Earning Your Living


I was working in a restaurant and writing my first novel. Or, I should say, rewriting my first novel. I was on about draft ten of fourteen, earlier iterations having bounced back from dozens of agents. If I could just get it right, I’d be on my way – I’d be out of the restaurant and off the treadmill of laboring for the dull reward of mere survival. I could awaken every morning to the bright prospect of my days belonging entirely to me, doing for pay what I would, and indeed had, done happily for free.

I was having lunch after my shift at the employee dining table crammed beside broken chairs and used kegs in the narrow delivery hall. My companion that afternoon was a new waitress, a young woman who clearly wasn’t long for this restaurant. She had taken the job upon returning quite broke to Seattle after traveling for several years in Thailand and India. She told me she had been in the middle of getting her journalism degree at the University of Washington before taking the trip.

“You going to go back and finish the degree?” I asked.

“I’d like to – I think. But I’m busy now. I’m under contract to write a book about my trip.” She shook her head and pushed her tortellini across her plate.

“You’re under contract?” This was the first I’d heard about non-fiction writers selling books they hadn’t actually written.

She nodded. “It’s due in like six months. Books are so long.”

It seemed to me she might as well have been talking about a term paper she’d been assigned. I wanted to resent her – because she had a contract and I did not, and because she was not appreciating what was clearly a fantastic opportunity. But I couldn’t resent her; she reminded me too much of myself, looking upon that book the way I looked upon my job in the restaurant.

It was a little disconcerting. In her voice I could hear the inescapable reality that anything can be boring, anything can be a treadmill you are forced by some outside power to ride until they say otherwise. Nothing can save you and nothing can own you. I was still too young in my heart to know what to do with this information. To live by it, to already be free, seemed like the end of the journey, seeing that I own something I was absolutely certain I had to earn.

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