Let Us Now Praise (the advice of) Female Writers

As I'm sure most people who studied writing with in undergrad spend a huge portion of their time doing, I think (worry) pretty constantly about how (if) I'm ever going to “make it” as a writer.

I don't even know what I mean by “make it.” I don't know what I want, and I know even less of how to get there. As far as I can see, there isn't a handbook out there for this. Most of the advice I get is “keep writing,” which isn't bad advice. It's great advice in terms of life, but it isn't step by step giving me any idea of what to do next. And alas, it isn't providing me any concrete plans for how I'm going to get the hell out of waiting tables.

It shouldn't shock anyone that being a server is frustrating. Beyond the well known difficulties of the job, it adds another layer of frustration that my specific restaurant stresses me out so much, because now that I'm out of college and in the land of the jobs, I have to spend a lot of time at work and numerous hours of my time not at work thinking about work. I really dislike that aspect of capitalism, that we're so tied to what we do to earn our money. I also dislike that I have literally no options right now for doing any kind of work in the things that I love.  I don't have any of these supposed 'networking connections' that everyone talks about. When people wax poetic about networking they seem to forget the millions of people who don't have the privilege to have anyone to network with. Oh, the hungover guy who I was hamming it up with today at work who was complaining about his contracting business? Yeah I'll ask him for some advice about making a life in the arts straightaway!

I plan on expanding this in another essay, working title - “The Bullshit of Networking.”

All I'm doing now is throwing myself in any area I can see. I write every day, I take the steps that I can to decrease my stress from work so that it doesn't ruin my ability to do my real work, of writing and painting. As the months pass, I'm realizing that I'm willing to ease up on things I used to love like going out and generally spending too much money to preserve the things that I don't just love, but that are the thing that beats inside me, the arts that I practice. I'm trying to get involved in the arts community in San Diego – it's happening slowly, but getting my piece accepted for the VAMP showcase this month was a start. I loved doing the reading, met some cool humans who I'm going to creepily email for more advice and ideas, and remembered how great I feel when reading in front of a crowd.

But still, every day, I worry that it isn't going to go anywhere. That I'll be waiting tables until my knees give out. That my livelihood will depend not on the things I know I am skilled in, but on the whim of strangers who do things like not tip me after they find a hair in their bananas foster and I comp the entire dish – when the short black hair clearly didn't come from my obviously long blond head. That the majority of my social interaction will always be with people who bark “coffee” at me when I ask them how they're doing, instead of the creative and energetic people who I know I love being around from my time in school. That the possible years of this will erode what was once optimism into what's become humorous cynicism about the human race into a true pessimism that will fundamentally change the person I know myself to be.

Tonight I was so stressed out by my job that I utilized some of the creative techniques that I've taught myself to escape anxiety – turning on playlists I made in college, the most comforting time to remember, and reading gobs of things from my writer crushes on the internet.

I know myself well, and the tactic didn't disappoint. After sending emails filled with worries about the future, I followed it up with “Oh my god you have to read this interview! I wish she was my friend! You will be able to tell all the ways it eases my stress!”

This all in reference to Emily Gould, who, if you speak with me, you know I'm obsessed.  I knew a guy I went on a date with was destined for doom when he asked what she wrote and I said "Now I'm reading a book of her essays," and he asked what a book of essays was.   

I went from the interview to Gould's blog where I read an entry that literally soothed my pounding heart. And inspired me to write this post, giving love and gratitude to the only people who can truly calm me down when I worry about this – people who I've never met, women to be specific, writers I admire who say literally the exact right thing to the youths out there who have no idea what is going on. Emily Gould, Cheryl Strayed, and Mary Karr, Anne Lamott – to name a few.

I would highly advise reading the Emily Gould blog post that almost made me cry, because I'm too afraid to quote it here because I know very little about copyright and what's okay in terms of quoting even with links. Because the nightmare would be to upset someone who I greatly admire, am I right?

The blog post is on www.emilymagazine.com , entitled “It's the Good Advice.”

http://www.emilymagazine.com/?p=914

You know the feeling when someone you respect and admire literally says the things that you repeat to yourself in your head every day, hoping to a god you don't really believe in that they're true? That's the feeling I got when I read the the post. It reiterated my thoughts about why I'm here, in San Diego, working at a restaurant and emailing strangers in the arts instead of holed up at home trying to write so I can apply to grad school – because I know, for me, going back to school right now would be hiding. (And because I'm afraid paying for another degree that won't get me a job.) I know it makes sense for some people, but not for me, not right now, not for what I want to do. I didn't ask to love narrative nonfiction writing. Given the choice, I probably would have picked something that isn't seen by men and the world as narcissistic. I probably would have picked something that would let me be content with a normal 9-5 job and normal people and a textbook life.

Except I know in an even deeper part of myself that that isn't true at all. I wouldn't change a thing about any of the things that I love, because as hard as all of this is, I could never live the alternative. I don't want to be content in the ways that that type of normalcy implies. I'm glad there are people who are, because the world can't be full of people like my friends and I (I think it would explode) but even as I sit here, alone at home on a Saturday night because I'm too stressed out by a circumstance from my work to go out, every fiber of my being tells me that I'm doing something right. That's echoed by my friends, two of whom I spent the majority of the night talking to. Finding my school and the friends I made there is the sole factor that's made any of my life make sense thus far.

The friends, and the professors, who have become friends. During my senior year, I was serving on a sophomore grad contract committee and two of my favorite professors told a student not to become a high school teacher if she wanted to be a writer.

“Then...what should I do?” she replied in a panic.

They looked back at her and said “Write. Work at a coffee shop. Do anything that gives you the mental space and time to write while paying the bills.”

Without knowing it, they literally went on to endorse the life plan that I had begun to formulate in my head that fall.

I knew I was never going to get an office job. There's still time, but I know I'm not going to get a career track full time office job in some random field – if I do, I'll temp, or something. I applied for them, sure. I also interviewed for residence life jobs and quit a horrible summer camp job two weeks before it was over. But some part of me has known for a long time that I was going to join the grand tradition of starving artist / customer service 'professional' / picker up of random jobs that give you the time and money to practice what you love without being mentally drained.

The obvious reason is, of course, because I'd be terrible at an office job.  I'm really terrible at most jobs, but I can fake waiting tables pretty well because there's a high enough charm component.  Moreover though, I knew it because I somehow knew that it was part of the path of my life. That spending so many hours in a week with my favorite cook Miguel and learning to be patient, to listen and understand the stories he tells me, was a necessary thing to happen to me. That cleaning a milk machine with a toothpick was a vital way for me to make money because even though I'm not privileged in having familial connections, I'm incredibly privileged to have gotten a mostly free undergraduate education. That my skin needed to thicken from someone who I would have never have looked at before working at a restaurant putting my job in jeopardy by complaining for 20 minutes to my manager on a day I could barely walk because I had such bad cramps.

I'm terrified that this will be the rest of my life, but when I get past the fear, I can almost believe it won't be. I have too much faith in the world to believe that. It's the same thing that I tell myself when I fear (frequently) that I will end up alone – if out of all the colleges and people in this huge ridiculous country, I could be drawn to Redlands and Johnston in ways that are so obscure and random that they literally feel like magic, finding the humans who I was meant to be friends with, the only people in the world that make it okay that I live here, if that can happen, I won't be waiting tables for the rest of my life. I don't know how or why or when it will happen, or what will happen, but I can feel it out there, this nebulous future that keeps me going when strangers are so rude to me at work that I can barely stop myself from screaming, crying, or both.

Honestly, I don't think that it's a coincidence that all this advice has come from female writers. I haven't read any words like this from a male writer, and my experiences with male writers in person are even more disheartening. An extremely famous humor writer told me I should work at Hooters. Funny, but is it? (Not really, for those of you not used to the rhetorical question IS IT?) The author of several of my favorite books was more interested when I told him about the egg mixture that breakfast places use in omelets than he was engaged when telling me to keep writing. Those are both writers who I still love, but I think that something about male privilege, especially the fancy East Coast privilege of the Ivy League and being taught by famous writers, disables you from giving deep and empathetic and honest and heart healing advice that Emily Gould or Cheryl Strayed or Mary Karr or Alisa Slaughter or Leslie Brody give.    

A Portrait of the Waitress as a Young Artist: Empathy, Judgment, and no we don't serve 'green juice'

 Miguel has been sassy lately, for my last two shifts he has refused to make my breakfast – normally a morning routine – and passed the duty on to Adan, who all the servers hate for a reason probably similar to the reason I started saying only Miguel could make my breakfast, which is to say, none at all.

The daily spin of eggs with jalapenos, avocado, and peppers doesn't taste as good as usual, I can't tell if it's Adan or the egg whites I chose over my usual real eggs in fear of cholesterol – since I eat between 6 and 9 a week, working at breakfast restaurant.

The eggs/veggie combo is on of the last things I'll eat at my restaurant, the others being red potatos and discarded blueberry cheesecake waffles. Soon, it will be nothing – well, I'll probably never fully give up the discards. Miguel was really the only reason I still ate at work, having a personal chef who will make you anything you ask for was too good to pass up. Now that our flirtation has turned to everyone from bussers to other cooks asking if I like him, and him refusing to make my food, I don't have a reason to keep eating on my breaks. I'll just as soon fall even deeper into my Californism and wolf down some of my fat-free Greek yogurt or make a kale smoothie before work.

This will represent the last visible severing of ties between my life and the lives of my customers as they eat at my restaurant – not that me eating two eggs with veggies cooked inside, 'omelet style' (the cheaper way to get an omelet) bore any similarity to 90% of the menu items.

It didn't used to be like this. I didn't used to be like this. I used to go out for brunch at chains too, I used to eat out on holidays. I never went to the gym, I didn't buy or cook vegetables – I barely prepared my own food at all. I'm pretty sure my diet in college consisted solely of eating out, shitty commons sandwiches, green salsa, quesadillas, goat cheese, and beer.

Some of this is adulthood. Perhaps some of it is being a snob, but I think it must be fairly universal that waiting tables is a many months long class with daily coursework in “Who I do not want to become.”

I'm not talking about eating at chains anymore. That is convenience, and the fact that I never go out to breakfast because I'm working breakfast.

What I'm talking about now is the grander themes of the people we become while we're not paying attention.

I'm sure it's easy, with the media on child rearing the way it is, to become a parent who scowls when I say we don't have skim milk or snaps at me to not put any butter near their child's plate, but apparently has no cognizance of the fact that they're teaching their children to be rude to people of lower social classes working in the service industry. Or that they're teaching them that chain breakfast food is a fun reward, a habit they'll spend the next ten years trying to break.

I assume it's painfully simple to become a person who complains about hash browns under another table, a syrup smudge in front of you, or a piece of avocado on your waffle, but doesn't give a single thought to the factories the meat you're so happily consuming was prepared in. It's hard to research how the food you're consuming is produced, hard and scary. It's easy to complain about something meaningless that's right in front of your face, and it's easy to tell yourself that you are important because you can tell a waiter or a busser to clean it up for you.

It's hard to be a service worker and realize that you can no longer use putting other people down to justify your existence, because it's done to you so many times a day that you lose count, and all you know at the end of the day is that you never want to be that person, and you're going to have to figure out some other way to give your life meaning. But that kind of hard can't just be thrown away like a pamphlet on meat consumption, that kind of difficulty must be confronted every day when you go into work and another person tells you to “go get someone to clean this up,” and you have to turn around, go to the kitchen, grab a wet dish rag, and watch them avoid your glance as you stand in front of them, cleaning the tiny 'mess' that they presumably thought you were going to go grab someone of even lower perceived social status than yourself to deal with.

Unfortunately, waiting tables hasn't only given me perspectives that make me want to live a more intentional life. It's also made me impatient. When I'm in the weeds with two new tables and someone tells me they're ready to order and proceeds to spend ten minutes looking at the menu and saying 'hmmm' as I watch my manager glare at me from across the store, I don't feel sympathy. I resent every time in my life that I've been this person, I resent this specific person for having no awareness of their surroundings, but mostly I just want to tell them that it's basically all the same.

It's made me a worse person in some ways – I shamelessly laugh at people who ask if we have mint lemonade – “Oh yeah, let me just go pick the mint out of our in house herb garden.” Someone once asked if we had green juice. Or my personal favorite, when a woman asked if our tilapia was wild caught.

I'm afraid that it's making me more judgmental and rude, because of the way I regard these idiotic questions. At the same time, it's making me less judgmental in an entire other way. There was certainly a time in my life when I couldn't have named a single person in my day to day life for whom English was their second language. Now, the lack of him cooking my recent breakfasts nonwithstanding, I consider Miguel to be one of the pillars of my everyday life. You can laugh, go ahead, but name how many people you spend 25-30 hours of your week with. The people who you'd call screeching to them “Where were you today! I was so worried about you! I thought you were dead!” when they don't show up somewhere they're supposed to be. The people who you look forward to seeing every day, who you shoot glances at when other people are being crazy. Not only are Miguel, and all my coworkers – servers, bussers, cooks – my support system in that context, they've also taught me something incredibly important about all those words I've been throwing around – judgment, sympathy, empathy, compassion.

The reality of the service industry is that you're forced to acknowledge that every person, from 16 year old bussers to hosts going into the air force to servers with three kids to the divorced cook that you actually find yourself with a real crush on, has just as dynamic and complicated a life as your own. You don't get special privileges because you made your own degree or read five books a month or don't want kids because you hate the prioritization of the American family unit. Everyone's life and excuses for missing work and hangovers are equal, if anything yours are a little bit less equal because your problems are usually more selfish, you have parents who can bail you out in an emergency, and you have no mouths to feed but your own.

And it just may turn out that when every man you meet is a jerk and you've told some of the regulars in your life the same story three times before they remember it, Miguel asks you questions about your old roommate going crazy and your new house, things you barely remember telling him. Your coworkers remember every story of a man wronging you and curse them just as vehemently as the friends you've had for five years. You stop in to see your old manager and you wonder why you feel so great after the long talk you have, and realize it's because it's the first time you've sat and talked to someone for over and hour without the conversation halting because you're doing an activity in weeks. It makes you understand their lives and the legitimacy behind them with a love and urgency that you hope one day, you may just be able to extend to the next rude customer.