On Not Defining Ourselves By What We Are Paid to Do

by Emily Layden

When I was around 13 or 14 years old, I had a summer job at the local thoroughbred track selling Häagen-Dazs ice cream bars (I grew up in a horse racing town, where summer jobs operate on a kind of flexible, age-irrelevant, cash-based legality). For six hours a day I sat or stood behind my cart under the shade of a maroon umbrella, hawking overpriced treats to drunks nursing gambling losses. I was paid in personal checks from a man I never met.

I was not much of a writer at that age, but from the time we begin working we cultivate an understanding that our jobs define us. This is why I have trouble telling people I am a writer, when the conversation with a new acquaintance turns that inevitable way. The truth is that I am always something else, and a writer on the side — by night, by early mornings, by the weekend. Writing does not pay the bills (or, some months, any bills).

There was the dirtiest job I’ve had (when I started to write in earnest, for things like writing competitions and school journals), one I did for a hundred bucks a week in college: cleaning the student-run kitchen. We called it hashing, a term whose origin I do not know, but one that meant working in pairs to clean the kitchen and eating area after meals, washing dishes and wiping up spilled salad dressing and peeling scraps of dried deli meat from a slicer and cleaning the industrial grill by pouring white vinegar across the giant, still-hot steel surface. The vinegar steamed and the smoke saturated our hair and burned our eyes. We tossed bleach by the gallon across the floors, used steel wool to scrub meat drippings free from wire baking racks, and learned how to disassemble a Hobart machine. It was the most disgusting job I’ve ever had, and possibly the most fun. We blasted music from the kitchen stereo and reveled in the grit. Writing completed during this time: I wrote the first draft of a novel and won some university writing awards, but this may be more the function of being a student.

This is the mantra: We pay our dues. My father, who has written over forty books (including several New York Times best-sellers), worked in newspapers for 20 years before he went full-time freelance. Dues, though, rarely look the same, and there is no historical shortage of writers with meandering routes: George Saunders worked in a slaughterhouse and as a doorman. Last year’s Pulitzer winner, Adam Johnson, worked construction for years. Steinbeck ran a fish hatchery in Lake Tahoe. (I am not, here, trying to say that I will one day be a Pulitzer-winner the way some young students point to Bill Gates’ lack of a college degree; the idea is that we carve our own paths.)

For several summers in college, I worked as a bartender at a restaurant owned by the cast of The Sopranos. Not really, of course, but that was sort of the general feel: The owners wore short-sleeved dress shirts, spoke in thick Queens accents and carried, as T.I. once said, rubberband banks. In a state where smoking has long been outlawed indoors, the men who owned this little Italian restaurant perched at the corner of the bar during business hours, working through one cigar after another, drinking table wine from juice glasses. I was paid in cash. Writing completed: The 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. schedule works well for morning writers (as opposed to late-night writers), which I am.

I published my first piece the summer I graduated from college, when I was looking for a job in New York. This was the right choice for me: For some of my classmates, and some writers I consider mentors, an MFA was the route. I am sure my 22-year-old brain had lots of seemingly existential reasons for this choice, but quite simply I needed some of what they call “real world” experience, and anyway, I couldn’t afford grad school.

When I worked as an assistant at a fashion magazine, most of my friends assumed my life was like Anne Hathaway’s in The Devil Wears Prada, but of course it wasn’t. I had a couple of surprisingly nurturing editors, and made some good friends. I was broke, though, or broke in the way that all post-grads working entry-level journalism jobs in New York are broke: I made exactly enough to make the rent each month — rent for the converted one-bedroom apartment I shared with two roommates; the one with the flex walls that shifted not-imperceptibly if we kept the windows open on a breezy afternoon. More than once I lost my one-month unlimited metrocard just days after I had purchased it, a $112 mistake that would obliterate my monthly budget. Through a friend of a relative I found a job teaching at a boarding school, and left New York with $200 in my bank account. Writing completed: I wrote about structured bags and raffia, a kind of punchy and pun-filled writing I saw as a sort of game and that I think made me a more focused writer.

Even then, working at a magazine, I couldn’t say I was a writer. I “worked at a magazine.” It’s funny how we self-define, and I suppose some of this has to do with my being 22 and 23. But it is also something cultural, in that we are how we make a living, and it is very hard to make a living as a writer.

There is the best job I have ever had: As a teacher (and coach and “dorm parent”) at a boarding school. Boarding schools, like fashion magazines, have their stereotypes: At best, they are bastions of old money and privilege; at worst, they are surrogate parents for the entitled children of disinterested adults. But as with fashion magazines, the novels and movies exaggerate. There is a unique humanness to the experience: Students and their teachers run into each other at the gym and in the dining hall; teachers take their students to the mall and for ice cream; dorm parents answer the door at 2 a.m. when a kid is sick or locks herself out after a bathroom trip, which means suddenly you’ve both seen each other in your pajamas (you learn to keep a sweatshirt on the hook behind the door). They walk your dog, play with your kids, huddle into your apartment to watch big games or Christmas movies. You do become like surrogate parents, and the result is that students and teachers come to know and understand each other as more complete persons. In the classroom, I taught English to ninth and eleventh-graders, and we read Hemingway and Fitzgerald but we also read David Foster Wallace and Mary Gaitskill. Together we talked about how to talk about books and how to read each other’s writing. This is the job I would not have traded for that duo all writers want: Money, and time to write. Writing completed: A mentor once told me that all writers should teach at some point, and he was right.

There is the last job I had, because I fell in love and had to leave the job at the boarding school to be with the person I will marry in a few months. That job paid the best of any job I’ve had, and even carved out some time for writing. I left this job for one that will start in the fall, a job that pays less but that is — of all the jobs I’ve had — the one for which I am the most excited. The rhythm continues: I publish a piece here and there. I am more comfortable calling myself a writer, a symptom of bristling against the notion that our jobs define us.

I am leaving things out. What I am sidestepping is the sort of self-defeating, snarky competitiveness amongst and between writers that asks to differentiate between “real” writers and the rest. What I am not mentioning is that it has arguably never been harder to get paid to write, that the written word has never been worth less than it is in our age of free content. I am saying directly, as George Packer did in a recent New Yorker article, that the prevailing reality is that “the only people who can afford to write books make money elsewhere.”

There are the jobs I might have in the future: A teacher or a professor, if I am lucky. I no longer bank on one day having the lucky existence my dad (or many other writers I admire) has, with the home office and the two or three book contracts a year. But I no longer think that that kind of writer — the one whose income is derived solely from writing — is the only kind of writer, the “real” writer. We are not paid to be mothers or husbands or gym-goers, and yet we do those things and define as such anyway. It should be no different with writing: We are what we do, not just what we are paid to do.

Emily Layden is a freelance writer — among other things — hose work has appeared at or in The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Runner’s World, and elsewhere. You can follow her various pursuits on Twitter.

Photo: London Looks