. But I will say this: while I look at some of my early writings and cringe, I find that I have learned to represent my experiences more crisply and satisfyingly in language as I’ve developed as a writer, and that I can side-eye or even look directly at my more recent work without the desire for self-immolation. So that is itself a kind of aviation, I think.

Maybe I choose to see myself in early flight. You are lower to the ground, you are obliged to tamper with the dynamics. If you fall, it’s not that far and it won’t hurt too badly. If you suddenly start publishing short fiction, or writing long-form sci-fi, or going deep on a narrow history of something obscure, so what? It’s just play, or practice, and there is only a short contrail behind you. You can make yourself over again tomorrow. Abutting the philosophical, I will confess that I like the sprinting, breathless sensation: this is the only way I know how to work. It is clunky, and jostling, but the exertion feels meritorious, or medicinal. Maybe all of these years, I have just been sprinting and jumping into short loops of flight across a very long runway. Not bad, I don’t think: I am still catching air.

I sat down today to share that comment from my friend, though, because I had occasion, this week, to pay the sentiment forward to another creative friend of mine who has launched a new career in the past few years. I was able to tell her, in conscious mimicry of my own friend: “It’s been fun to watch you take off.” Because it has been. I’ve watched her maneuver through twenty-seven versions of herself as she’s figured out a new industry, business, brand, and that takes ingenuity and conviction and a rare mix of humility and ambition. I wanted her to see that, from the outside in. So often, we celebrate at the finish line, and even sometimes at the shotgun (“…and off they go!”). We forget the long, lonely, lode-star-less middles, where achievements that might have felt like victories a year ago had they somehow materialized without the strenuous legwork required now appear shrunken and indiscernible in the shuffle, tumbled together with “bills to pay” and “the next step” and “oh, great, the website is down.” “Success” does not float like a buoy. It is impossible to wrap your arms around it while you are in the middle of a long, fatiguing swim. It is just: keep the arms windmilling, and the legs kicking, and focus on your breathing. That essay failed, let’s start over. Bottom of the hill, bottom of the hill, bottom of the hill. I do not feel morose about this, by the way. Per my previous note, I think I’m most comfortable in the stages of pre- and early-flight. But it can be nice, all the same, to have someone see you in it, and I have wanted for some time to pay the generosity of my friend forward by letting someone know: “I see you in all your aerofoil glory.”

May I nudge you today to tick through your list of friends and loved ones, and to let one of them know she is seen in whatever phase of flight she’s reached?


+On waking up each day and shaking hands with the blank page.

+On getting started with writing.

+What are you in the middle of?


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Shopping Break.

+Just got these Madewell jeans in. I have to say, they’re a PRET-TY good “dupe” for the Mother Hustler Ankle Fray jeans I raved about last month. (Full review / try-on here.) I wore the Madewells to a concert last Friday and found them flattering and comfortable!

+The little satin bag we all need for the holidays. Love it in the red or hot pink.

+Currently lusting after this patterned cardigan.

+Fun embellished flats — these look much higher end than they are.

+Dorsey just released its final batch of Clemence necklaces for the 2023 year. This is my favorite piece of jewelry from them; I wrote a detailed review here.

+Fab statement booties.

+These statement earrings (under $100) are in my cart.

+This may be my favorite way to get “a pop of red” into my winter wardrobe. Love the idea of this with light-wash denim or tucked into a silk slip skirt.

+This metallic midi skirt is so fab for an unexpected holiday look. I would pair with an ivory turtleneck.

+These Pehr zippered pouches are enormous – perfect for a diaper bag.

+Love the unexpected color of this velvet skirt.

+These $30 Mary Janes are a dream for holiday dressing.

+This brushed cashmere polo sweater in the light pink…!!!!

+Cailini Coastal has some seriously cute holiday finds, including these shatterproof cups (for a little roadie while caroling!), these wicker bells, and these perfect velvet ribbons for tying on top of boxwoods / on wreaths / etc.

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8 thoughts on “Still Catching Air.

  1. I love your thoughts here, and also the gentle exhortation to honor our loved ones who are finding air! I will say that as I’ve read Magpie near-daily over the past 7+ years, I have loved to witness your growth and evolution. I wish you nothing but the best as you look to the next 15 years!


  2. ” I can side-eye or even look directly at my more recent work without the desire for self-immolation.” Oh my gosh, goals! Congrats on 15 years of persisting and showing up everyday (for which this reader is very grateful!). I’m currently struggling to figure out which aircraft I want to build, while simultaneously feeling like I’m in a “wandering the desert” phase after a celebratory kick off. As the magpies say, onwards!

    1. Hi Stacey! I love the analogies you’re throwing here, but may I just say, even though you’re not sure exactly what form of flight you’re after, at least you have that instinct for air! Onward, onward!


  3. I will be bookmarking this essay! I think, perhaps especially as creatives, “success” can feel so much more fluid and less concrete than in some other professions and you encapsulate the sentiment so well. For what it’s worth, I look forward to the Magpie email in my inbox every day!

    1. Mali – Such a good point about success being much more fluid / less concrete in creative space. Like, is it the success of feeling good about / proud of the work? Or being well-received? Or…!

      Thank you for the encouragement!


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