Monday, February 1, 2010

Day Jobs!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any person with talent and proclivity for the arts must be in search of a day job.

Apologies to Jane Austen. But it’s true.

Arts, you see, most often don’t pay the bills—at least not when you’re starting out. The singer needs to take years and years of singing lessons before she’s ready even to start auditioning. The lessons cost *money*, yo, and if she’s gotten a degree (undergrad or graduate) from a big-name musical institution, she has student loan payments to pay off too. A singer’s voice doesn’t start fully maturing until he/she’s at least into her late 20s; more often 30s. What to do during those years of training? Then there are actors, going to auditions. Most actors go to dozens, hundreds of auditions, and get five or ten jobs. And I’m not referring to the breakout “Friends” role that’s going to pave their way to fame and fortune; they’re “Third Dead Hooker” roles that require disfiguring makeup and a talent for lying still. Meanwhile the rent is due and really, it’s good to be able to eat.

Writers are no exception. While writing doesn’t cost money, there’s a lot that goes into it. I like to study. I have a dozen-plus books on writing on my bookshelves, which I consult on and off; in fact, I just got into a frenzy and bought six more, which I’m making my way through as they come. (I am not an “intuitive” kind of person.) The books cost money. Getting a degree, as with singing, costs money. Not all writers decide to get writing degrees, but most of them have a Bachelor’s in something, and again, STUDENT LOANS rear their ugly heads. Writers’ groups don’t cost money—yay!—but there’s rent and heat and clothing and food, and all the caffeine you’ve gotta drink doesn’t drop out of the sky! And then there’s the small issue of health insurance, and trying to put money aside for retirement, to say nothing of the rainy days. Where does the money come from?

I’ve had a series of day jobs through the years. Some were better than others. I’ve mentioned that I temped, and usually the temp jobs were surprisingly good. But some of my other jobs were horrendous. This is a description of my first true “Day Job.” Day Job Number One.

I was a fresh graduate of Columbia University. Not as young as most fresh graduates, but still young enough to be naïve and optimistic. (Sigh.) A friend called me up, someone who knew I wanted to be a writer. She worked for one of the preeminent literary agents in New York. I shan’t give names, but anyone in the business would recognize this name. (Friend told me once that she had deposited her boss’s two-week paycheck, and it totaled more than my friend’s yearly income.) She said that her boss, the big agent, had a friend who ran a small publishing company and needed an editor/office manager; would I be interested? It was part time, so I‘d have time to write. Good Lord, I said, where do I sign up?

I interviewed for this position and I was very excited; it was a tiny publishing company that mainly focused on republishing out-of-print titles. The woman I would be working for—let’s call her Jane, just because of the quote at the top of the page—said, “I’ll be abroad a lot of the time. I expect there will be days that you can just sit on the couch and write.”

Two weeks later I had the job. Celebration. Part-time, so I could sleep in (a night owl needs that…or at least wants it), a lot of down time. Fantastic! As far as a part-time salary, well, I’d been living on the student loans for a while and hadn’t had to draw out an actual budget. I had no idea how much I was living on. Fresh and naïve, as I said.

And the first few weeks were great. Jane was in the final throes of putting out her latest book, which was an English translation of a French how-to bestseller. She usually did only nominal publicity for each of her books—they were out of print books, and, well, books often go out of print for a reason—and I got to copy-edit galleys and witness the production of a real book! Jane had high hopes for this one, too; it had been a bestseller SOMEWHERE, after all.

Some backstory on Jane and her publishing company: For years Jane had been married to a wealthy man. Extraordinarily wealthy. We’re talking, private jet wealthy. Oil money wealthy. She had been raised with money and then married more, so all her life she hadn’t had to worry about it…until now. She and the extraordinarily wealthy man were divorcing—or she was trying to, anyway. She had initiated the divorce four years earlier, and he was contesting, and New York has some archaic, ridiculous divorce laws, so it was dragging out. As far as I could tell, he had been an absolute bastard to her most of their married life, and since she’d left him he had ratcheted it up. Rich Bastard Husband also cut her off financially (until he was court-ordered to give her money) and told their grown children to choose sides. (They chose the one with the money.) Jane had started her publishing company while she and RBH were still married, so she didn’t worry about her titles making money or not; he put money in, she made books, she was happy. But now she had really high hopes that this French bestseller would become an American bestseller and she could thumb her nose at RBH and his bastardly, stingy ways. (one quick anecdote: the Concorde crashed while I was working there. As Jane often jetted back and forth to Paris, RBH’s assistant phoned to make sure she hadn’t been on the flight that crashed. I relayed that to Jane, and she said, “Ha, I can’t AFFORD to fly the CONCORDE!” with enough annoyance that I realized, this was quite an imposition for her.)

Well, it was a bad book. I read through it and was shocked at the awkward prose. I found out that Jane herself had done the English translation, and it was in final galley form, so it was too late to change. Jane hired a publicist (her first, since this was the first book she actually thought would sell) and really expected the publicist to make it Number One. For weeks, maybe years. This is an expectation publicists are accustomed to, but Jane really put on the pressure. Jane, after all, had spent the past fifty-plus years ordering people around and seeing every wish granted, and thought she could do the same with this book. She absolutely expected an Oprah appearance—for the book’s author and for herself (just to translate, bien sur!).

Our publicist did what she could. And it wasn’t enough, because nothing would have been enough, and the French bestseller became an American dead-in-the-water bookstop. And Jane was angry. Angry at the publicist, and angry at me: we hadn’t done enough. Things became tense. It was bad already because of the tension with RBH; I was frequently a relayer of messages between Jane and RBH (via his assistant, actually, a nice woman) and Jane would say, “Did you tell him I already did that?” Well, no, because you told me to tell him that you were going to do that. “You tell him I already did that!” I’m actually not on the phone anymore. That kind of thing.

Jane also had a drinking problem. I didn’t figure it out for a long time; during her stints abroad she would phone in the afternoon, perfectly lucid-sounding, and ask me questions about the dead-in-the-water book and sometimes about me. I’d answer them in detail. And then the next day she would ask me the exact same questions, in the exact same way (and tone of voice) and I would answer exactly as I had the day before. Confused. Sometimes she would remember that we’d already had that particular discussion, but usually not.

Well, as I mentioned, I had a lot of down time, and I spent several days cleaning out the office. Four years earlier, she and her husband had vacated their enormous Fifth Avenue apartment; she had taken a lot of the junk with her to the office. And by junk, I mean unopened mail—four-year-old unopened mail—and documents and things that didn’t matter a bit. No cool furniture or designer clothing or anything like that (that was in storage), just paper. So I spent days and days and days sorting through paper, throwing most of it out, making the office presentable. There was an enormous table in one corner, and literally, it was like a shelf in a sea of paper; there was paper jammed below it, from the floor to the table, and then from the table to the ceiling. There were cupboards stuffed with it. I was putting garbage bags full of paper into the recycling. I kept a few things, most of which were divorce-related documents. I put them in a small, fancy chest which I referred to (in my head) as the “divorce chest,” filed them chronologically. And read them.

A lot was made in these documents about Jane’s drinking problem. I thought this was interesting, because I hadn’t noticed one. Until she spent a few weeks in town, and returned from a lunch reeking of alcohol. She sounded lucid, but she began asking me the exact same questions she had asked me the day before, in exactly the same way, and didn’t react when I gave her the exact same answers.

Ah ha.

After the first book came out, there wasn’t any book-related stuff to do, so I was now just her personal assistant. She wanted me to keep track of expenses, which was fine, except that she spent like nobody’s business. She had hundreds of thousands of American Express points and mileage on different airlines (which she kept trying ineffectually to redeem; she’d pester me to try to pay for things with MILES. “What about my MILES, Kathy? Won’t they honor my MILES? Tell them how many MILES I have.” To this day, when I hear the word “miles” uttered that way I shudder. But she didn’t know what MILES actually did. Sad.). By the time I came along she was getting an unholy amount of alimony (or whatever it is when you’re not yet divorced)—I mean, she got per month what I now earn (gross!) per year. Tax-free, and no children to take care of. And she couldn’t live on it. I had to call the bank every day (this was before online banking) and see how much she had withdrawn the day before; it was often in excess of two thousand dollars. (I’d still love to know what she spent it on.) This was on top of credit card expenses; she had 4 credit cards (and applied for one more while I was there) on which she was floating maximum balances, around $15,000. I made her pay them off when she got an enormous tax refund, and within two months three of them were maxed out again. She asked me to get her a debit card and I refused; there was no way I was going to try to manage that one for her. In fact, she didn’t even seem to know how credit cards worked. She wanted to put a $35,000 charge on her cards, but each one had a $15k limit. She said, “Can we just put it on different cards? Two different payments on three different cards?” Unfortunately the $35k balance was due at the end of the month, so those two payments on three different cards all happened the SAME MONTH. Net effect: the same.

I was working part time and netting just over three hundred dollars per week, having figured out exactly what a budget was and realizing just how EXTREME my budgeting needed to be—once I went to Gracious Homes and bought a $2 orange peeler, and I can’t describe how naughty I felt, with that splurge— watching that money disappear into the ether. I was going crazy.

I also wasn’t writing. I had a lot of down time, yes, but I was in that state…that “I want to be a writer but I don’t have anything to write” state. It was awful. There were many days I sat at the computer, staring at the Microsoft Word screen. I tried. But I had nothing.

I made it one year. Truthfully I think I made it that long because she spent so much time abroad. I started looking for a new job in March, but that was just when the dot-com bubble started bursting. Companies were retrenching, not looking for more help. After two months, I found a job on, interviewed, got it, and gave notice. Now, the job looked sketchy. I won’t even tell you what it was because that will embarrass me; you would look at it and say, “Really? You fell for that?” (The fact that sixty people came for the interview at the same time—a group interview—and all of us were offered the position might indicate a little something.) I was too happy to look at any real issues.

The funny part is, I was not brave enough just to tell Jane the truth: I’d gotten a new job. I had a perfectly legitimate reason for looking, more than just “I don’t like you”—I could have said, “I’ve realized that I need benefits and a much higher salary.” Instead I made up a completely random, stupid lie and told her I needed to go to Utah for the summer to deal with family issues, and therefore needed to quit. (I have never done that since, I promise. Really.) I gave the two weeks’ notice. Unfortunately, by the time my final day rolled around I had already realized that my new job wasn’t quite real. (Long story…yes, I do take that into consideration sometimes.) I had no job lined up, and no job to go to anymore. No writing that I was doing, no real prospects. It was a long summer.

The following fall I realized I desperately wanted to take a playwriting class. I called the Columbia writing department head, Austin Flint, and asked him if I could possibly do this. I didn’t know how I’d pay for it, but practicality had taken a backseat. (it backfired on me with the job in May, but oh well.) He said yes, and then told me he would give me a fellowship designed for writing majors who wanted to return and take writing classes. I ended up taking the playwriting class for 3 semesters, and paying a total of $180 for all of them. (Back then they would have totaled $9000. More now, I’m sure.) I wrote a full-length play, submitted it to NYU, and got into their grad program.

What was the play about, you ask? Oh, a wealthy woman who’s trying to divorce her rich bastard husband, grappling with money issues for the first time in her life. Who has a drinking problem.


Mom and Camera said...

Always nice when life hands out some great inspiration--though not always sure of the experiences that provide the inspiration.

veronica said...

You've left me wanting to read more of this story....