Saturday, August 13, 2005

THE BEST JOB FOR A WRITER

Off to work today, but wanted to leave a post behind. It's almost like being here in my cool little home office instead of outside, sweating in my tuxedo suit. With little time to write, and a blank screen subsituting for a blank page, I'm going to cheat a little. The following previously appeared in I'M REALLY NOT A WAITRESS, my blog on Publisher's Marketplace.



THE BEST JOB FOR A WRITER or LUCY, ADVICE 5 CENTS

Well, we all know what the best job for a writer is. It's writing! It's staying home, sitting around in your ratty black yoga pants, drinking coffee, eating chocolate, and hammering away on the keys of your computer like a happy little woodpecker. And oh yes, I almost forgot to mention -- getting paid for it. Getting paid real money. Getting paid enough that you don't have to seek outside employment to cover little things like eating and keeping the rain off your back.

Unfortunately, they don't advertise in the Help Wanted section for that particular job -- at least if you're a fiction writer; there's no place to put in an application; and when you send out your hopeful little query letters or your professionally formatted manuscript, you're usually greeted with the same response. We don't want you, we don't need you, and we're willing to bet no one else does either. (Usually, those words come in code that reads something like this: We're sorry, but this doesn't meet our present needs.) To which the strong, dedicated writer yells in the privacy of his or her own study: Oh, yes you do ! You just don't know it yet! Then she goes back to the computer even more determined to prove why the world needs her and her crazy stories.

But meanwhile, her stomach is grumbling for lunch. And if she/he has kids, their little stomachs are making some noise, too. So the writer has to change out of her yoga pants, put her computer on sleep, and seek work in the wide world. The next question becomes what kind of job will support her writing addiction -- or at least not totally crush it.

Before I began my illustrious career as a waitress, I had the brilliant idea that I would find a job where I could write at work. If I couldn't get paid for the writing itself, I would at least write and get paid at the same time.

With that in mind, I applied to become an all night desk clerk at a seedy motel, a lifeguard in a rarely visited pool (though that dream was promptly quashed by my lack of certification and my doggy paddle.) I also checked out those little carts in the mall. A lone employee sat on a stool, often reading a paperback novel, as oblivious to the shoppers swirling around her as they were to the "store" she was hired to mind. Bingo.

Since the job paid crap, you worked alone, and it was boring as hell (except to a writer who planned to find a world of excitement in the pages of her spiral notebook), I was hired on the spot.

The very next day, I packed my bookbag feeling like I was heading off to a writer's retreat, or the first day of school. Inside was my new notebook, its blank pages sullied only by the title of my novel, two pens (in case I wrote so much that the first ran out of ink), my coffee money, and an apple for lunch. This was to be a monastic regimen of serious writing and pure eating.

Things went pretty well for a month or so. The novel zipped along at a nice pace; sales at the floundering little business were so dismal they rarely intruded on my concentration, and I worked as if I were at a mountain retreat rather than in the center of a noisy mall. I felt pretty healthy and virtuous, too, as I followed Ben Franklin's advice about an apple a day.

But the second month, I ran into a couple of obstacles. First, I lost my way in the novel, and began to doubt both the work -- and myself. A common obstacle for writers, but since this was my first attempt to write a novel, I thought I was alone in the wilderness. And then, I began to make friends in the mall. Within weeks, the job went from a solitary refuge within myself to a day long talk fest. (I also developed a craving for bean burritos, which seriously disrupted my dedication to the pure life, but that's another story.

First "Tom," the candlemaker who owned the neighboring cart began to stop by for coffee every morning. As a young man, Tom had entered the priesthood, but had been asked to leave because he couldn't master Latin. (This was pre-Vatican II.) Accepting it as God's will, he married and supported five children as a machinist for thirty years. That's when the plant closed, leaving him with no pension or insurance. What little savings he had was siphoned into the dream of owning his own business. Despite his work ethic, the care and yes, love, he brought to his craft, and an unshakably positive spirit, it was obvious to me that the candle business would never make it. It closed up around the time I quit my job.

It's been years since I've seen Tom, but I think of him often -- and of the integrity and character that shone through everything he did. No matter what his life story says about him, he remains in my mind, one of the most successful people I've ever met.

Most of my new friends, however, came from the army of the dispossessed who spend a disproportionate amount of time in malls because they have no place else to go. Or because they so desperately need to hear another human voice that it doesn't matter if it's only the cashier at McDonald's saying, "Do you want fries with that?"

There was "Charlie," the schizophrenic son of a wealthy New York physician who lived in a halfway house in town. Charlie visited on a daily basis, often stopping by when he felt most agitated. I would do my best to calm him down, but I could never answer the questions that troubled him most: Why did this happen to me? Why can't I find a woman to love me? And why won't my family let me come home for Christmas?

Then there was "Harold", a semi-retarded man who also returned for a daily visit after he was fired from his maintenance job at the mall. He loved to brag about the beauty of his girlfriend "Heather".
I was glad that he had her in his life -- until all three hundred pounds of Heather appeared at my cart, and threatened to kick the shit out of me if I didn't stay away from her man. When Harold showed up the following day, bruised and bandaged around the head, I realized exactly how serious she was.

Those are only a few examples of the numerous friends and visitors to the cart that ultimately derailed my writing plans, and almost got me fired. Apparently, while I entertained the lost, other shopkeepers were watching and reporting what they saw to my employer. Eventually my boss showed up, sarcastically threatening to hang a sign saying "Lucy, Advice 5 Cents" whenever I was working. He was so angry the veins in his head were bulging, but I kind of liked the image. It was, in many ways, the story of my life.

That was around the time my career as a hawker in the mall ended for good. I took from it 103 pages of a novel that would never be finished, an addiction to bean burritos, and the lonely stories my mall friends shared with me. As a writer, how could I ask for more?

26 comments:

Vickie said...

Ah, but those 103 pages can be turned into something else. I'm sure of it. With your talent, I think you can find enough in those pages to produce several short stories or an article. I refuse to think that all is lost. Thanks for posting this today. I quite enjoyed.

Perfect Virgo said...

So I want to write, I want to write better and I want to write more. I had just earmarked "a little cart in the mall" when I read your post and it stopped me in my tracks! First I rubbed my chin thoughtfully and wore a frown of concentration...

Then I breathed a huge sigh of relief, I realised the "lonely stories my mall friends shared with me" are the very backbone of reality - priceless material, yet free.

I'm a "happy little woodpecker."

Thanks Patry!

Patry Francis said...

Thanks, Vickie. I don't think that any time spent writing is ever lost. Even if I don't end up using the material, I learned something about my personal obsessions and how to convert them into something meaningful to other people. A year after I quit the mall job, I wrote another novel, which my agent is currently trying to sell.

p.v. I have no doubt that you WILL write more when you have the freedom and time to do so. I, for one, am looking forward to the results.

Santanu said...

Beautifully narrated! I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams that I would ever envy the job of a hawker in the mall. And now I do! :-)

bevjackson said...

This is hilarious and heartbreaking. Clearly you are meant to write! I loved this.

Patry Francis said...

santanu: Thanks for visiting. Actually, your job sounds a lot more fun.

Bev: That means a lot, especially coming from you.

gulnaz said...

its wonderful how you relate simple everday events which most would miss and reveal the layers so rich. wow lady! :)

Patry Francis said...

Thanks, Gulnaz. Sometimes I'm afraid I get too pulled in by other people's lives, and never have time to write. I guess it's all about balance.

Amie said...

i like the image above and the accompanying article.i enjoy reading it. i wish i can write and get paid for it too.

btw thanks for the visit ;)

finnegan said...

You have got a heart of gold Patry.

The "God of Small Things" can be found on any ground, and this is proof right here.

I recently read "Dark Star Africa" by Paul Theroux and was moved by his ability to pull magic out of so little.

And I agree about Virgo. I look forward to the results of his new-found freedom.

He's tagged me, so now I've got to see what it's all about.

easywriter said...

*Sighs* and turns back to her computer and her general help wanted ads.

Your thoughts and your writing inspire. I will keep trying and I will improve.

Jay said...

I very much enjoyed these portraits of the characters who haunted your kiosk!

This post made me think back to my first job out of college -- I worked the night shift as the check-in guy at a 24 hour health club. I wanted something that would let me read philosophy all night -- the longer I was there, though, the more familiar I became to some of the regulars, and the less reading I was able to get done . . .

Patry Francis said...

finnegan: you are so right about the god of small things. I will have to check out The Dark Star of Africa. Kind of sounds like the title of one of your dreams!

Amie: Nice to see you here.

Patry Francis said...

And Jay! I love the image of you reading philosophy all night. Now I understand where all the depth in your posts originates.

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