An Ordinary Room

My last post was about how sometimes I wish I could move to an island. Then I didn’t post anything for a long time because I was moving. To an island. It’s a lot like my imaginary private island in Maine, except that instead of a one-room cabin we have one room in a pre-war apartment, and instead of pine trees there are the naked headless mannequins that guard my neighbor’s second floor balcony. Haha.

I never intended to move to Brooklyn and I never intended not to move to Brooklyn. It worked like this: I was crossing a threshold in my life and I didn’t know where to go next, so I threw some ideas out into the ether and waited to see how the universe might decide. A close friend from college who lives in Park Slope got very excited that I had applied for one job in New York. I said not to get too excited; I didn’t get the job, and anyway we were probably moving to Boston. A and I knew that this summer we would bid adieu to “strangers are friends you haven’t met yet” Fort Collins and caravan back to the land of “mind your own business”, otherwise known as the East Coast. We hadn’t agreed on an exact destination. We agreed that we both missed the northern Atlantic Ocean and its brisk people.

We could not agree on a town, so we avoided the question. In June I made a last minute pilgrimage to the mountains outside of Boulder, where I sat in front of a statue of the goddess Saraswati and asked for guidance. I was doing some automatic writing. If I received any answer at all, it was, “Don’t be so concerned with getting what you want.” This was frustrating. I drove to Taos and spent the night with a psychic I found on couchsurfing.org, who tried very hard to sell me a cream with anti-aging powers. I was skeptical of her metaphysical abilities, but grateful for the gift of lodging. In the morning I went to a coffee shop to document everything I remembered about the psychic before I forgot, and my Park Slope friend called me. She said, “My roommate is leaving the apartment this summer and we need subletters for three weeks, and I’m offering you this fantastic, unbelievable price because you’re my friend.” I was going to be camping that afternoon, so she gave me only a few hours to decide. I called A. We made half a decision: go to Brooklyn for three weeks, then figure out the rest of it.

Before we left Colorado, I consulted my tarot cards about the possibilities. “The cards say we should move to New York,” I told A. He rolled his eyes. He lives his life like a normal person who doesn’t know his rising sign. He lets me have my way a lot of the time, but he doesn’t make choices using the Rider-Waite deck; one of us needs to be the rational one. Nevertheless, we arrived in Brooklyn and A was the one who suggested looking for apartments in the first week. I pushed for the place in Sunset Park because I was in a bookstore earlier that day and Paul Auster’s novel Sunset Park was also there and this is how I construct my reality. A signed the papers because the place was newly renovated and large and the rent was low, considering.

Now, of course, I feel self-conscious about being a writer who lives in Brooklyn, which is a prerequisite. ‘In’ crowds make me uncomfortable; I prefer misfits and renegades, but I end up in a crowd either way. Literary Brooklyn as a theory or myth is an annoying place for the rest of the world because Brooklyn writers are the current In Crowd; they get a lot of attention just for being here, and there’s a distinctly self-congratulatory vibe about the whole thing. Though I was instrumental in getting us here, until a few months ago I never thought that I would live in New York City. We visited Maine in August, and I saw a guarded look pass over the faces of the people I’d always known when I told them where I moved. It was fear and pride, confusion and disgust, but a Maine version of that, so it was understated: an expressionless expression. When we returned to Brooklyn, I sat in a wine bar with another writer, to whom I’d been introduced virtually by a mutual friend in Colorado (strangers are friends you haven’t met yet). She was raised in Massachusetts, and we talked about why New Englanders often feel such hostility toward New York. I said it was because people in New England value humility above all else. To seek to fulfill one’s career ambitions at great cost, in a loud, iconic city, is not a humble venture. But that’s an old story everywhere. Then I let it slip that A and I own two typewriters, and she joked, “You’re already a Brooklyn cliché!” She was not being snarky; she is a sincere person and she was saying, look: you and your typewriters fit in here.

There is a 2008 essay by Colson Whitehead in which he wrote “I dig it here and all, but it’s just a place. It does not have magical properties.” He said that Brooklyn writers were not leading the public, sophisticated lives that other people seemed to think they were, because they were home alone writing. It’s like how I asked a friend if she wanted to go to the Brooklyn Book Festival, but she said she’d been to a lot of those types of events, so now she prefers to stay home and read. She and Colson Whitehead have a point. I look for magic everywhere in the world, but what I need most is an ordinary room, devoid of all distracting magical properties. A and I have a place with several piles of books and guitars. We are writing songs and stories. We have a rough draft for a flow chart about fedoras and a comic series about Juggins the Clown. The whole Juggins idea might be weird, but we think we’re hilarious together, and that’s its own kind of sorcery. We are in this apartment because of my Park Slope friend, because of Paul Auster, and maybe because of my amateur tarot reading. And though we could have ended up anywhere, here we are in this park of sunsets, writing as we would in any other place.

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Your Private Island

For years I’ve had this desire to somehow borrow, lease, or own a small cabin on one of the islands in Penobscot Bay, off of the coast of Maine where I grew up. I was and am a mainlander, but the time I’ve spent on various islands in the bay has only ever increased my longing to stay there, surrounded by water and possibly a few other houses, with a boat that will allow me to go see people on the mainland when and if I want to. The purpose, of course, would be to live alone with my writing and a room full of books. It would be something like this little place on Vinalhaven:

Image from CabinPorn: http://cabinporn.com/image/52986262571

Image from Cabin Porn

I’m aware of the dangerous level of romanticism in a desire like this. It’s nice to think about living in solitude and taking a ferry to town for necessities, but I know it’s another thing to live it. The roof might leak and the windows might need fixing. It might be excessively cold even in the summer, or I might have to board up and sit through a Nor’Easter all alone. I might even actually miss other people. My sisters, who are also writers, know about this fantasy of mine, and while one stamps her foot and claims it was her idea first, the other rolls her eyes and says I’m already enough of a hermit without making it that official. My boyfriend, A, was down with staying in my dream cabin together until he realized how far off the grid I want to be.

None of them will likely ever have to worry about me living by myself on an island, real estate in Maine (even one-room shack real estate, and especially one-room-shack waterfront island real estate) being as expensive as it is. Besides, the true desire has less to do with the actual island and a lot more to do with finding the solitude to write for a longer period of time.

At the beginning of June, I left Fort Collins in search of my private island. My stress over graduating, moving, and finding a job had culminated to a point where I just had to get away. I booked a short yoga retreat outside of Boulder, told A that I would be spending the rest of the week in New Mexico, and drove off. Every day I meditated, did some yoga, read and wrote, and spent time outside. To my surprise, seven days of alone time was more than I needed. I came back home a little calmer, with a notebook full of writing ideas and a new resolve to continue my daily writing and meditation practice.

The truth is that the private island is not actually a yoga retreat in the mountains or a campsite near Taos, although sometimes we need to go somewhere else to rediscover it. The private island is the time you make to consciously enjoy solitude, turning your phone off and stopping the internet to write, taking a walk or a hike, gardening. Et cetera. Although writer’s residencies seem like a wonderful way to get some work done among other inspiring artists, I’ve found that if you have a tent and some peanut-butter sandwiches, or even just a door you can close, you can make your own writing retreat. There have been other times when I told A, “I need three days,” and bless him, he left me alone to work all weekend until I was ready to turn on my phone and venture out of my apartment.

Tomorrow is the summer solstice, when the sun moves into the sign of Cancer, and in the Northern hemisphere we have the longest period of daylight in the year. It’s no surprise that people choose to take most of their vacation time during our hottest season, wanting to get away from the heat and intensity to cool down. While the sun and a host of other planets light the sign of home, privacy, contemplation, nurturing, and sensitivity, it’s the perfect time to retreat to your private island. Drag your rowboat on to the beach, set yourself up with your novels and your notebook, and write like you have nothing else to do.

The Day Job

Throughout May I have been finding it difficult or not so difficult to write depending on how much I was thinking about my day job. Or rather, my hope for a day job, since I’ve been looking for summer employment. Just this week I got a job cleaning houses. How…bittersweet. I’ll have money to support myself, but my writing is at the whim of my work schedule once again. I think everyone should have to do something in the service industry like cleaning houses (waiting tables, painting, whatever). As my boss said on Monday, the world would be a 200% better place if everyone spent at least one summer working in a restaurant. I also like jobs that give me some variety so that I can separate my writing time from my work, although this can move in the opposite direction too — sometimes jobs that differ too much from my writing pull me away from what is most important to me. This particular job gives me intermittent access to the interior lives of strangers, which is fantastic for a fiction writer. You can tell so much about people through the objects in their homes. (The moral here is don’t hire writers to clean for you if you don’t want to appear in their work.)

You think I’m just vacuuming, but in my head I’m writing a story based on that photograph of your parents’ wedding.

Still, it’s always depressing to forfeit the writing-centric lifestyle of an MFA student and composition instructor for random temp work. It’s like having a year-long dream that you are a real writer and a real teacher with something like a steady paycheck and then waking up to find out you’re actually back in the summer between your sophomore and junior year of high school working two menial part-time jobs for cash, only this time you have the added stress of paying bills. I mean, great things happened that summer. Great things will happen this summer. I’d just prefer to spend most of it in my writing/teaching dream.

What brought me back out of my day job malaise was Aine Greany’s “Writer with a Day Job” Exclusive, interviews with 20 writers who have day jobs mostly outside of teaching. Nurses, shoe saleswomen, the former marketing manager of a Fortune 500 Company: all carve out time to write while working other jobs. Some authors wake at 4 a.m. to get it done; others work on weekends; still others write on the subway. Some just work when they can. My favorite interview was with M. A. Harper, who told Greany “Whenever I let something come between me and writing, I don’t beat myself up about it. Discipline is overrated. A writer is not a monk. How can you reflect life if you don’t live one?” Harper also says that she doesn’t seek a balance of time as long as her day job requires as little intellect and creativity as possible, so that she can save that kind of energy for her writing. I have to agree that the day job should not drain too much of one’s mental energy, and that it’s often best if it requires zero intellect; the better to gather ideas while organizing sales displays, etc. It’s also refreshing to hear from at least one writer who is not a daily superhero, because 4 a.m.? Not a chance.

Worth noting: many of the people interviewed quit their day jobs to write full time once they were able, showing that trying to manage two careers is not an ideal situation. But most writers don’t get that lucky, so it’s inspiring to hear from people who have made it work.

Tim Gunn says I have to make it work, too.

Famous writers have held odd jobs, as evidenced by Flavorwire’s 2011 article “Strange Day Jobs of Authors Before They Were Famous” and a string of similar online posts. George Saunders once worked in a slaughterhouse, and Harper Lee sold tickets for an airline before she published To Kill a Mockingbird. Like most writers, I find this information gratifying. It means they were/are real people who needed/need food and shelter too, and they still wrote books, and so there is hope.

As for me, I’ll be listening to This Side of Paradise on my iPod (courtesy of Books Should Be Free) or absorbing my coworkers’ stories about their lives while I mop floors and scrub sinks this summer. This job isn’t totally unsuited to my personality either; I like to clean. So when I come home and want to scrub my own sinks, I’ll have to remember this woman’s wise words…

 …and get to work on my writing.

What kinds of day jobs have you had, or do you have? How do you manage your writing time around them?

This post was also featured on SheWrites, a writing community built to support women. You can join the discussion by commenting on the same post here.

To read more from Aine Greaney on this subject, visit her blog: Writer with a Day Job.