A long time ago, OK maybe like three years ago but that’s forever in post (?) pandemic times, I was a freelance copywriter at a certain place (an agency) in a certain city (New York), when someone (a creative director) looked at me and said, “Writers are the hardest to hire. They quit a lot. They don’t give a fuck.” He told me about how his writer friend quit his last job because fuck the man! The Man sucks! He was going to WRITE! His friend had worked at a pretty prestigious place, too (one that rhymes with Mew Morker).
He didn’t quite understand it or maybe he did but was more amused or bemused (he was kind of deadpan so I’m not quite sure) by the fact that a writer could write at basically the pinnacle of writerly places and still find it boring as hell and, well, quit.
Shortly after that, I quit.
Not because of anything he said but because I was closing in on three months there and for a freelancer, that’s basically lifer territory, a.k.a. the kiss of death, a.k.a. time to rip up my freelance cred card and don my Vesting Anniversary vest, am I right?
There wasn’t anything about that place in particular that made me quit. OK, I’m lying. There were a few things. The one that stands out was a conversation with someone about my then-recent seven-week jaunt in World War II/former Soviet countries, and she, who couldn’t have been older than 28, said to me, a (cough) 34-year-old, “That’s a nice thing to do when you’re young.”
And she wasn’t alone. That same attitude permeated most offices I popped into, as if spending much of your waking hours in an office—not out of a financial necessity but because of a compulsion to look busier than the next overworking idiot—was the ultimate sign of maturity. Literal 40, 50, 60, 70-year-olds mindlessly hovering over their desks, missing birthdays and wedding anniversaries and their besties’ bachelor parties and shit, so they could pitch for, I don’t know, bleach or something. Something that literally didn’t matter. OK, I’m sorry that’s a terrible example, bleach is especially important in these post (?) pandemic times because it disinfects a multitude of surfaces. So like, not bleach. Candy. OK, that’s a bad example, too, because, again, in these post (?) pandemic times candy is the opium of the masses. OK, what’s something that doesn’t matter? Now that I think about it, it’s really hard to tell because something matters to someone at all times, and who am I to invalidate someone’s beloved something? One asshole writer’s nothing is a better human’s lifeline.
But you get the point. That shit can wait. Pushing the deadline back by a few hours or days isn’t life or death. No one is going to die. No second “wasted” is going to result in someone’s loss of brain function. Just close out PowerPoint and go to your uncle’s 85th shindig. It’ll be OK.
Every writer’s dream (and yes, I’m talking absolutes here because this is the one absolute that’s universally true, and anyone who disagrees is a fucking liar) is to write whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a writer thing, it could just be a Someone With An Obsession, er, CALLiNg thing, but it’s a very special pain to be doing something else when you could be spending it writing. It could be a job (no matter how much you enjoy it), a party (no matter how fun it is), a lunch date (no matter how delicious). You’d rather be writing. So you agonize over the fact that you’re not, in fact, writing. Then you start vacuuming, which is a form of displacing the agony of not writing with the guilt of not writing. Which is super unproductive and weird. Especially when you’re in someone else’s house.
It’s not that writing is particularly enjoyable. Many times it’s draining AF. And it’s not like you think the thing you could be writing is the next great Asian-American novel. It’s that it’s a novel. Or a zine. Or a whiny essay like this one. And you need to write it. And if you don’t you get a little depressed or feel like you haven’t gotten anything done, even though you’ve vacuumed so much that you’ve subsequently discovered your previously brown rug is actually white.
Lighten up, you say!
Um. You think we haven’t tried?!?! You think we’d rather be thinking about all the terrible things we could be writing instead of living la vida awesome, yachting or the less hot person’s equivalent?!?
(Spoiler: No, dummy.)
And here’s the rub: while the parties and lunch dates can be rescheduled into oblivion, the job cannot. Because in this capitalist society, unless you have a trust fund, a wealthy grandparent or spouse or sugar father, you’ve got to figure out how to pay the bills. So you go on working somewhere, doing your best imitation of a functional human, until you can’t anymore. So you quit. Again. You make a go at the writing life, and only the writing life, until you realize, Oh wait, rent’s due again and your landlord is being unreasonable and won’t take blogs as a form of payment, so after having a good cry about the unfairness of having to work like a hardworking person instead of living like a useless writer who writes and only writes, you go look for a job.
The cycle continues.
One time I got yelled at by a recruiter because I told her I didn’t want to work nights and weekends. I wanted to have time to, you know, see people who also didn’t get paid to warm some chairs at the same office, and idk maybe write things 50 people didn’t have to see before its mangled carcass made it out to the world. She said, “Ha! Everyone works nights and weekends! Especially when you’re starting out! Especially in New York City!” Then she dramatically stormed out. Oh yes, this was in person. It was as terrible and as funny as it sounds.
When I relayed this story to some friends in the biz, they laughed and said, “Oh Karen. You have to work!”As if I hadn’t been a professional writer for more than 10 years at that point, had gone to undergrad and grad school for writing, had full-time experience then freelanced to get into companies that wouldn’t have hired me otherwise (because, you know, older career switcher, POC, woman, immigrant writer in a world where job postings still make a point to require that writers should be native speakers lol), and had done good work as a dutiful employee/freelancer/contractor at said places.
It was as if working 40 hours a week wasn’t working, and as if it wasn’t enough to be good (or great) at your job—it had to be your whole fucking life, too.
But of course it wasn’t enough. Because The Man said so.
Naturally, I can only write about all this now because my own situation these days is good. Really, really good. I’m basically that asshole sitting in that ivory tower reflecting on my lean years, smoking my pipe, rubbing my belly going, “Such paupery lived I!” (There’s no dictionary in this tower btw because who needs it!). Granted, this is coming from someone whose definition of “really, really good” was, not too long ago (OK, maybe 15ish years ago), eating one Cup O’ Noodles a day so she could afford to live on her own to write for a print newspaper in an increasingly digital world. But hey! One delusional writer’s LOLWHYYYY is another delusional writer’s really, really good ivory tower of awesome. And currently in my tower of awesome, I can pay the bills AND have the time to write what I want, when I want, where I want. It’s, as the kids say, NOICE.
But Karen, you interject oh so gently in fear of further riling up the Tita ranting before you. Isn’t there like a global recession and aren’t jobs like yours in volatile industries like yours always kind of not guaranteed, much less jobs that give you time to write what, when, where you want, especially when you’re gonna be replaced by robots, like, yesterday??!?! Won’t your tower eventually crumble?
Well, of course there is. And of course they are. And of course it will. This tower’s obviously a rental. Knowing this fact doesn’t change the eventual outcome, but it helps. If only because you know to bask in the tower while it’s there.
That’s another thing every aspiring writer (or rare book collector or yoga guru or fart-scented candle maker) should know: the really, really good life—if it comes at all—never lasts. If you somehow end up not quitting, it will eventually quit you.
What I’ve come to terms with over time, despite my resistance to giving up control or the illusion of control, is that impermanence is a grand feature of the cycle. And the cycle kind of just does its thing, whether you want it to or not, whether you resist it or submit to it, and whether you acknowledge or deny it. Nothing lasts forever.
That’s just, you know, life.
Still, the new year brings hope.
I think 2023 will bring all of us that elusive work/life balance, slow lunches, quiet or chaotic (if that’s your thing) evenings off the clock, and full weekends with friends and partners and pups. I also think The Man will take everything that we’ve learned the last few years—that much can be achieved remotely, with good creative work (I can’t speak to other jobs though I’m sure this rings true for many) possible within normal working hours—and make the proper adjustments because he knows a healthier, happier society is a more productive one. Lastly, I think this will finally be the year our various pursuits, regardless of how much money they may or may not make, will be celebrated by society at large.
Did I tell you what I want to start writing more of as part of my New Year’s resolution btw?
Props to Daniel Shieh for creating Passage to T0I-700d (the New World) , the art installation currently on view at Socrates Sculpture Park and forever (whatever “forever” means in the digital realm) in this pic.