The first week in Fort Collins, I was turned down for a job selling artisan cheese at farmers’ markets.
Two weeks prior, I had quit my comfortable, salaried position at Yale University Press, running galleys around the campus’s two hundred year old brick-laid alleyways, scheduling book events, and fielding visits to Harold Bloom, who didn’t know my name but often awkwardly called me “Honey Bear.” I cut the cord on a six-year relationship, and nearly killed my mother when I left home the same week my brother shipped off for the Marine Corps. No one really seemed to understand why, in a tenuous economy, I had given up a job to go back to school, but I had, of course, a gloriously romanticized idea of life as an M.F.A. student, and that vision included a job that didn’t come with a desk.
Three years later, and I’ve mopped floors, slain sammies, chased children, tossed pizza pies, steamed lattes, and yes, prepared artisan cheese for farmers’ markets and merchants. At house parties that first year, the third-years bowed out around midnight, citing 5 a.m. wake-up times as their excuse, and everyone nodded reverently and said, “Ah yes, the cheese.” Like any stereotype (insomniacs, alcoholics, narcissists), writers are often idolized for their eccentric lifestyles. Creative fodder can be found in the oddest places and writers seem to have the largest share in the odd-job market: Kurt Vonnegut managed America’s first Saab dealership, John Steinbeck was a fruit picker, Richard Wright, a letter sorter. Perhaps great inspiration originates in blue-collar work where life seems to be rougher around the edges, and so people and their lives, their stories seem harsher, dramatic, and unusual; the material is abundant. Langston Hughes wrote poetry while bussing tables at a restaurant in Washington D.C., and T. S. Eliot, once a bank clerk, composed passages of “The Waste Land” during his commute.
The general consensus is that academia—in its isolated, self-revolving world—tends to clog the creative pipes, and to write about important things, the universal themes that matter, one must continue to experience “real life” in some small capacity, or at least observe it from a position once removed. If this concept comes off as pretentious, that’s because it probably is. When a fellow writer worked a summer at a convalescent home, our colleagues nodded, and said, “Bet you got some stories from that place,” and when I spent the evenings serving pizza while my coworkers got high in the kitchen, my mentors said, “It’s good to get out, be around real people.” And we did write stories that were shared and critiqued in workshop, and it was good, but mostly it was just different.
Perhaps it seems like I’m villainizing the working M.F.A. student or that I’m denouncing the fact that writers use the world and the people around them in their work, but this is not the case. I work part-time jobs for the same reason many students do, writers or not: flexibility, no commitment, additional, albeit small, income to subsidize debt accrued from degrees. The first summer as an M.F.A. student, I took a responsible full-time position as a copywriter with my own office and a desk at a marketing agency, writing commercial scripts, radio spots, and reports for petroleum engineering companies and regional energy initiatives. The truth is: I spent less time writing that summer than I did the following year when I left the marketing agency to be a nanny, and when I left the two little girls and their terrorizing older brother for the pizzeria, and when I dropped the mop and walked out of the pizzeria one night to make coffee on a dairy farm. But I didn’t write more because I had better material, or because I was surrounded by loss or tragedy, or because my minimum wage made a four-dollar box of cereal seem like a luxury, or because I ate cold leftovers in the broom closet out of sight of customers at the restaurants where I served, or even because I had more time (I had less of it). Perhaps contrast throws certain aspects of life into sharp relief so the better to see them. Perhaps difference, variety, dynamics and depth offer new perspectives. But honestly, there is no real reason. All I know is that my odd jobs are not the definition of my life as a writer, nor are they an entry point into a life that is “real.”
In my initial efforts three years ago to escape the desk, I can now see that the motivations for applying to Windsor Dairy and Ranchway Feed, among others, may have partially stemmed from a romantic ideal that I don’t support and, yet, to which I fell victim. The irony, of course, which I’m sure has been obvious from the beginning of this post, is that my writing ceaselessly calls me back to the desk, and so, really, I’ve never left.