“Jane,what do you do for a living?” This question comes up often in letters received from readers of this blog, and while my favorite answer is “breathe”, most people don’t find that satisfactory. They want to know what company I work for, what college I teach at, or how I became so independently wealthy that I don’t have to work at all.
Sometimes, they’re surprised, even disappointed, to find out that I’m just a member of the working class. “Real writers” aren’t supposed to haul garbage or bag groceries. It’s okay if we live romanticized lives of poverty, struggling for our art, but having an actual job is perceived not only as unromantic, but as a sign of failure. Surely, real writers don’t serve up hash or work in post offices, right?
William Faulkner’s most notorious stint as a working man was his role of postmaster at the University of Mississippi post office, which incredibly he held for nearly three years. By all accounts, he was a terrible postmaster — he would ignore patrons calling at the window, he delayed taking outgoing mail to the train station, and on occasion he even threw away mail. He spent much of his time in the post office writing, and other times he would play bridge and mah-jongg with friends whom he’d appointed as part-time clerks. When a postal inspector came to investigate, Faulkner agreed to resign. Later, Faulkner said about his experience: “I reckon I’ll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won’t ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son of a bitch who’s got two cents to buy a stamp.”
My own job at the post office doesn’t allow time for card-playing, and I’m usually polite to customers when I see them, but it’s not a romantic job. Mail is dirty. My hands are weathered and chapped. Sometimes the bureaucracy is frustrating. Still, I’m basically alone several hours a day, which is why I chose, after years of pink collar/white collar suffering, to descend the ladder of corporate success. Climbing the ladder was important to me when I was raising my kids — once they left home, it wasn’t important anymore. I wanted to write again, and not just on those rare quiet evenings.
In the eyes of many people, this makes me a failure. At 45, if I had any talent or showed any promise, I would not be living in a tiny, rented apartment, delivering mail part-time. I would be knighted by the publishing industry, teaching literature at some prestigious university, ensconced in some beautiful cottage, and a Google search of my name would yield more than a blog and a couple of old newspaper articles.
The romantics may like a tragic beginning and a neat, happy end, but they tend to leave out the middle, which conflicts with their convenient theory — that all talent is instantly recognized and rewarded, and all good works are sanctioned by a knowing society. They don’t link those posthumously famous authors and artists, who died in obscurity and poverty, to any present day possibility. They see no Van Gogh’s or Zora Neale Hurtson’s in their midst, and no possibility that one of them may be sweeping up hair at their favorite salon, or steaming the milk for their Starbucks lattes.
The half-true but much heralded story of a penniless and welfare-dependent J.K. Rowling writing her first Harry Potter book in a coffee shop may appeal to the romantics, and even be considered a tad heroic — but only after the fact of millions in book sales and global popularity. Prior to that, I’d wager that some saw her as the crazy woman scribbling for hours on end in the cafe, a person of negligible worth, a dreamer, a “wannabe”, someone whom — if they had any talent at all — would have “made it” prior to the age of 32, when her first book was published. If Harry Potter had never been published at all, would Rowland be a worse writer? Of course not.
Then there’s Michael Blake, who had just been fired from his job washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant when his book “Dances with Wolves” was optioned for a screenplay. Blake, who spent twenty years writing scripts that never got produced, and whose now-famous book was never even reviewed prior to becoming a film, was not less of a writer when he was elbow-deep in greasy dish water and making minimum wage — but I’m sure many people he knew in his pre-glory days questioned his talent.
These are not my pre-glory days, just my days, period. I’m quite sure nothing I write will ever reach Harry Potter fame or the silver screen, not only because I rarely submit my work, but because I’m content with obscurity. I’m content to write stories that mean something to me, even if the subjects are unpopular and the endings are messy or tragic.
I breathe. I deliver mail. I write the stories of lives lived on the periphery. And I am content.