At the end of my junior year at university, I acknowledged two facts whose existence I had struggled to shrug off since childhood: first, while I loved science, I didn’t love it enough to become a doctor; second, that writing was an integral part of who I was and who I wanted to be. My parents’ insistence that writers couldn’t earn a decent living, but that scientists and physicians did, shaped the subjects I studied, how I valued my interests and what I thought I might achieve in life, even to this day.
Still, after three years of hard sciences and 8 am classes in calculus –that’s five days a week, kids– I switched my major from molecular and cellular biology to English literature. (Twenty years later, I could kick myself for not choosing creative writing, but it sounded too Saturday-Craft-Fair at the time.) My mom had died in my teens and my dad was not a part of my life, so there was no one to tell me that I couldn’t. Besides, I was paying for it.
All English lit majors at The University of Arizona were required to take one course in American lit to balance our perspective. For me, American writing felt too spare when compared with the vivid works of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. There was Steinbeck, though. When I eventually read him, his rich characterizations struck a deep chord.
I wasn’t ready for him in college though, which is why I’m glad that I read the Cliff’s Notes version of The Grapes of Wrath to pass my exam, which I did with flying colors, not remembering a damned thing. Years later when I read Cannery Row, and eventually, the full text of Grapes and Of Mice and Men, they became models for the kind of storytelling that I aspired to. My own work began to make sense.
After absorbing his books in my twenties and thirties, Steinbeck and I found a comfortable routine of pickling sea urchins by day and launching ourselves after renegade frogs in muddy marshes with Mack and the boys by night. As I grew older, his realist prose became more fulfilling than the English lit that had enthralled me in school. Grounded in history and inspired by life, Steinbeck’s works were more accessible than those of lusty prioresses, brave knights or mad Danish princes.
On the other hand, there was Hemingway. I hated Hemingway. What a jerk, right? His characters spent their waking hours “getting tight,” trying to get laid, failing, becoming bitter, drinking more, getting more bitter, fishing with buddies and searching for manhood in a morass of shotguns, stampeding bulls and war. Blah, blah, blah — macho man stuff that I couldn’t relate to.
The first American lit writer that we read in class, I despised the halting scenes that Hemingway dropped in my lap. I wasn’t prepared for his stark diction or his scarred, war-torn cast. I hated his five-word sentences, too. My teachers referred to his style as mot juste, “the right word,” meaning that five well-chosen words –or even three– can wield more power than twenty flabby ones. Regardless, I considered Hemingway a brute.
Years after I graduated, his economy eventually made sense in the same way that Steinbeck’s did. I can’t say why I let go of the flowery, romantic prose of the British writers whom I loved, and will always love, other than that I craved reality when I grew up. In the passing of a single novel, The Sun Also Rises, I came to hate and love the economy of Hemingway, that complex simpleton, and vexingly so.
As for judiciousness, he and Steinbeck knew it better than most, except for William Strunk, Jr and E.B. White, who gave us Elements of Style, the ultimate how-to guide of mot juste (“Omit needless words!”) I thought of them all during last week’s Challenge Day for Leadership Tomorrow, during which we contemplated our regional and national economies within the context of the flow of limited goods and services. Rather than consumer trade, I realized how much I employ the term “economy” when I talk about writing.
We began with a group exercise, raising colored cards in favor of issues that we would support with our dollars. Sounds easy, but without the ability to explain our selections –just vote– we found ourselves on opposite sides of issues that could be justified either way: does one choose to fund mass transit or improve roads and highway safety? Fund environmental education or offer tax breaks to Boeing whose departure would devastate the region? Using ballot initiatives from recent elections, our facilitator helped us identify specific elements of complexity within our local economy and question how we might make decisions in the future.
After a rousing speech from Microsoft’s Brad Smith, who spoke about the gap in local tech talent and its relationship to our region’s tax base and leadership in innovation, our conversations throughout the day danced between the haves and have-nots. A tour of Clarisonic, whose manufacturing floor felt like a maquiladora to one person, sparked discussion about the disparities between white-collar, white-skinned front office workers and “poor, uneducated” [read: non-white] factory workers. Can we simply call them disenfranchised, or is there more happening here?
My group’s tour of Philips Healthcare in Bothell had a more egalitarian flavor, though the orderly, flow chart-driven processing floor reminded me of my uncle’s job on the assembly line for Chrysler back in 1970s Detroit. Did it signify that we are still in the dark ages of manual assembly, or is it a positive thing that our processes still require human hands and problem-solving? Those manufacturing jobs bring wages to local families and tax revenue to our economy, but they weren’t jobs that any of us on the tour wanted to do. I suspect that this is why some felt conflicted as to how to label them, “good” versus “bad.”
That afternoon, my 72-person cohort and I were referred to as worker bees by venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, whose recently released book, The Gardens of Democracy, co-authored with Eric Liu, equates economies with living ecosystems that must be tended. In it, he argues that a driving middle class is essential to a thriving capitalist economy — not the trickle-down effect from the wealthy, like him. “The old model asserts that the poor deserve to be poor and the rich deserve to be rich. Yet, time has shown that the most prosperous economies are those that tax and spend the most, while those that tax and spend the least are failures. Austerity cannot revive a weak private economy.”
He was right in his labeling: even within our group, which arguably consists of upwardly-mobile people with enough means to afford LT tuition as well as post-graduate degrees, we were still just worker bees. He was the billionaire and we were drones who needed to be told to rise up against the political and fiscal oppression waged by his conservative peers — the same people who forestalled his TED talk.
That afternoon while we were journaling, I thought back to my own emergence into the working world. After graduating college, I wasn’t sure how to make a living, and there was no one to advise me. Most of my friends went on to medical school or science jobs, but I had left that world behind. My English lit degree and stint as a weekly columnist for my university newspaper did little to pave a vibrant economic path. Worst of all, my parents seemed to have been right: my English lit degree wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.
I took a low-paying administrative job, the only thing I appeared qualified for, flirting with anemia because I couldn’t afford to buy red meat and pay for rent and student loans in the same week. Transit service was unreliable and almost non-existent in Tucson, so I needed a car and the expensive insurance that went with it. Without dental coverage, I went years between cleaning appointments simply because I couldn’t afford them. I bought a cheap wardrobe of office attire because I couldn’t wear my college clothes to work. I hated the way I looked. A few years later, I went back to school to earn a degree in graphic design so that I could work on publications, eventually maxing out my student loans, which I am paying on until 2020.
After two degrees, tens of thousands of dollars in loans and thirty years of living, I still hadn’t become a writer. I felt like a failure.
Today, my life in Seattle is different — in some ways. Within reason, I can afford to buy clothes, drive and insure a nice car, fund a monthly transit pass, travel, attend plays, belong to museums, donate to charity and pay rent on an apartment that I like. (I can’t afford permanent housing in the center city, but I’m not interested in owning a house again.) I am also a middle-class worker bee who writes essays, literary fiction and this blog in my spare time, but I do not work as a writer. Why? Because deep down, I fear there will be an economic price for embracing a trade that is, in general, not highly monetized. After all, I like red meat.
The likelihood of becoming the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling is slim. There are extremely talented writers out there, including many in our city like Brian McGuigan, Peter Mountford and Nicole Hardy, who might be published and increasingly notable, but who do not live the lifestyles like Nick Hanauer or Brad Smith (or Stephen King, for that matter.) Given that artists of all kinds, including writers, often work several jobs simultaneously, they aren’t even living the economic life that I’m living as a business development manager.
So what kind of economy are we really talking about? What is being traded and what is it worth? One might assess my lifestyle and assert, She’s trading economic stability for happiness, where someone else could argue that having a job with benefits that pays a living wage allows me the freedom to pursue a hobby that I love while living in comfort and fiscal security. Aren’t they both true? Does economic prosperity necessarily connote success? If so, how much is enough?
This weekend, I attended the first installment of this year’s Hugo House Literary Series, which included a reading by Roxane Gay, an immensely talented writer whose work can be seen on Salon.com and [PANK]. She has two books coming out next year and writes for several online and print publications. She also teaches at Eastern Illinois University and lives in what she calls the middle of nowhere. Like me and my LT cohort, she is also a worker bee.
However modest, my economic prosperity not only allowed me to buy a ticket for the lit series, but Roxane’s Saturday workshop. For this, I am thankful. As a member of Richard Hugo House, I am committed to supporting a critical community resource that requires donors and members to thrive; still, most of us members are worker bees, not wealthy endowers. We don’t show up in tailored finery like Cate Blanchett’s character in Blue Jasmine, though I’ve noticed that Hugo House students are likely to wear slightly more tailored clothing than our instructors because –surprise, surprise– as teachers and writers, they generally don’t earn high salaries.
That said, it’s not clothing or middle-class prosperity that matters when we gather at Hugo House but diction, style and economy of another kind.
In person, Roxane Gay is as gracious, tack-sharp and funny as she is on the page. Her class, The Brutal Languages of Love,” introduced us to beautifully wrought works by American writers Nick Antosca (The Girlfriend Game) and James Salter. Then it was our turn. Roxane asked us to depict an intimate moment without referencing body parts or explicit action, showing desire rather than sex in our writing. While each writer’s work was unique, they all held an economy of language in common. No dead wood here, Hemingway.
For that afternoon, we put aside our families, the looming bills we were struggling to pay because of the government shutdown, the new health care packages that many artist friends had been clamoring for, and the duties of our non-writing jobs that paid for class with Roxane. The gift of three hours together, or perhaps the power of it, came instead from the free trade of language, ideas and stories about love. Afterwards, the bus ride home gave me time to listen to a Spanish learning series in preparation for my trip to Colombia in January. It will be my first foray into a developing nation whose language I am struggling to learn, a situation that will turn the tables on my middle-class American experience.
As we were reminded at the beginning of LT, challenge days are less about arriving at solutions and more about raising questions and inspiring cross-sector dialogue, collaboration, leadership and action. As these worlds come together for me –writing and LT– I can see where my own advocacy will bear fruit, namely within the realm of art and culture which I believe is every bit as vital to a thriving community as jobs, transit, education and innovation.
Like all protagonists, I will face challenges in the months ahead, but I’m eager to meet them. Navigating these topics –economy, basic needs, health and wellness, education, environment, the arts, race and racism– will evoke a richness in my own character that I didn’t possess at the start. I’ll also bear in mind Roxane’s encouragement to avoid the simple trade of wish fulfillment, which is as important in living as it is in writing, I think. “Place transgressive elements of desire within the center of your stories,” she suggested. “Give us great characters who aren’t so flawed that they can’t be redeemed. We need to see them struggle to believe in their transformation.”
It’s a beautifully economic phrase, the transgressive elements of desire. To me, it translates as the ongoing exchange of limited goods –need and fulfillment– that underlie our flawed human economy. We are never all-black or all-white, but infinite shades of gray that call for exploring which, it turns out, is what makes any character or story, and life itself, worth experiencing.