For a while, I thought that to be a writer meant that you could not have a day job that brought you joy. I had been seduced by Ann Patchett’s tales of feverish slogging on the floor of a chain restaurant, the vest festooned with pins, the endless bus-trays of dirty dishes; I read in Truth and Beauty that she’d lied on her resume to get the work, had put in instead of her Iowa degree two years at a community college and multiple waitressing jobs.
So I tried my best to be that person. After finishing grad school and my teaching fellowship, the first job I applied for was the State Fair, ripping tickets as my arm (as I’ve had my character Claire say when she works the same gig) learned to hurt. From there I went to French Meadow, making people coffee as I dreamed of my future fame. How jubilant they would all be to learn one day that their latte girl had written all of their favorite books!
I thought, it’s true, that this novel-process would be faster. That’s how I made it seem, to everyone; like the book was just steps away from being printed, and that soon I would be whisked away on a cloud to New York, where I would be feted and dined and wined. I chattered with eager plans of my future advance: the burnt-orange Beetle I would buy, its lovely stereo, the house I might or might not purchase.
Instead, it’s four years later, and here I sit: still not-famous, still revising.
It’s only: there came a day at French Meadow when I simply could not go into work anymore. It was January, and I started to cry. I stared into the massive mirror that was one wall of my room and I thought, I am just a barista, I am a forever-nothing. The rage that seized me – I still remember it, how full-bodied it was, how it trembled my hands and shook my lips. I wrote a feverish letter that I never delivered, and I quit.
I went back to substitute teaching, because that felt like doing something instead of nothing; even if the days were fuller and the paycheck less, even if I no longer had mornings to write, I wasn’t striving all the time to return the restaurant to zero, to make it look as if it had never been filled with customers. I was talking and my words had meaning.
I still don’t know. It’s true that my best work was done when I was in Germany, in a relationship that felt like a trap and a day job full of vacant hours. I sat at the nanny-family’s giant wooden table and I wrote fiction to save myself, adding pages to a novel I didn’t think would ever go anywhere, crafting odd little dark stories about a woman trapped in the walls and the dissection of a formaldehyded-cat. I don’t feel that desperation anymore, and I worry sometimes that what I now do is taking the energy I used to expend in prose and using it elsewhere.
But I don’t think I can be any other way.
“You are really terrified of routine, aren’t you?” said my new intern as we drove back from the Loft on Friday, our car full of unsold books and a bag of cash we hadn’t used. I laughed, because she’d only known me for two days – how was it possible for someone to be so right?
I am. Faced with the choice between a life of drudgery interspersed with bits of brilliant fiction and a life that’s like my life now, which is a chain of pearls, wonderful novelties and interesting faces, productivity waning but everything else really going quite well, I pick the latter, and I insist, stubbornly, that it’s got to be in a way good for me, for the writer I still know I’m becoming.
This is self-indulgent, isn’t it? I’m being the sort of person I hate: someone who talks endlessly about their artistic process. If you’re here, if you’re reading this, I beg you to forgive me. I’m still figuring it out, the balance between stories-that-are-interesting-to-me and stories-that-are-interesting-to-everyone. Vonnegut once said that if you are writing, it is not wise to “open a window and make love to the world” – he believed you should write to one specific person, one interested friend, and then the rest would follow. But I’ve always been unable to do that, since undoubtedly that one interested friend would soon become exhausted. There are just so many words I want to say, so please, world, bear with me.
My job, currently, is to plan events. As of three months ago, I work at this platonic ideal of a bookstore; it smells like a horsey potpourri of moldering pages. It has little ladders on tracks, for God’s sake – I haven’t yet swung on one like Belle, but believe me, it’s coming. It is the sort of good soft place in the world that with its mere presence begets more delight.
I do not always love being there – sometimes I am too overwhelmed by spreadsheets, by the harsh fluorescence of the upstairs and the sheer volume of emails to be answered and the wealth of social media postings I could make – but in those times, I have learned to merely walk downstairs and spend some time petting the books, caressing friends’ covers and opening, here and there, something that looks interesting. Then I breathe and go back up to my job.
This is a real-person career, something that tests me, uses skills I didn’t know I had. There is an endless amount of things I could learn. There is always something I could be doing. I return home exhausted and scroll Reddit for an hour before falling asleep. On walks, I think not of my book but of fun events I could plan. Am I in danger of falling forever into a trap of easy joy, or am I exactly in the place I should be?
My parents think so. “You’re doing it,” they whispered when they came to a talk on inequality and automated systems repressing the poor. “This is a perfect Jessie job.”
My friends think so. “That was a good introduction,” said Paul and Christine, leaning back in their folding chairs amidst the crowd that had assembled to hear from the writer of Call Me By Your Name. “It was just the right amount of quirky.”
That event, really, was what sparked this, my sudden return to the blog after five months away – because I want to remember it, when I look back, how well it went. It’s wrong to brag about your successes on the Internet, but please, bear with me: on Saturday night, I did a very good job. We knew it would be big, and it was. My boss, the bookstore owner, went folding-chair shopping and returned with twenty-four seats jammed into her SUV. She roved around dusting them off while I fluttered upstairs and down, readying the system we had come up with to call the crowd up in groups instead of a line. People started arriving at five, and the reading wasn’t till seven. At six the writer himself showed up, and I brought him to our employee lounge, where Patrick Nathan, the moderator, a delightful local author whose book has just come out, was waiting with a stack for him to sign ahead of time. It was my job to sit with them in the break-room chairs and talk about fiction for twenty minutes before roaming away to check on everything else.
At 7:05, I got to walk out and say, “Minneapolis! How y’all doing tonight!” which is something I’ve always wanted to yell, and I got to watch the crowd cheer.
I eyed the people sitting in the aisles and standing against every available shelf. I got to talk about fire exits, and then I got to say, “Hold up the little slips we’ve given you, please,” and then I got to watch everyone dig in their pockets and hoist them up above their heads.”You’ll note that they are all different colors. We’ll be calling groups up in this order,” and then I got to run for the visual aid I’d prepared and let it accordion-fold down to the floor. “It’s a rainbow,” I whispered into the microphone, and everyone laughed.
And then I got to sit in the very front and watch the writer himself, this man who created the book that the night before had left me sobbing in my bed, read the scene in which Elio declares his love for Oliver – obliquely, abstractly, but in a way that means Oliver gets it, that they’re on a path into a new and uncertain land. In the video I dutifully recording, everyone watching looks moved.
My favorite part was what came after. I called us a Lyft and we got in, me and Patrick and Mr. Aciman. We felt famous simply being by him, though the driver had no idea; I had to resist the temptation to lean over and whisper, “The man in your back seat wrote the book that became the movie that will probably win the Oscar.” We played tour guide, pointing out the place where, as Patrick said, “you can buy both a cock ring and a mocha.” (The Lyft driver went, “Whoa whoa whoa! Conversation’s getting interesting in here!”) I motioned to the stadium; we sneered at it and called it a monstrosity. (Mr. Aciman, plaintive: “But then why did they build it?”)
Then we arrived at the bar that had co-sponsored the event. I don’t think I can adequately describe, in print, the giddiness that overtook both of us Minneapolis folks when we walked in: apparently some tour buses had stopped by, and so now the whole place was packed with suburban twentysomethings and a DJ shouting into the microphone, “Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots!” And here we were with this kind man who had a punishing tour schedule, about to sit down and order martinis.
But our nervous laughter cleared, and soon we were sort of talking about fiction. One of the queens came by with two copies of his books, and he signed them gamely, inscribing in the light of an outstretched phone.
I said, finally: “Well, I’m a writer too. I went to Iowa.” (I hated myself in that moment, but I wanted him to find me significant.) “I have an agent and a book, only… it’s been through like three drafts, and I started it four years ago, and it’s really taking a while.”
“Four years?” Andre Aciman’s forehead wrinkled kindly. (Always he was like this, that evening; he did not want to talk about himself, he wanted only to respond to everything around him.) “But that is a very long time. You are…” He drummed his fingers next to the empty plate from the quesadilla we’d shared. “Not the same person you were when you started,” he said finally.
I am not.
I still think it’s going to work, the book. If anything, I’m more cavalier and savvy than I was – a better editor, less attached to it. It’s just that all my eggs aren’t in that one basket anymore. They’re spread around, and they’re not very breakable eggs, not if I can, with some emails to a publicist and a bookstore that’s willing to work with me, have a night like this.