Friday, October 19, 2012

Elegy for a Dying Profession

 It is an odd, somewhat pleasant, somewhat painful sensation to discover that your so-called working days are over. First, the assumption itself could be wrong. Maybe my social security will be destroyed by Republicans. Or Democrats. Maybe the cost of living will force me to go groveling for work once again. But for the sake of argument, I’m going to say it’s over. Finis.

I will say this, categorically, unequivocally, and with extreme prejudice: I hated every job I ever had.
Something went gravely wrong in my employment history. Was it my attitude? Could have been. I never actually wanted a job. It’s not that I’m lazy. There are some forms of work that I enjoy. I always loved writing. I wanted to be a novelist of eccentric books with eccentric characters, eccentric ideas, and eccentric events. I wanted to be next Richard Brautigan. But by the time I really got serious about becoming the next Richard Brautigan, Richard Brautigan stopped being Richard Brautigan. He took a shotgun and blew his brains out in Bolinas, California.
I’ve never met anyone who truly enjoyed their job, no matter what that job happened to be. Everyone I’ve known has hated going to work. Hated the stress, the bullying, the boredom, the dull, demeaning, repetitive tasks, the pettiness of office politics, the withering looks of disdainful superiors, the insomnia caused by having your schedule constantly changed and the festering wounds made by the digs and cutting remarks of a perennially understaffed crew. You don’t need to be a writer or poet to hate these things. But the passion to write does put you in a peculiar relationship with the world because you’re producing something nobody really wants. It was once considered a high calling. People used to respect that ambition. Not anymore. Tell someone you’re a writer these days and you’ll get a blank response, as if you’d just farted, or scratched your crotch.
It is not infrequent to hear, at the reading of a famous poet, particularly one of the edgier bards a little out of the mainstream, how do you survive as a poet? How do make you a living? How do you support yourself? The sensible answer, which is the one most frequently given, is learn a trade. Become a carpenter. Become a veterinarian. Go to med school. Go to law school. Attend a heavy equipment training school. In other words, don’t be a poet. Be a carpenter, veterinarian, doctor, lawyer, or heavy equipment operator. Everybody wins. The future poet earns a living and the famous poet goes on being a famous poet with less competition.
Poets who offer this advice mean well. They really do. They know what it’s like to be poor and hungry and work at a craft that is roundly unappreciated and unrecompensed. There is a luxury in writing without the constraints of courting conventional taste in order to make money. But after so many years go by, perhaps they forget how exhausted one feels after a day of work, how terrific a beer tastes and how easy it is to turn the TV on and the let day’s stresses melt away while Bryan Cranston cooks another batch of meth or Olivia Munn engages in spritely repartee with Emily Mortimer. The eyes close briefly and the next you know it’s 11:00 p.m. and time to go to bed. Maybe there is time for a haiku, or to tinker with a sestina before crawling under the sheets.
William Carlos Williams was, as everyone knows, a doctor. He managed. He wrote a lot of poetry. My hat is off to that guy. I don’t know how he did it. Between patients? So I’ve heard. A line or two at the typewriter, then go take a look at Mrs. Pelagatti’s psoriasis.
Of course, the above scenarios all pertain to poetry. Nobody expects to make a living at poetry. You’re making a product for which there is absolutely no demand. Nobody wants poems. Handing someone a book of poetry in this day and age is tantamount to handing someone a paper bag full of dog shit.  
Writing is different. There is a far better prospect at making a living. What do J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins all have in common?  Crappy, inane, mediocre books. Yes. But apart from that. That’s right. They’re all fucking rich. So how do you, dear reader/writer/blogger, also become rich? I wish I knew. I don’t know what the formula for writing a highly marketable book is. Mediocrity? Perhaps. But there are a number of books that are actually pretty good that also command respectable sales. I would ask someone really smart in the business who also makes a lot of money. The writers of HBO’s Deadwood, for instance, or screenwriters like William Monahan, Diablo Cody, or Tony Gilroy.
Writing screenplays is an option I let pass. I never gave it a shot. There were two reasons for this. One, I don’t like competition, and I can’t imagine anything more fiercely competitive then getting people with pull to read one’s scripts. And two, I wanted the quiet, secluded life of the novelist. I love movies, but drama has never been my forte. Nevertheless, if I were a younger person with a passion to write and an aversion to poverty, I might take a shot at the brass ring in Hollywood. Though I would also have to imagine myself as a completely different sort of person. A louder, brighter, more aggressive person. A person who does well in social circumstances, parties hard, works hard, networks with the dexterity of an air traffic controller and kisses ass with relish and moral abandon.
I was always drawn to the novel. As Jack Kerouac and Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood have all amply demonstrated, there can be poetry embedded within the scope of the novel. The novel is a have your cake and eat it too situation. You can write poetry, put it in a novel, and provided you don’t put too much of it within a novel, you still have a chance at some marketability and paying the rent without having to serve dinner to petulant assholes or gaze at spreadsheets in a cubicle.
Novels demand time. Poems are small. Novels are big. Poems are born almost entirely from the imagination of the poet. Novels require research. Hours of proofreading and editing. And if novels aren’t your cup of tea, there is also non-fiction. Writers such as John McPhee, Jonathan Raban, Diane Ackerman and Barry Lopez have made pretty good livings at it. The question is: is this still a sensible career choice for someone who loves writing? The prognosis, at least from my bruised, disillusioned point of view, is not good.
There was a time when the demand for good writing was high and paid well. That time has gone. Not even the Huffington Post pays its contributors. Good writing is no longer valued.
I know. This is depressing. There are people, and I count myself among them, who can’t do anything but write. Here is a list of things I cannot do: quickly understand instructions; follow orders; make change; be polite to idiotic and demanding customers; practice fundamental math skills; remain concentrated on a boring task; fake enthusiasm; tolerate stress; perform routine tasks in a brisk, able manner.
What’s left? Writing, of course. Writing you do in private, at home. Preferably at home. If you have a home. If you don’t have a home, à la Jean Genet or John Keats, a temporary home will be provided in the form of a couch, or prison cell.
There are jobs such as teaching that provide a half-way measure. It is preferable, for some, to at least be able to talk about writing when you can’t write than serve espressos to impatient yuppies or caddie for the Wall Street crowd. That will require a degree, which will require a loan, but if you’re willing to take a chance on that avenue, go for it. It’s better than washing and manicuring poodles.
I’ve often wondered if being a late night security guard wouldn’t be a good job for a writer. After you’ve checked all the doors and rest rooms for malefactors the time is yours to dream and reflect and get some paper out and write.
My strategy paid off pretty well too. Just stay alive long enough to collect social security. If it’s enough to live on, or can be compounded with a few literary awards, then you’ve got 24/7 to write to your heart’s content. 


David Grove said...

My dad was a late-night security guard for a time. He had to wrestle drunks, chase slim-jimmers through parking lots, commingle with fools, and perform dull, repetitive tasks. Few writers would like it, I'm sure. It's just the toad Work squatting on your life, same as almost all other jobs.

John Olson said...

Bummer. There go my security guard dreams. What I had in mind was the security guard in Mike Leigh's Naked. Remember that guy? He had the whole building to himself.

David Grove said...

Yes! I thought of him right after pushing the Publish button! The bloke with "the most tedious fuckin job in England," as Johnny puts it. But I remember envying him a bit. I thought, "What a cushy sinecure for an introverted freak who just wants to read and write and draw and listen to music all the time." Maybe not all security guards have to lock horns with inner-city miscreants the way my dad did.