Skills and Interests

By posted at 6:17 am on May 20, 2010 23

coverI was recently fired for the first time. When I was hired I had harbored no illusions this would be a job I would love or at which I would even modestly excel; instead, I thought it was a job I could do to a perfunctory degree of competence. In the interview, my future boss looked over my resume and asked me basic questions about my schedule and experience before describing the tasks and required skills. The subject was popular economics, and the job—as a research assistant—would be mostly image searching, he said, with some fact checking and occasional reporting. When he finished, he turned and looked at me: “Does this sound like something you could do?”

We were sitting next to each other in oversized armchairs and my resume lay on the coffee table in front of us. It was the silent third party in these negotiations, and I couldn’t tell whose side it was on. I had recently made its verbs more active and its alignments more precise, and the result was, without a doubt, an attractive piece of paper. My education, work experience, and skills and interests fit onto a single page, appearing neither cramped, nor as if I were unaccomplished. I had experience with both books and periodicals, and had paid my dues while also gaining some management experience. According to my resume, I had the skills to do the job.

Still, I hesitated. I stared at the piece of paper, wishing it could talk, that we could excuse ourselves into the other room and confer as to the best course of action. Instead the thing sat there, flat and silent, and I was on my own to weigh pros and cons. Deadlines were not an issue, but the subject matter would be since I am as good at economics as I am at being an astronaut. That said, it was pop economics, which would be a stretch for me but a stretch I could maybe make. I don’t like fact checking but I have experience with it, and while talking on the telephone isn’t my favorite thing to do, I can do it the way I used to run laps around the gym. I met the gaze of my future boss: “Yes,” I said. “I think this is something I could do.”

Two and a half months later, he called to tell me our time together was over. The night before I had sent him images of the wrong radio towers from the turn of the century for the second time in a row. It had been late and I didn’t know where on the internet to find the right ones but excuses had ceased to matter: I had made so many mistakes by then that adding another to the list was what the job had become. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the job or like my boss; I both cared about the job and liked my boss; I was just empirically bad at the work.

After we hung up, I stared at the computer screen. I was not happy about having been fired, but I was relieved I wouldn’t have to wake up the next morning knowing it was a foregone conclusion I would spend my working hours professionally underperforming. I had had a feeling this would happen, but it was a feeling I hadn’t wanted to face because it meant admitting that the few skills I had accrued over my thirty years were even less flexible than I feared: Being able to talk to people about poetry or folk music or their lives in general did not translate into being able to research trivia about car seat fatality statistics in the 1950s. The worst part about getting fired, however, was that it prompted the question, “What now?” to which I didn’t—and don’t—have an answer.

coverStarting early—as young as four or five—I was one of those girls who was obsessed with horses. I had the books and the Breyer models and, sometimes, I ran around in the yard or the street pretending to be one. It wasn’t long into the obsession before I began asking my father—architect, urban planner, humble university professor—for a pony. The first time I asked I was six and my father’s response was that if I wanted a pony I should plan on becoming an investment banker. When I asked him what an investment banker was his definition was, “Someone who makes enough money to have a pony.” This was when I understood that money is one of life’s confounding questions.

There’s a famous drawing by William Blake of a figure standing at the bottom of a ladder that leads to the moon. The figure is reaching skyward; the caption reads, “I want! I want!” and seems to perfectly illustrate my relationship to my career, such as it is: I am on the ground while this career of mine lurks in the dark nearly 400,000 miles distant. After I got over wanting to be an investment banker for the ponies the profession could afford me, I went through phases of wanting to be a professional horseback rider, a folk singer, a Supreme Court justice, a vintner, a personal shopper, and a writer. While none of these—save scoring a spot on the Supreme Court—is a particularly lucrative career choice, the choice of writer is perhaps the least so of all. This makes it especially unfortunate that wanting to be a writer is the only one that stuck.

By the time I graduated from college, enough people had told me I couldn’t make a living this way for me to begin trying to jury rig my skills and interests into skills and interests that paid. I worked as an English teacher, a crime reporter, a waitress, a library assistant, and as a research assistant for authors. With each job I told myself it was temporary: just a job until I could forge a writing career. Alas, the most money I’ve ever earned for a piece of writing I’ve written because I wanted to write it is $50, and that was a month ago. Until recently I had—naively—not considered fully demoting my future writing career to past, present, and future hobby, but the reality is that the time has past come. I’ve paid the rent these ten years by looking at my resume and telling myself to “Make it work,” as well as with some generous support from my family. I now see that writing is proving at least as costly as a pony could have ever been.

It’s true: I worry sometimes that writing has gone the way of the pony, that it is no longer a way to help work the farm but—as it’s been said before—has become a pastime only for those who can afford it, and among whom I do not number. This is also when I feel as if I am beating back the tumbleweeds of cynicism with a piece of string. I try to turn the analogy around, repeating to myself the cliché that a writer is not what you are but who you are. By this logic, writers are the ponies. Because we can’t afford to keep ourselves, we hire ourselves out to humans. In the best case scenarios we like our humans and enjoy the challenges of what they have us do. Indeed, under their guidance we are able to do things we never thought possible: pirouette and jump over fences as tall as we are. In the worst-case scenarios we end up foul-tempered in a stall, pinning our ears to the backs of our heads and gnashing our teeth whenever someone tries to come in and tack us up.

Sometimes, too, while trying to jump fences, we don’t quite make it over cleanly: a rail comes tumbling to the ground or we do. We’re usually able to pick ourselves up long enough to exit the ring with dignity, but in the more dramatic mishaps, there are those inevitable moments after the fall when we are running around the ring, spooked and directionless, broken reins swinging wildly and in danger of tripping us again.

I would be lying of course if I didn’t admit I fell harder than I initially may have thought. The days and weeks following my firing were the first time I admitted to myself that instead of building a Blakeian ladder to the moon that could hold my weight, maybe I have been building one bound to collapse, constructed from toothpicks all along. When I build again I want it to be with real wood and nails, and maybe propped this time against a new and different moon.

Resumes are funny things because they are pieces of paper on which we are supposed appear both professional and human, which, with any luck, we are. When I look at my resume and consider the left turns I could make at this career crossroads, I am forced to consider what my skills and interests truly are. According to my resume, my skills and interests include, traveling, eating food and drinking wine, playing music, cuddling with homeless animals, contemporary design, MS Word, and MacIntosh and PC platforms. While I like to think these things are true, I hope I have other, less canned attributes. Perhaps, too, when these are combined, a picture of my strengths might emerge with an eye to job placement. I sometimes play with the idea of creating a resume that relegates Education and Work Experience to a few lines at the bottom of the piece of paper, and instead gives the featured slot to my Skills and Interests. Each skill and interest would be put into resume-speak and bullet pointed:

  • Imaginary degree in angling furniture.
  • High tolerance for busy work.
  • Ability to pee efficiently in public restrooms.
  • Precision sweeper.
  • Passion for shunning umbrellas in favor of getting wet.
  • Open to criticism of clog wearing.
  • Adept at hating brunch.
  • Self-taught in the art of having feelings.
  • Pretty good at sharing.
  • Communicating via face every thought that passes through brain.
  • Eager to jump to tragic conclusions about temporary illnesses.
  • Prompt to excuse self after belching.
  • Laughs loudly, often, at other people’s jokes.

Looking at the list now, it seems my skills and interests qualify me for nothing other than being myself, which was at least part of the problem to begin with: I can’t get paid for being me, nor should I be and nor do I want to be. Keeping a running list of my skills and interests is only a beginning. Since I am by now a fully formed human being, it is a beginning I can only hope won’t take another 30 years to maneuver in my favor.

I write this as the mail is piling up on my kitchen counter, more than half of which is bills and monthly statements from Bank of America that I am afraid to open. The rest is from my alma mater asking me to give them all the money I don’t already owe to credit cards, hospitals and my therapist. I already know I owe more money than I have and I don’t want to see the cold hard evidence written out on paper. When I visit my parents the time always comes when my father sits me down and says, “So, how’s your bank account?” as if my bank account were a member of the family. It practically is—the ugly stepchild—and I treat it accordingly. I tell him it’s fine or at least that it was the last time I hung out with it. I don’t tell him I can’t remember the last time this was because, the truth is, I don’t want him to have to worry about it and I am wracked with guilt that he does and that he has to.

Once upon a time my father wanted to be a painter. He became an architect instead because the schooling pardoned him from the draft and the degree would let him afford a family. I know he has felt conflicted about this decision his entire life—that he felt forced into it by his parents when he was young and trying to figure out how to make his way. 

I know because I have watched him struggle for years with how he should advise me to proceed with my life. Moments after he suggests I try advertising or television as a career move, he backtracks and says I should do something that makes me happy, to not give up on this writing thing quite yet.

He’ll then hedge–money makes things easier–before telling me again. Keep writing.

[Image credits: Images from Fiaschi’s book, J Mark Dodds]

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23 Responses to “Skills and Interests”

  1. Adam Hall
    at 10:01 am on May 20, 2010

    Thanks so much for writing this.

  2. rusty shackelford
    at 10:32 am on May 20, 2010

    On the one hand I feel your pain. It sucks not being able to do what you want to do. But frankly it doesn’t sound like you ever placed much priority on writing, which is hard to believe because this is a beautiful essay. For example…have you considered living somewhere less insanely expensive? Maybe you’re from Brooklyn or you found a rent-controlled place or something, I don’t want to come off sounding very harsh because I don’t know your situation. But you mentioned significant money problems. Doesn’t it seem like “being a writer” would have been a lot more affordable in a less trendy, less insanely-expensive place? Wouldn’t be worth it to you? As your essay shows, it’s not as though your job prospects in New York are particularly lucrative. Or is Living In Brooklyn equally important with Being A Writer?

    I don’t mean to pick on the writer in particular. I thought it was a great essay, but I lost my sympathy with the Brooklyn thing. Some people think moving there will just make you an artist on its own, that because it’s expensive it must be great, that simply living there is somehow an accomplishment in itself.

  3. NicoleS
    at 10:42 am on May 20, 2010

    Yes, thank you.

  4. Ken
    at 10:51 am on May 20, 2010

    If I worried about bills, I wouldn’t even be able to get out of bed in the morning, let alone sit down and write. Money doesn’t mean anything, either. Just keep the ending on your mind: “Keep writing.”

  5. Devon
    at 11:17 am on May 20, 2010

    Judging from this essay, you should definitely keep writing: it was wonderful.

    My finances are also awful, but I hang onto this hope that I’ll pay it all off with the advance for my first novel. Delusional, I know.

    But you got to believe that somehow it will all work out. How else do you get out of bed, work for years on something that you may never sell, all the while running yourself into debt?

    I say, try to ignore the voice of practicality. As cheesy as it sounds, keep writing and keep dreaming.

  6. Edan Lepucki
    at 12:08 pm on May 20, 2010

    Lovely essay!

    This phrase made me laugh: “After I got over wanting to be an investment banker for the ponies…” Before I got to the end of the sentence and the syntax cleared things up, I was imagining, well, a banker for horses. Perhaps that’s a job to look into?

  7. margosita
    at 2:21 pm on May 20, 2010

    This rang true for me in so many ways. Thank you one dozen times.

  8. Emily St. John Mandel
    at 5:29 pm on May 20, 2010

    I like this essay a lot. I hope you keep writing, because you’re really good at it.

    That said, this bugged me a little bit:

    “It’s true: I worry sometimes that writing has gone the way of the pony, that it is no longer a way to help work the farm but—as it’s been said before—has become a pastime only for those who can afford it, and among whom I do not number.”

    Well, in one sense I agree with you – it’s definitely an easier pursuit if one has a trust fund, as one of my novelist friends does.

    On the other hand, most of my novelist friends don’t have trust funds; most of us earn some of our money from advances and royalties, and most of our money from our day jobs. Looked at from that angle, I think writing is a pastime for someone who feels drawn enough to writing that they’re willing to lead a double life. Exhibit A: my second novel came out three weeks ago and it’s doing fine, but I still commute to my part-time job as an administrator in a cancer research lab every day.

    Based purely on my own personal experience, I’m convinced that the only way to make it all work is to find a job that isn’t too stressful and that allows you enough time to write, and to be extremely disciplined about writing during your off-hours.

  9. Sarah McCoy
    at 6:41 pm on May 20, 2010

    Emily’s comment is so apropos and extremely good advice!

    For many working writers, it isn’t an all or nothing gig. This past week, I was invited to speak at a local high school as a visiting author. Many of the students were fixated on “publishing a book” and had a laundry list of questions. So I asked, “What’s your book about? Tell me about your writing.” I was surprised that 95% said, “Oh, I haven’t written it yet. I just have a great idea and know it’ll be a bestselling book.”

    I applaud chutzpah, passion and all things leading to accomplishing one’s dreams, so I tried to gently help the students understand that the writing comes first. Write what you’re passionate about, yes, but write, write, write! Don’t be picky. Write everything and anything you can to stay afloat–to make it in this life calling.

    As Emily said, advances and royalties help, but they don’t cover everything. My debut novel released in August 2009. The paperback releases this summer and my second novel releases summer 2011. However, I still have to augment my salary to get the bills paid. I apply my trade everywhere –from magazines and newspapers to speeches and PR releases–learning new skills with every project. I’m also an adjunct professor teaching university writing courses. I do whatever I can to make ends meet and pursue my art.

    Even after you’re published, you will perpetually be reaching, striving, working your tail off to reach that shining moon career. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling or Danielle Steel, it’s never a cakewalk. But then, even they have their stories of the struggle and grit that got them where they are today.

    Good luck, Nell, and thanks for writing from the heart in this essay!

  10. Neil Griffin
    at 7:13 pm on May 20, 2010

    Very well-written essay that speaks to some of my thoughts and fears about writing and working. I was pleased about Emily St. John Mandel’s and Sarah McCoy’s responses. Finally. Proof that it’s possible to live a double life as a writer with a day job.

    I went through a period of unemployment for a year recently, but I spent my time reading everything in sight (often thanks to recommendations from The Millions) and also writing. Unfortunately or, I suppose, fortunately, I have a stable job now, which means my writing has totally fallen off and it feels like I have to choose between reading and writing due to time constrains, and lately reading has been winning over writing.

  11. David Abrams
    at 7:27 pm on May 20, 2010

    I enjoyed reading this, and will simply echo Emily’s comment from above: “to find a job that isn’t too stressful and that allows you enough time to write, and to be extremely disciplined about writing during your off-hours.”

    I served in the active-duty Army for 20 years (20 long, hard years) with minimal time to write (though somehow I managed to get a story published in Esquire). Now, for the past two years, in my post-Army career as a public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, I’m forcefully carving more time for myself to write. I rise at 4 a.m. (earlier than I ever did in the Army!) and write for 2-3 hours before heading for the office. Other writers have even more discipline than I do, and I envy their output. All I know is, this is the “habit of being” that works for me.

    I am driven by words and, like you and many others, am building my Blake Ladder to the Moon, rung by rung. Thanks for sharing your story.

  12. Edan Lepucki
    at 7:57 pm on May 20, 2010

    I agree with Emily and Sarah, too. Fellow commenter Neil says their stories show it’s “possible to live a double life as a writer with a day job,” but nowadays it’s more like it’s necessary to have both, for better or for worse. I teach because I really like it, but also because it affords me a flexible schedule for writing. I don’t think I will ever get paid enough for my fiction to quit my teaching jobs–and I’m not sure I’d want to. The imagined advances that commenter Devon mentioned can perhaps be a good motivator now and again, but they are less and less a reality.

  13. M. R. Otto
    at 10:12 pm on May 20, 2010

    The day jobs of Kafka and Eliot among others, perhaps a small consolation:

  14. Nell Boeschenstein
    at 10:33 pm on May 20, 2010

    Thanks for all the feedback, guys. I really appreciate it. I didn’t in any way intend the essay to read as a lament over the fact that writers need day jobs, however. On the contrary. Naturally most of us do, whether it’s for the money, the structured time, the human interaction, or to ensure we aren’t just conversing with the other ponies in the corral (yes, another equine metaphor) but with the world beyond the fence as well. The essay was intended instead as a meditation on how to find the day job (and the anxiety that accompanies the search for that good fit) that works for each individual–her habits, skills, interests, what have you–so long as she keeps writing in her off-hours.

  15. Marilyn Wise
    at 12:32 pm on May 21, 2010

    I had to open my own law office to not only write, but retain ownership of my writing (even if done outside the office – senior partners can be real jerks). It doesn’t leave me a lot of free time, but I can’t complain.

  16. Katherine
    at 2:41 pm on May 21, 2010

    I loved this essay–“It was the silent third party in these negotiations, and I couldn’t tell whose side it was on,” the imaginary skills and interests, Blake, AND the ponies. Don’t stop writing, Nell.

  17. Bill
    at 3:29 pm on May 21, 2010

    I am in agreement

  18. Liz L.
    at 4:18 pm on May 21, 2010

    You’re a wonderful writer. More, please.

  19. Jen
    at 1:37 pm on May 26, 2010

    Great essay – I’ll add my thanks and my hopes that you’ll keep on writing to the bunch. I think writing my imaginary resume may just be a good exercise. Love it.

  20. Sonhadores profissionais «
    at 2:30 pm on May 26, 2010

    […] 26 26UTC maio 26UTC 2010 · Deixe um comentário “I worry sometimes that writing has gone the way of the pony, that it is no longer a way to help work the farm but—as it’s been said before—has become a pastime only for those who can afford it, and among whom I do not number. This is also when I feel as if I am beating back the tumbleweeds of cynicism with a piece of string. I try to turn the analogy around, repeating to myself the cliché that a writer is not what you are but who you are”. (Nell Boeschenstein) […]

  21. Everett Bogue
    at 5:27 pm on May 26, 2010

    Hi Nell,

    I really enjoyed this article, the writing is simply brilliant. Here’s the thing: you can support yourself being a writer. Writing has a profession has not gone the way of ponies. I honestly thought the profession had, but it really hasn’t. How do I know this? because as of this year, I make my living as a writer.

    For years I settled, and then one day I took a different path, and then I realized that somewhere along the way the world changed, and pursuing writing as a career in the way that we did twenty years ago no longer is an option.

    Pursuing writing as a way to support yourself using the available technologies that the Internet grants you is a more than viable option. The gatekeepers are gone, and this means you will not be paid to be a writer by a publisher, a magazine, or anything of that sort. Instead you have to take distribution into your own hands, when you do, everything changes.

    At that moment you no longer need the day job. The pony is back, it just looks very different.

    I’d love to talk about this more, check me out at my blog.


  22. Darlene Chrissley
    at 1:16 am on May 29, 2010

    Loved the essay. You write beautifully.

    “By this logic, writers are the ponies. Because we can’t afford to keep ourselves, we hire ourselves out to humans.”

    This is my story too!

  23. Barbara
    at 5:43 am on June 23, 2010

    What a sad story – and beautifully written. You really are an accomplished writer. Nevertheless I do not quite understand why being a writer and having a job in a related field do not seem to mix for you? One of my sisters is an architect, like your dad, but her real passion is for painting and she does pursue a second career, doing exhibitions and traveling places just to paint. I work as a senior manager in publishing and spend my mornings writing a historical novel. I have been selling my work for *gasp* 30 years now. I like my daytime job and it even helps with my writing because I meet people nice enough to read my drafts, refer me to their agents and so on. I have never held a job – okay, once! – I did not enjoy thoroughly. So you cannot do the research job, obviously. But why not work for a magazine or a literary agency, doing editorial work – whatever. There are so many jobs out there for talented people, we are constantly looking out for good writers. I want my writing to PAY for my pony, I always did. Although, having never be the girlie type, my pony was and is a motorcycle.

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