My first job was as a babysitter when I was 11. Now that I'm a parent and look at the 11-year-olds I know, one of whom is still dressed by her mother in the morning, this fact appalls me. It's true that when I was 11 I looked 14 and the parents must have been desperate and seen me out the window and thought, Hm, plausible deniability
; in any event, I let two boys in diapers throw pebbles at my head for three hours and was paid six dollars, which was a terrible rate even then.
I had a million other babysitting jobs — I was a nerd and had nothing better to do, and was starved for television and soda, which I could always sniff out in those houses of my youth — but found legitimate work with a paycheck when I was 14 and was hired to serve at the snack bar at the country club. This was as humiliating as it sounds. We microwaved cheeseburgers. We cleaned from the tables great turds of ketchup that we watched the children in their tennis whites squeeze out of the packets one by one. I was hit on by a rotund ancient man with gin-blossoms on his nose, which wasn't as awful as it could have been because he hit on everything and I think he may even have chatted up a broken mast in the sailing tack room next door. Maybe it looked to him like a particularly leggy girl, one who wasn't running away.
The next year I got my lifeguarding certification and went back to the club to become the person who made the kids in tennis whites run up to get us Chipwich ice creams on their parents' chits. Oh, I thought I was sly in my vengeance. I certainly did get a nice golden tan and only had to rescue one four-year-old who couldn't do the swim test. It was far more cush than the snack bar, for sure, but, really, it was still a service job, and we were favored servants, which was painfully underlined for us every night as we raked the cigarette butts out of the sand at dusk while the pretty people drank cocktails on the porch in the glorious golden sunset in their clothes that fluttered in the wind off the lake.
After high school, I spent a year in Europe as an exchange student; in college, I ran out of whatever lifeguarding money I hadn't spent on moping alone on a Eurail pass and got a job as a dishwasher in our cafeteria. I was at the age of absolutism when extremes felt natural, even when the extreme was heat on my bare hands. I probably had second-degree burns because even now I can reach into a pot of near-boiling water and grab out a potato without pain. I liked to get glimpses of my fellow privileged students through the window and understand them by looking at what they left on their plates. Oh, this girl who guts the cabbage filling out of her eggrolls, eats only that, leaves the skin; such food-shame, such alarming skinniness. Oh, this boy, who eats a meal then fills his plate with salmon fillets he throws out, just for the thrill of waste. I lived for these stories people were telling in the food they sent down the conveyer belt.
During the summers, I had a job in a brewery, a job as a nanny, a job in a Boston advertising agency, a job in catering, but during the school year I always came back to my dishwasher job.
I'd fallen in love with fiction in college, was burning with the fire of creation. So when I graduated, even though they'd just finished funding my incredibly expensive private liberal arts education, I asked my parents to send me to bartending school in Manayunk, outside of Philadelphia; and, to my endless wonder, they did. The idea was to write in the day, bartend at night, and I charmed my way into a job at a brew pub with multiple bars in it. The first night I worked, I was in the tiki hut with a Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader — she was the bait, I the worker-mule — when we heard what we thought were fireworks. She shrugged, so I shrugged. She was a professional cheerleader! She knew things we mortals did not! We kept working until the media trucks pulled up: there'd been a double homicide in the business office, and the newspeople were there before the police. My second shift, I opened the bar at 9 in the morning and my first customer came in at roughly 9:08, a construction worker who looked dazed and asked for a beer. I gave him one, and when I asked to be paid, he shouted at me. I frowned at him. He said, "Turn on the television," and I did, and I saw the World Trade Towers smoking and that day everybody drank for free.
The fates were telling me in very loud voices that I was not meant to be a bartender.
After two more weeks, I quit and became a temp.
I knocked on doors for the Sierra Club but hadn't memorized the spiel and someone sicced their dog on me, and I was very cold and so I walked away after one night. I was a telemarketer for a cord-blood storage company though I hate the telephone with the heat of a thousand bonfires, and I had to stop after I called one lady who was late on her payments and she said, in a hushed voice, she'd had a miscarriage. I sorted through old cases at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services but had to stop after six months of reading about the terrible things that children live through, unimaginable things, when I became infected by them and I began skipping lunch to cry in the bathroom.
We moved to California, and I got a job with a very kind psychiatrist who was opening up a department, the Center for Psychiatry and the Law, at Stanford, and I did paperwork alone in an office all day and during my lunch hour wrote and wrote and wrote, two failed novels, a hundred failed stories. Academia was marvelous, I'd discovered; they gave you money for retirement, they gave you health insurance, they actually gave you money to take Continuing Studies classes, and I took all the fiction courses I could gobble up. After a year, I moved laterally to Stanford's Media X department, and probably would be there now if I hadn't gotten into graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which my heart had been set on because Lorrie Moore taught there, and Lorrie Moore was and still is a hero of mine.
To the city of lakes we moved, stunning city of farmers' markets, city of huge-hearted people. I taught intro to writing classes, some composition-rhetoric classes. I love teaching; young people fire me up, and in front of a class I felt as if I'd become an adult at last. I knew, though, that my real job was writing, writing all day, writing into the night. Those two years, I did not see a single movie, I did not go to a single mall, I just wrote and I wrote and I wrote. I wrote dozens of stories, I wrote a novel, I threw it out, I wrote another.
I had a two-year fellowship in Louisville after my MFA, but I'd gotten married and my husband was in Florida, and I lived in an apartment that was brown all the way around, floor to walls to kitchen counters to ceiling, and the FedEx planes flew overhead all night long. I was homesick, sad, insomniac. But that winter I sold my first novel, thank god, and the Louisville Creative Writing department is full of absolute mensches and they let me go after one year. I came home to my husband.
Then the only job I had to have, because of a marvelous thing called a book advance, was the job of being a writer.
In this job, I have written two more novels and a story collection and essays and reviews, but mostly I read and I think and I write many, many things that fail horribly and I put them aside and write other things that also usually fail.
I will tell you that it's a glorious thing, after my life of cruddy jobs, to have this particular job; equally true is that every cruddy job I worked helps me now. It is good for writers to understand how to work extremely hard, how to handle being thought less capable and smart than they are, how to do paperwork, how to save money for retirement, how to grow inured to burns. I've had other jobs in the meantime, notably those of mother of sons and teacher in low-residency MFA programs, but most days I wake up just before dawn and take a moment or two to gather up in both hands all the gratitude I can reach. A life in words is work; all work is sometimes difficult and frustrating. But job and joy share most of the same letters, and writing is both all at once.