There seems to be two camps most unpublished writers fall into: the Haves and the Have Nots. Some extremely fortunate ones have independent means of wealth that allows them the space and time to focus on their writing. For the Have Nots, no magical fairy godmother or genie hovering above a lamp will ever say, “You just focus on writing that book, and all of your bills will be paid in the meantime.” Like all the authors I’ve ever known personally, I’ve always been very much in this latter camp. And I still have a day job, teaching five classes per semester to cover my bills.
Even after we publish, most of us work 40 hours a week or more (usually much more) at another job, often working too hard or for too many hours to then have the residual brain power to get much writing done for yet another day. Some jobs—and I’ve had my fair share of these—become so soul-sucking as to drain the creative batteries to the dimmest flicker of life. And some of the jobs I did while growing up and working in the Hamptons, where wealth was constantly on parade, I look back on now as the most existentially exhausting non-writing days of all.
My path to publishing isn’t all that unique. It took a long time and was hard as hell. I spent years toiling away on manuscripts in solitude, half-starved at times, hopelessly dependent on horribly cheap coffee, working for a measly paycheck while fantasizing about some great escape and plodding toward my dream of becoming an author. But during all those years of working for the rich or just working hard labor to get by, there was no time for self-pity. I tried to stay in the mindset of a common Long Island saying: Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do, while I supported myself throughout my twenties and thirties, always working for a minimal wage. I carried sacks of cement, or stacks of lumber, or other heavy things. I pounded nails. I sanded walls. I pushed lawnmowers. I punched cash register buttons. I cleaned swimming pools for the rich. I logged tens of thousands of miles during drives across the country until landing out west. I bartended at a Chinese restaurant in Portland. I donned a guard uniform at a steel mill and a microchip factory. I wore a hardhat and drove a gas-powered golf cart through the apocalypse.
My job as a pool guy was the most constant reminder that I was both light years away from realizing my dream of becoming a published novelist, and that I was one of the working poor in an atmosphere of decadence. I rented a two-bedroom house one of those summers where six other guys and two pit bulls and I slept in corners and on couches. Over five seasons of working as a “pool technician” in the Hamptons, I cleaned roughly 5,000 swimming pools. I had hundreds of noteworthy customer interactions, including awkward moments when I stumbled upon naked people. I drank my way to sleep most every night. I didn’t write nearly enough.
One memory in particular, during those sweaty, hungover, grungy pool-cleaning years, still resonates, as it was the first time I saw an alternate path to becoming a full-time writer, though one I knew I could never access.
Late-morning, I arrived at a property in Bridgehampton, my work truck’s tires crunching over the long and winding beach rock-covered driveway until the massive mansion came into view. With the pool vacuum hose coiled around my shoulder and other supplies gripped in both hands, I trudged down a curved path and passed through a gate with the mansion to my left, the pool a speck in the distance. A movement to my right turned my head and I saw a woman exit from some sort of outbuilding—a structure about two-thirds the size of the tiny house I grew up in. With a tea cup cradled in both hands, she greeted me, and I paused and said hello and asked how she was doing.
“Fine, I suppose. Taking a break from work.”
“You work out here?” I looked from the outbuilding doorway to the picture windows, the main room in clear view through the glass—pillows tucked in the corners of a window nook, a cozy couch and oversize chairs, a wall lined with bookshelves, a gorgeous antique desk, a stack of albums beside a record player. “What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m a writer. Or trying, anyway.” She flashed a grin. “Some days are harder than others.”
We made small talk for a minute or so before she returned to what I realized was her detached writer’s studio, a building that seemed to exist solely for her to write in. The mansion that loomed behind me likely housed at least eight bedrooms and at least a half dozen other rooms which could have easily doubled as a writing studio. After I vacuumed the Olympic-size pool and trudged back across the football field length of lawn, the final step was to locate the pool filter and set it to the “backwash” setting for a minute. This basically flushes the gunk out, similar to flushing a toilet.
The filter was on the other side of the woman’s writing studio, a potentially tic-filled trek through waist-high grass. The structure that hid the pool filter was the size of a child’s playhouse, and just before I unlatched the tiny door, I heard the hissing. I stepped back, not wanting to deal with what was inside, and ended up glancing at the window, where the woman had her head angled, staring contemplatively toward the ceiling, the tea cup hovering at her lip. The hissing sound increased in volume. I opened the door and there they were, six or seven slithery, pissed off snakes, all perfectly blocking the space where I would have to reach to turn the filter handle.
I can’t believe this, I thought. She’s in there, sipping tea and working on some sort of book, and I have to deal with a nest of f**king snakes.
I should also mention that I’m semi-terrified of snakes, even the harmless, fangless, non-poisonous ones. There’s something so unnerving about the slithering. I decided to get it over with as quickly as possible, and then had an Indiana Jones moment as I stuck the skim net into the doorway in front of the now much more agitated snakes. One or too lunged against the net and I squealed, but then managed to turn the filter handle. I had to wait an excruciating thirty seconds for the rush of water to fully flush the filter clean, and all while the snakes kept snapping and hissing and writhing in a nightmarish swirl. In a flash I turned the handle once more, yanked the net away and slammed the door, shuddering through the tall grass until I rounded the corner and scurried past the doorway, where the woman at the desk had admitted that the writing had been hard that day.
The pool job went on for five years with very little writing to show for it.
I had better writing luck while working other jobs. After driving cross-country, my first stint as a uniformed security guard was at a superconductor microchip factory in Eugene, Oregon. I worked 12-hour graveyard shifts at a delivery gate, which bordered protected wetlands. Throughout those sleep-deprived hours, herds of nutria—a large water-based rodent, which looks like a cross between a rat and a beaver—wandered past my guard shack all night long. I mainly spent those nights writing poems and short stories and my earliest attempt at a novel, while trying not to dwell on the demonic groans from my empty stomach. I recall whole 12-hour shifts going by when I’d gone without any food, surviving somehow on coffee alone. Or if I did have any money left over after rent, some weeks I subsisted on a meal or two that cost less than a dollar. I vowed that there would come a day when I would have the option to never ever eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or ramen noodles again.
My second stint as a security guard started when I was 34, and again I worked 12-hour graveyard shifts, but this time at a steel mill on Portland’s industrial edge. While there, I usually read novels or worked on a novel manuscript for the first half of my shift, then unlocked buildings all over the massive site for the steel mill employees, all of whom were characters in their own right. Again, I was forced to survive on the cheapest food, forced to stay awake all night fueled mostly by generic supermarket brand coffee. But during those long steel mills shifts, I also saw molten steel poured into cauldrons. I saw the epic machines that form the bones of our cities. And I started to see my novel finally take shape.
I had plenty of other shitty jobs while I continued with my writing, and it’s only in hindsight that I realize how Sisyphean those years felt at times—writing in a vacuum, scraping by, querying agents about a novel that featured working class characters and only hearing no. It’s also much clearer to me now just how against-the-odds it is for anyone who’s not independently wealthy to carve out the necessary years of writing time it takes to complete a novel, let alone to focus intensely enough to write a good novel. It makes me wonder how many of our greatest writers, our greatest artists of all mediums, simply give up under the daily crush of the Capitalist wheel. Completing a novel is hard damn work, but it’s that much harder when basic survival takes precedence.
I wonder how many “successful” novels were written by the independently wealthy or by those with benefactor support, but more than that, I wonder how many truly great novels are lost to us forever because earning enough to pay the medical bills or the heating bill or the rent eclipsed the need for the author to push their art into the hands of a decision maker. I think about my mother raising my brother and me on her own, and about how many single-parents have brilliant books alive in their minds but will never get enough of those words on the page.
I think about the authors in disguise all around us when I’m in a restaurant or passing by a construction site or interacting with a cashier. I think about firefighters and taxi drivers and teachers of all kinds, and how their stories are the ones that would likely affect me much more deeply than stories born from prep-school pedigrees and trust-funds. I hope that the next Toni Morrison or James Baldwin or Margaret Atwoods of the world, along with the hundreds of others who deserve entrance into the wider conversation, continue plodding on with the words we so desperately need, even as they spend 40 hours or more at the factory or the hospital or the superstore each week.
I think about that mansion in the Hamptons, the one with the snakes nesting where I was expected to work, the snakes that the writer in the luxurious studio would never see, let alone need to confront. I wonder what someone in such a comfortable position could possibly write about that might interest me. I think about how many voices are still not represented nearly enough, and about how their pulse is silently beating in a slush pile. I think about how I went deeper and deeper into debt while I was getting my MFA and then PhD. I think about the montage of shitty jobs I had before finally catching a break with my agent and how grateful I am for the chance to breathe.
I think about how difficult the path to publication is for most writers, and about how difficult it is for anyone at all who hasn’t been buoyed by wealth—to claw their way from the workaday grind and realize their dreams.