Jane Recommends “Toni Morrison, Nora Ephron, and Dozens More Offer Advice…” via OPEN CULTURE

An excerpt from “Toni Morrison, Nora Ephron, and Dozens More Offer Advice in Free Creative Writing ‘Master Class’” by Josh Jones:

If you’re anything like me, you yearn to become a good writer, a better writer, an inspiring writer, even, by learning from the writers you admire. But you neither have the time nor the money for an MFA program or expensive retreats and workshops with famous names. So you read W.H. Auden’s essays and Paris Review interviews with your favorite authors (or at least PR’s Twitter feed); you obsessively trawl the archives of The New York Times’ “Writers on Writing” series, and you relish every Youtube clip, no matter how lo-fi or truncated, of your literary heroes, speaking from beyond the grave, or from behind a podium at the 92nd Street Y.


Jane says: I do, yes, yes, and duh. Yes, my calendar is stuffed and I lack cash for expensive retreats and workshops with drool-worthy marquee and banner names, so I research while working, cooking dinner, blowdrying my hair―has Josh Jones been spying on me? While I devoured this article, I felt like I was listening someone rapidly list things that I already knew I would love, that maybe I’ve heard of them in a daydream or hoped for them enough that the literary gods have finally delivered my wishes to me, and I can’t scribble notes fast enough.

Jane Stuffs Her Mattress Amid Truth Bombs

“Oh, shit. I can’t do this.” Diane Cook, on a full-time employment opportunity

Toni Morrison infamously said that no one works on Fridays. The last weekday is―surprise―”an unproductive day” and, at my day job, the living queen of fiction is on point, per usual. It’s Aloha Friday, and the office is oh-so-quiet. People are taking thirty-minute shits and two-hour lunches. I edit my novel manuscript openly at my desk. The cool group, who lunches in the community room Monday through Thursday and dines out every Friday, asks me to join them for sushi. “No, thank you,” I say. I’m flattered by the invitation, but if I am blunt with myself, I can’t afford friends. In one hour, I can edit approximately three pages, test the integrity of about 78 sentences. I note the scalp-scratchers in the margins, reserve them for my next editing project: the read-aloud draft. I know the sentences need steeping, and I don’t have that kind of time now. I intermittently text Waylon, my one-and-only friend and boyfriend. I skim paragraphs of a favorited Twitter article in doses.

Joan Didion insists, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Here are some things I tell myself:

  • You are still writing.
  • Some former colleagues who work full-time don’t write a lick.
  • You’ll get to where you want to be, eventually.

But my heart is smart. The day job, technical writing, gets the best parts of my time and, unquestionably, the better brainpower. Sometimes, too exhausted to write at night, I resent almost everything that sucks time. Like Emily St. John Mandel reveals in her article, Working the Double Shift,” featured in The Millions and so many other artists who divide their time between their debts and passion, my dream day job is to be a full-time hardcover writer.

My crooked top knot should have been the first sign. The backwards dolman shirt the second. The third: I had been using Waylon’s deodorant, and two Dasani bottle caps to disinfect my contacts overnightfor a week. I finally cried at my desk. Minus a hobo purse here and a sundress there, the luster of cash has vanished.

Crying at my desk is not a new thing. I don’t have the skin or teeth or soul for an office job. For the first six months of employment, I am usually grateful. Grateful that Fed Loans isn’t hunting me down. Grateful that once in a moon I can treat Waylon to dinner or surprise him with a specialty deuce. Grateful that my credit lines are increasing and my minimum balances are shrinking. Grateful that if I cracked a canine on a Gobstopper or bought a plane ticket to Jamaica my savings account isn’t busted. It has been 26 weeks and I am still thankful for all of these things, but you either are or you aren’t (someone who can work for the weekend). And I am not. On good days, I don’t feel anything. In fact, I have to check my pulse to verify that I’m still alive. On bad days, skyscraper-high cortisol levels, and tears. The tears flow suddenly. As suddenly as my light-footed office mate rounds the corner of our shared space. I reach for my desk drawer and squeeze eye drops into my ducts. As the anti-red solution and teardrop mix river down my face, I know my secret is safe by blaming allergies for my state.

I knew when I accepted my “part-time” gig that I would have to let go of things. The hardest thing to let go of were those beautifully open mornings and afternoons, where creativity was free to happen. Where I could ease into writing by getting lost in a book, jog until a plot point worked itself out, stare at the sky. Where I could write all day and ease into adulting: the cooking, the laundry, the paying of bills. I knew it was just a matter of time before my part-time job evolved into full-time work. I am contracted for another three months and I count down the days but, truth is, I have no guts. I could quit tomorrow. It wouldn’t be financially smart, but I could quit tomorrow. What stands between me and my dream job is that I don’t know if I can run from the student loan police and write a novel at the same time, and the student loan police aren’t the only people I owe money to. I can only bear so much anxiety, but when I clock out, what really stands between me and my last day? It’s me, the coward.

When Gabriel García Márquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude, he was pancake broke and the town brought him food. No one’s bringing Jane food because she couldn’t fork over her lunchtime to make nice. I already scrimp and I could scrimp more, but in my old, fragile age, I can’t return to the ramen noodles that got me here.

Some people hide behind the stories they tell themselves in order to live:

  • They would write, if this.
  • They would write, if that.

Truthfully, I write. I write in my car on the way to work. I write between editing documents. I write between edits on a single document. In meetings, I write, or at least take shorthand notes of what to write later. If I see someone who gets paid double what I gross sleeping at their desk, I write spitefully or revise spitefully to accrue a little more value. I write while Waylon watches TV after dinner. But, truth bomb: if I didn’t have this job, I would be writing much, much more. Painfully more. Where do those words go?

Despite all of these feels, I will not quit now, so I stuff my mattress. I stuff my mattress for my eventual unemployment. I stuff my mattress so I can buy organic apples, gift presents or travel when I am selfishly underworking for the man to write. I decided that if I could commit to this short-term life of working a lotas long as I am working towards not working a lotI will fund myself. A free place to stay in the Pacific Northwest for four nights and five days has arisen, and I am awarding myself that writing residency (flight and food) that no one else will currently grant me. I am flying to that foreign city, where I have zero responsibilities and wonderfully open, wiggly mornings and afternoons to read, write, edit, explore, get lost, find myself.