Letters from a Young Novelist #3: I’m a Writer and I’m Better than You
Upon moving back to San Diego, I spent the first three months so broke that I did things like buy a single gallon of gas at a time. Being that broke was do-able, because I am living with my mom and I don’t have to pay rent and she doesn’t mind if I eat her food. Life was far from terrible, but seeing a stick of deodorant as a major expense does grow tiresome.
I needed work, but I was choosy about what I would do because I was lucky enough to afford to be. I didn’t want anything that would exhaust me and prevent me from writing. I also didn’t want something I’d hate and/or be promptly fired from (which pretty much eliminated retail work and waitressing). In my panic of fearing that I’d have zero work, I accidentally committed myself to too much work. Here is what I have been doing for the past three weeks or so, instead of writing:
Title: Hot Dog Stand Employee
Description: My best friend’s family owns a hot dog stand/espresso cart in an immobile trailer on the 101 near the beach. There are lounge chairs and umbrellas adjacent to the trailer for eating and “lounging.” It is popular with the 9–5ers during the day and the bar crowd at night. It is a hangout spot. You meet a lot of strange people there.
I like this job, despite the low pay and the fact that I’m cooking hot dogs. I can drink plenty of coffee, smoke plenty of cigarettes, and I get a lot of reading done. It also keeps me humble (which I’ve heard is a good thing): I see the way people look at me, and it doesn’t matter to them if I’m smart or talented or educated. To them, I’m an asshole who works at a hot dog stand.
The stand is next to the bus stop, and we get a lot of interesting people from off the bus. This one woman wears
things like visors and large t-shirts as dresses. She has a walker she doesn’t really seem to need and complains about how the bus driver hates her. She tells me how she wants to smoke weed, and stories about losing her virginity.
This one guy got banned from the stand because he a) pissed behind the owner’s van, despite the sign we have that says “No peeing please,” b) insulted my best friend/the owner’s daughter for no reason, and c) screamed profanities at the owner from the street while drunk at 11 in the morning. This guy’s girlfriend is currently in rehab. When she gets out, he wants to marry her, but not until he’s fucked every girl he possibly can in the meantime.
There’s an old vato in a wheelchair who comes by almost daily. He lost mobility because he got shot. I didn’t ask why or how he got shot, but the bullet holes are in his back so I assume he wasn’t up to any good. He sits and stares at me while I work, asking if I’ll marry him, and calling me his angel. He carries his money around in a fanny pack that he wears around his waist. When he wants to pay, you have to dig into the fanny pack to get the money out, which feels like digging into his crotch. Me and the other girls who work at the stand don’t like doing that, so now he has a tab. One time he made me adjust him in his wheelchair by pulling on his knees. His flip flop fell off his foot while I was doing this, which is brown and shriveled like a large piece of jerky. It was surprisingly hard to slide the flip flop back on. He only likes ketchup and mayonnaise on his hot dogs.
Writerly Skills Necessary: None
Title: Guerilla Publicist
Description: I am doing this job poorly. In fact, right now I have an e-mail sitting in my inbox, unanswered, from my employer (who is a former professor of mine, who I adore and think is genius and immensely talented, and the fact that I am disappointing her makes me kind of hate myself). She is wondering what the hell is going on, and why I am so behind on my deadline.
This job requires me to go over things like Goodreads accounts and book blogs and glean personal information off of said websites, and then collect the information in a database. From this work, I have learned that a lot of people have a lot more time than I do to read books and then write about them, which causes me to be resentful. (More likely, they have the same amount of time that I do, they just waste less of it on Facebook.) I have also learned that book bloggers have terrible taste in web design.
Writerly Skills Necessary: Knowledge of contemporary literature and the “literary scene.”
Title: Environmental “Data Analyst”
Job Description: This job involves me working for my father, who is an environmental engineer. The work involves going to a property, looking at it to make sure there are no potential environmental disasters, and then typing up a report about it. I have done one Phase I ESA so far. My dad picked me up at 8am to go to Santee, which is a suburb of San Diego that locals affectionately call “Klantee.” We made some wrong turns in getting to the property and found ourselves in a neighborhood that looked like a set from Breaking Bad. Across the street from the property was a gigantic church that resembled a Costco. The property itself was a supposedly-abandoned truck depot that had, at least at one point, been contaminated. However, we did not find the property to be abandoned. Inside the main building were several women with very large dogs. The dogs were racing back and forth across the length of the building and barking loudly. The women were screaming at the dogs. Apparently this was called agility training. The realtor showed up later to answer our questions about the property; he had an NRA sticker on his SUV.
Writerly Skills Needed: An eye for detail for the site visits; rudimentary language skills to write the report.
Title: Adjunct Professor
Description: This is the job that I decided I needed a pseudonym for. The school I work for is very conservative and very, very Catholic. Class hasn’t started yet (they’re on a year-round quarter system), so I don’t have too much to say about it yet, because all I’ve done so far is lesson planning and syllabus making. My syllabus has the words “Jesus Christ” on it. One of my future students signed her e-mail to me “God Bless.”
Writerly Skills Needed: The “terminal degree” that makes me qualified to teach at the college level; analytical skills.
In doing these jobs, I’m following a long tradition of writers who did other things in order to be writers. In doing these jobs, I’m following my own tradition of doing so many other things that I don’t have time to write.
In recovery language, we have a phrase called “pulling a geographic,” which is an illogical belief that switching locations will solve all of one’s life problems, when in fact the problems are rooted in the person and their substance abuse. I have pulled a geographic in terms of my writing life, and surprise, it isn’t working. Location alone will not turn me into a daily writer.
But this is not new information to me, nor should it be. It has been clear to me for over a year now that I need to woman the fuck up and find a way to write, and to write no matter what. While I did think that moving across the country would make it easier to write this book, I wasn’t under any illusions that suddenly thousands of words would magically come streaming through my fingers. In fact, I saw moving back home as a sort of punishment for myself: You are not where you want to be because you are not doing what you should be doing.
While I can’t yet say if doing these jobs has taught me anything large or important about humanity, I can say it has taught me something about myself. When I’m doing these jobs, I am performing my tasks as a voyeur. I have been viewing them as the things I must do until I find my way to my real life, my real life as a writer. There is a clearly a degree of hubris in viewing my life this way.
While I do firmly believe that a certain level of ego must be maintained in order for someone to seriously write (or do any form of art, for that matter), my own ego does not match the amount of writing that I am currently producing. Sure, I am a writer. I know this because as I perform my tasks, I construct scenes, choose details, create narratives in my head. I am a writer not by choice or training, but because it is who I was born as, and, if I want to get all dramatic about it, it is also who I was born to be. Nothing changes or satisfies or occupies me as completely as writing does.
And while all of this is important and good to remember, I also know that this mismatch of ego and output will only result in frustration, disappointment, and anger. I need to change the facts (i.e. write more), but I also need to deflate my ego. I value writers, I like them, and I think they’re smart and essential. But, if what I believe is true — that I was born a writer, and it was not a choice — then that fact alone doesn’t make me better or worse than anyone else. I didn’t choose to be born white, smart, or privileged. I know, both logically and internally, that being these things doesn’t make me better than the man in the wheelchair, or the Jesus worshippers in Santee. Still, I have only recently become aware of this personal flaw: that I mistakenly believe that writers are better humans than most. But, as they say, the first step in getting better is admitting you have a problem.
Previously: Letter #1: Leaving the City I Love / Letter #2: I have feelings for you, Cat Marnell
— Juliet Escoria is a writer living in Southern California. Sometimes you can find her here.