i. In the basement
I began as a “stock girl” at eleven years old. My job was to run up and down the stairs to the basement of my grandmother’s upscale housewares store and fetch oversized customer purchases—sets of wine glasses and unassembled wire drawer units, mostly. Every summer weekend of 1987, I carried outgoing boxes up the stairs and newly arrived UPS boxes down. Between laps I flattened and bundled cardboard, tallied inventory on a clipboard, and filed purchase orders. I worked hard, but nepotism had its privileges: I was paid $5 an hour in cash under the table, a fortune for a kid and on par with what the grown-up clerks made. (California minimum wage at the time was $3.35.)
Even then, I viewed my summer gig as work I would one day leave behind: when I grew up, I was certain, I would become a full-time artist. (I cycled through the dream jobs of ballerina, actor, rock star, and, finally, writer). While I was working in the basement I visualized my future Artist’s Life: I would have a post-industrial living space with high ceilings in a large city; I’d share it with a cat and a partner, both of whom would adore me but value my independent spirit and leave me alone to work. My work would be popular yet retain its authenticity. There would be cocktail parties and ceiling-to-floor bookshelves. Above all, I would never “have to” flatten cardboard boxes again.
My family’s store was housed in a grand 1910 sandstone building, formerly a bank. The basement was cool and dark. It smelled like damp cement and Styrofoam, but to me it was the shadowy secret headquarters of capital. My grandparents had repurposed the old bank vault as their office, its original meter-thick door permanently propped open like a steel monument to the place’s past as a retailer of money. When I delivered my packing slips to the manager’s filing cabinet, I could see an intricate interior system of old locks and gears in the door’s cross-section. Prior to working at the store, I had been enchanted by the mechanics of the cash register, by its percussive flashes of bells, sliding parts, and coins. But in the basement I realized the sales floor operations were a façade: the real work of business was happening downstairs. The basement was both the physical and fiscal seat of power in the store. This was where the money lived, in the heavy lifting that made those wine glasses shine for the yuppie newlyweds shopping upstairs, and even deeper, behind a steel door as thick as I was tall. I wondered then if everything I knew and experienced might have a similar duplicity—another thing, a working and sweating mechanism beneath the surface.
In the business of literature, the people who mind the store—from writers to editors to Tumblrs— often have other jobs, too. For writers and other creators of culture, the “day job”—a means of income for an artist that is not the production of her art (leaving the definition of art aside for the moment)—is viewed as a temporary step on the ladder to artistic success. Many young writers hold the conviction that a day will come when they don’t have to do anything but write. When we speak about our “Work,” we mean our writing. We treat this work with reverence and hold it up as the work that makes us who we are: Artists. But beneath the surface of our art is a life largely spent doing other work: basement shifts, rent gigs, and adjunct positions whose earnings shore up our literary work. Day jobs are a mechanism beneath the business of literature. As such, they don’t just pay our bills; they’re what we do with most of our lives. Is there value to be found in a day job beyond its paycheck? Why are writers so eager to leave work behind?
ii. Moving on up
In high school, I scored a legit job at the local used book and record store. There, I still had to flatten cardboard, but I also shelved pocketbooks—sci fi, mystery, and Westerns—in their delineated sections on the basement level of the store. I got my hands on the work of Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, Joan Didion, and Anaïs Nin, and the fantasy of leaving behind my day job grew. I could see so many potential iterations of myself as a successful writer: I might be the sensitive introvert composing my work in a window seat while watching the light fall all day long; the cultural critic, always traveling and observing, a notebook and chic sunglasses my most constant companions; or the continental sensation breaking literary hearts with every breathless epistolary I penned. Regardless of the details, I was certain I would soon be illuminating the human condition with impeccable prose while living a life far removed from the drudgery of “regular” work.
I was sixteen and about to graduate from high school by the time a coworker said to me, “So, what are you gonna do now?” I’d soon be leaving to attend college back East, but I already had larger ambitions. (And I’d recently added Kerouac to my roster of role models.)
“I dunno,” I said, “maybe drop out of college and move to New York and become a famous writer by the age of twenty-one?”
My coworker, a bookseller with two kids, a man who has read and understood all of Proust, Finnegan’s Wake, and John Fahey’s liner notes—and an agreeable clerk who was kind and sincere with even the most hostile of customers—rolled his eyes. He handed me a stack of paperbacks and said, “Yeah. Right. Don’t quit your day job, kid.”
Did I really believe I would be a bestselling author with a sweet Soho loft by age twenty-one? No, but I didn’t believe I wouldn’t be. Any artist who produces work for public consumption must navigate a tenuous balance of ambition and pragmatism. Ambition requires dreaming; sometimes dreams veer into fantasy. Fantasies, once they take root, are difficult to remove. Weed-like, they devour the productive environment around them. They are fertile and robust. Sometimes, they even flower.
The Writing Life is one such fantasy; another is quitting your day job. Both scenarios imply there is something else—something more—for artists around the bend. Freedom, unfettered expression, fame. Legend, even. Take my high school-era hero: Emily Dickinson, hard at work at her little table, free from the bothers of having to earn a living (and an unseen maid hard at work cleaning up after her, no doubt). I know it’s not real for me, but also, even now, I believe in it a little.
Early last month, I was living the Writing Life by clicking on links to “10 Writing Rules from Some Canonical Author Dude” on one of the literary websites I frequent when I came across a news item about a recently discovered letter by Oscar Wilde. Among a reported 13 pages of advice to a younger writer was Wilde’s admonition to secure a steady income: “The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread.”
In other words, don’t quit your day job, kid.
iii. The best work
I did drop out of college, and I did move to New York. I wrote. I published a zine. I typed poems on my old typewriter and taped them to the walls of bedrooms and bars. I scribbled letters to friends back home and kept carefully Xeroxed copies in my journal just in case I needed to plunder them later for my memoir. I wrote a few okay, earnest short stories that weren’t published and some snarky cultural criticism that was. I sold some articles for money, to the magazine where I was a secretary. I moved cities a few more times. And I worked.
I was a seamstress for a theater company while many of my peers were still in dorm rooms burning their parents’ money in bongs. My coworkers, two middle-age women, preferred listening to public radio to talking. They were kind to me: although I was only a stitcher—my job was to iron and baste pattern muslin—the shop manager walked me through the process of crafting a 1940s noir bombshell’s dress from raw white silk. On opening night of the play in which the dress starred, I had to pick up the costume from the dry cleaners and deliver it to the theater; when I slipped and dropped my pristine creation into the dirt-filled snowpack of the city street, I cried. I had made that dress, the first physical thing I ever entirely made, and I had done so in the tradition and company of other working women. Then I had ruined it. And I had to tell my boss. She came in to help me spot-clean the garment while the analog sounds of the radio warmed the quiet cold of the empty shop. That warmth became part of the fabric of my experience as a creator of things.
I was a server of things, too: At a busy NYC restaurant I learned when you don’t show up, your boss might dock you, but it’s your coworkers who suffer. That’s called solidarity. At a downtown nightclub, I learned to carry a full tray of cocktails on one hand above my head, and I learned what it smells like when the tray drops down the back of a well-perfumed nightclub patron. That’s called going home with no tips.
At multiple retail gigs I developed the ability to read a person’s mood in one glance, to ask them what they wanted and then perform customer service triage. I learned to fake friendliness, to flirt strategically, and to be smart about what I stole. I met kind and talented friends. I asked stupid questions: while I couldn’t possibly pretend I’d heard that rare 7” record my coworker was waving around, if I swallowed my ego and asked about it, I’d be gifted with a mind-blowing music history footnote. The next time someone asked, I was the expert who passed it forward.
As a Girl Friday, I performed other people’s intimate tasks: I bought socks for a successful visual artist, walked her dog, and separated out her paintbrushes from those of her soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. As receptionist at a magazine, I did similar tasks for the founding editor, and I learned about reporting and editing along the way. I also learned my Queens-born Puerto-Rican co-receptionist made less money than me, a white girl with a “regular” accent. We became friends anyway, and she taught me how to make sandwiches from nothing but a deli roll, a spoonful of mayonnaise, and salt.
I was in the passenger seat of a white van in far-flung Brooklyn in 1999 when I realized a place can contain a multitude of realities. A temp job installing corporate signage in bank branches had me driving around the outer boroughs for six weeks starting at six in the morning every day. While I compared my site list to the map I’d found in the door of the van, my signage partner, a thirty-year-old painter with permanent hangdog eyes, sped through other worlds: Hasidic enclaves, beach neighborhoods, middle-class Caribbean suburbias, and streets that looked more like Dickens’ London than the downtown Manhattan I thought of as New York. While we stood on ladders in ATM vestibules, the people who lived there talked to us. I listened.
The whole time, I wanted to quit. Work was keeping me from my true Work, I thought. I was really a writer. Not a reporter or a copywriter—a creative writer. An artist. Yet despite my intolerance for it, all this un-writerly work was what allowed me to understand that people and experiences other than mine exist. Empathy is perhaps the most valuable skill a writer can possess, and I found it at work. There, I was becoming myself, figuring out my values, where I stood in relation to the world, and what I wanted to say about it. My art wasn’t doing that for me; art was what boomeranged out of me when I processed real life.
Would I quit working if I could? Of course I would. But I’d do so with the knowledge it might make me a person who is less engaged with life, and possibly a lesser writer.
While I was at work, the 90s passed. The aughts were fully underway. I was in my 30s, and I was still largely unpublished. I had a bundle of life experience to write from, a bifurcated class identity, and a resume full of holes bigger than the ones in my unfinished memoir manuscript. As in memoir, there was no big epiphany, but somewhere along the way, in small doses and messy life changes, I started to realize work wasn’t what was holding me back; the ideal of the Writer’s Life was. Once I let myself understand that statistically I would probably never—yes, never—be able to quit working, the hours I had spent agonizing over having a day job became hours in which I could write. I began to transfer the energy behind my fantasy into real ambition.
The work I performed at my day jobs also became more valuable to me. I started asking for more—saying no when I should, demanding pay for the minutes I spent counting out my register off-shift, seeking transparency in personnel policies, asking to be paid as much as men. And I began asking these questions at all my jobs, writing included. Work is work, even when we call it art, or love, or culture and even when it’s not. I want my work to be valued, as much and as often as possible, regardless of which clock I’m punching.
iv. Costs and complications
A conversation about work is also a conversation about class. There’s an implied choice behind “day job” narratives like the one Wilde suggests—whether to have a day job or be a “starving” artist hustling and living off connections. Such options don’t exist for a lot of artists. I’m a white, straight woman with friends; I was raised in a safe, supportive middle-class environment by people who valued literature and the arts. It’s presumed my story is authentic when I speak about work and art and say I was once a seamstress. It’s also presumed Emily Dickinson’s maid didn’t go home and write poems after work. I bet she did.
Remember the girl in the basement? The one who made as much as her adult coworkers? I could choose a different way to narrate my “history of day jobs” that doesn’t sound as scrappy and working-class. This other story is the unvoiced half of a sort of writerly code-switching, a privilege I enjoy as a person who lives on the poverty line but hangs out with intellectuals. In this narrative, I still work as a receptionist at that New York magazine, but I get promoted to an editorial position by the founding editor, who happens to be a distant cousin of mine. I start attending editorial lunch gatherings at the iconic meatpacking district Restaurant Florent and leave my co-receptionist behind at her desk. After a couple years, company reorganization and cubicle-inspired restlessness send me back to waitressing (at Florent, because I know the owner now) and other poorly paid service jobs, but I retain a connection with literary New York that still serves me today.
I eventually move back to the West Coast. I work in bookstores and record stores making minimum wage alongside other artists. Through a personal connection, I become the in-house copywriter at a large nonprofit arts organization. Salary ($38K), benefits, the whole works. After a few years, I decide to finally go straight and finish my college degree, and I take out student loans I will likely never be able to pay back in order to intern at a prestigious literary magazine where I’m the same age as the editor. I work nights at home editing a porn star’s memoir, but I still feel far away from Anaïs. When I graduate into the great recession in my early 30s, I’m “forced” into the freelance economy, which welcomes me due to my now-extensive professional network. This story is not the Writing Life story either, and its lessons are perhaps less romantic than the ones I learned in the van in Brooklyn. Today I make a living from a mix of freelance writing, copywriting and copyediting, and consulting work. I live paycheck to irregular paycheck, but I never go hungry. Do I have a day job? Honestly, I’m not sure. I do know I work all the time. Sometimes with a capital “W,” sometimes without.
Oscar Wilde’s advice is still making the rounds, one more cliché among listicles. It may be cribbed from a different economic era, but he does have a point. A writer needs financial stability—a paycheck, preferably steady—to enable her “best work.” This is fairly self-evident: people need money to live, and writing rarely pays well or at all, so it follows a day job will “free” a writer to concentrate on writing instead of earning, and hopefully she’ll write something amazing. At the same time, our sped-up culture and sluggish economy are overflowing with cautionary examples of people who spend so much of their selves and time earning a living that they have nothing left to give to the very thing they work to sustain, be it family or poetry. Going for the Writing Life might put you in a position of economic uncertainty (or, likely Wilde’s true concern, pandering), but the realities of the working life aren’t exactly a deus ex machina either. For most writers I know, it’s complicated. Since my stock girl days, I’ve poked around in the machinery stashed beneath the surface of many realities. The only clear truth each of my jobs has taught me is that the working life—“real” life—is just as important as the writing life. Here’s why: they’re the same thing.