An ongoing conversation about j-o-b-s
New York, NY
Before I went away on the Thomas J. Watson fellowship (and before I’d worked an actual 9-to-5), I thought I had to work to feel settled in my life. These words from my student lips: “I can’t live without working. I’d go crazy.” Then I went away on the Watson (a 12-month international independent study grant). I proposed my own project (independent publishing in the international community), I set my own schedule (five months in London, three in Trinidad, four in Jamaica), I decided exactly what I wanted to do with each day of my life for 12 months. The point of the Watson is to wander. To that end, the fellowship gives you a stipend and extracts a promise from you that you will not return to the U.S. for 12 consecutive months, then sets you loose. There are no meetings to attend, no office to check in at, absolutely no monitoring structures whatsoever.
I didn’t know true freedom until I took that year off to travel. Even as a young woman who had no mortgage, no car payments, no children and no boss, I didn’t know freedom. As a student, there was always a class to consider; as a friend and girlfriend, there was always someone else to consider when planning my day; as a sister, there were four other siblings always around; in the summer, an internship or a job was needed. But here were twelve free months, free from the tyranny of anything. When I woke up in the morning, I decided exactly what I wanted to do that day. I took on a few internships, but I chose my hours and the companies were so grateful to me.
There’s this expansion of mind that happens when you’re traveling. When you have three months stretching in front of you, no one knows your habits or attitudes, your choices fell less consequential, your movements are all your own. You’re a different person: lighter, less grave somehow. I remember some friends I made in Brazil visited New York, after they left, they discussed my state of mind. And they agreed that I seemed grave, unhappy, they were worried that I wasn’t well, it was as if something had happened to me. They thought I was much happier in Brazil. When I told another Brazil friend the story, he said, Who isn’t happier in Brazil?
However wonderful traveling is, it still gets tiresome. Toward the end of my 12-month fellowship, I just wanted to go home. But I went home altered. I had tasted liberation and no longer wanted to be a publisher, no longer wanted a job. What I did during my 12 months of travel was write. I wrote and wrote and wrote, mounds and mounds of material (the first draft of my first novel). That’s when I knew, left to my own devices, I would write. It is what sustains and fulfills me. It is exactly how I want to spend my life.
And then I moved to New York and got a 9-to-5. I attended meetings where we squabbled and gossiped. I fell asleep at my desk. I took naps in the bathroom. I walked around the block a few times a day. And in between trying to keep myself entertained, I did some work. After a year of being a 9-to-5er, I was sullen and unhappy. I wanted to scream “FOUL”, this whole job thing is a bad call. I think one of the saddest moments of life is that transition that so many of us make from college student to full-time employee. “Is this it?” we find ourselves asking. “Is this what everyone has been doing all this time while I’ve been growing up?” [Of course, there are those of us out there who love our jobs. And I say god bless you, each and everyone. May everyone be so lucky as to find a job that they love.]
It’s not the work that’s the problem. (Well, sometimes it is, but the tasks you commit to doing aren’t necessarily the issue). It’s the daily grind, it’s the mind-numbing schedule, it’s the lack of choice or variation. 9-to-5 kills. It kills creativity, curiosity, energy, drive, verve and daring. It keeps us too exhausted to take on change, it keeps some of us too exhausted to think outside the box.
I think 9-to-5 is one of the most totalitarian forms of thought control our world has, and there needs to be a revolution against it. There must be a better, more brain-friendly way, to extract work from personnel. It is a greedy machine that decides for you, exactly how you’re going to live your life. It sets the parameters for your waking hours, and in dictating what you’re going to do for 40 hours of your daylight time, it limits how you’re going to spend your “free” time. You must go to bed at a certain time to maintain mental freshness for the workday ahead. You must run your errands on the weekend to keep yourself fed and clothed for the work week ahead. You must travel in spurts dictated by the number of vacation days you are allotted by your company. You must only get sick a particular number of days and only have as many personal emergencies as the number of personal days you have. It is ingenious really. In order to take care of our individual needs (food, clothes, shelter), we must turn over our freedom and promise do nothing but maintain the system.
And some of us do it so well. H.G. Wells wrote in The War of the Worlds (1897):
“They haven’t any spirit in them—no proud dreams and no proud lusts; and a man who hasn’t one or the other—Lord! what is he but funk and precautions? They just used to skedaddle off to work—I’ve seen hundreds of ’em, bit of breakfast in hand, running wild and shining to catch their little season-ticket train, for fear they’d get dismissed if they didn’t; working at businesses they were afraid to take the trouble to understand; skedaddling back for fear they wouldn’t be in time for dinner; keeping indoors after dinner for fear of the back streets, and sleeping with the wives they married, not because they wanted them, but because they had a bit of money that would make for safety in their one little miserable skedaddle through the world. Lives insured and a bit invested for fear of accidents. And on Sundays—fear of the hereafter.”
A bitter commentary on this institution of work. Some of us have been running through mazes since 1897! Yet few of us actually like their jobs. Sometimes I sit still, I sit really still and I visualize all the people who are working who hate their jobs. It’s an accepted cultural fact. “Everybody hates their jobs,” my friend told me just last night. Then why do we do it, I wonder? I know why I do it. But how could legions and legions of humans be duped into daily committing their lives to this thing that brings them no pleasure? The level of dissatisfaction is astounding. Sometimes I want to send out a company wide email saying: “Do we really all hate it here? If so, let’s just stand up and leave right now.”
This Western institution of work takes away the most basic creative choice we were all blessed with: the creation of our lives. And that’s the quest, isn’t it? To live a life free of the fetters of external obligations. [For the record, I don’t think 9-to-5 is the only institution that causes people to struggle to define their own lives. I believe struggling against some external force to define your own life is the human birthright. 9-to-5 is just one of the more universal forces humans struggle against.]
But the tension of it is interesting. When you get home from work, you literally have time to work on your own thing, but often your mind will not participate. You want to unwind. You spend money to erase the tensions and irritations and indignities of the day. I find myself unable to work on a novel while working a 9-to-5. I can write essays and short stories. I can commit to and complete pieces that have limited page counts and scopes. But the parts of my mind that I need to write a novel aren’t accessible to me while I work a 9-to-5. There is this mental commitment longer works demand (for me at least, so far at least). I need empty space stretching beyond the time I’m literally writing. I need brain space for my mind to work out plot points and character connections. Somehow, the 9-to-5 just squelches that. It takes up too much space in my head, and my characters curl up in a ball and refuse to come out and play.
But the tension… it’s been five years now, and “I can’t” gets very boring. “I can’t write a novel while working a 9-to-5,” gets too dull. I find myself more and more resolved to make it happen. Every day that I’m not making it happen, is a day I’m committing to spending the rest of my days toiling at a desk. I’m writing more now than I did my first three years of 9-to-5. I decided to write a draft of a novel. I haven’t been trying to extract pleasure from the process (and it has been hard), I’m just doing it. When I go away, me and those characters are going to play hard and fast and we’re going to burst into art in three months. The tension of 9-to-5 causes the breaks to be more valuable. I know exactly how much time I have to produce something. I know the precise cost of sitting on my ass and not moving forward. When I travel, I know exactly how (and how much) I paid for every minute I spend abroad and that causes me to act wisely.
During my first writing trip, I discovered my perfect schedule. I wake around 9:00 a.m. I write until noon or 1. I go out and have lunch with friends, take in a little sunshine. Then I return home to paint in the afternoons. At night I attend cultural events to feed my mind, spirit and heart. In the morning, I start all over again. The weekends are spent socializing and connecting with people. That’s what I’m working towards. In the future, I may or may not spend my afternoons painting (painting has fallen by the wayside over the past two years). Perhaps I’ll become a teacher. But the burning desire I have for my life, is to spend my first hours of the day—the hours when I am my most focused and lucid—writing, creating, building images, ideas and worlds for myself.
I’ve been lucky. After quitting my job to travel—the idea of my job stretching before me for an interminable number of weeks unnerves me—I returned to my company as a freelancer. After a year and a half as an employee, I’ve been blessed with a freelance position that allows me to save money, travel for a few months and return to work when I’m broke. Now, after three years of a freelance relationship, my company is moving to Long Island. I’m not going along with them. I and a ton of coworkers have to decide what we’re going to do. Many of us are taking the opportunity to follow dreams. One friend is headed to culinary school to study baking, two others are going to groom animals, I think I am finally going to enter a M.F.A. program. My hunger for and commitment to my life as a writer is growing, and I am daily pushing myself to find ways to live in a world structured by my own blueprints.
Be well. Be love(d).
: : : August 2001 – present : : :
I’ve decided to work with short shorts for a while so I don’t stress myself out. I want to produce new fiction, but it’s so consuming. My solution has been to shoot for short lengths. And working with Tim Gaze’s three words worked so well, I’m going to make that a ritual of mine. When an editor asks me for a story, I’ll ask them for three words. It lends a little reciprocity to the whole process. The story isn’t only written “for” the editor, but the content itself is inspired by the editor’s words. Different words have different moods and tones. The last short short I wrote (the second one using the “give me three words” method) took me into a world I’m certain I would not have conceived without the editor’s words: DUB, FERRET, RATTLING. She likes the story, and I think she’s going to include it in her web publication, but until I have an actual acceptance, we stay at 4 even for acceptances and rejections.