You Do the Type of Work You Practice

When I was in high school, I began working as a church organist and choral accompanist. This meant that I needed to prep a full set of hymns and preludes and offertories and choral anthems and all the rest of it, every week — and some of the music would be selected for me, but some of it I’d need to find (or, in some cases, compose) myself.

I’ve been thinking lately about how well that work prepared me for my current career.

Because freelance writing is, at its core, exactly the same: I need to work quickly, to a specific audience, and to spec; I need to either follow prompts and outlines given to me or pitch and create my own; I need to know how to get something to good as fast as possible and then get on to the next assignment, because there is always another deadline to meet.

I spent five years as a church organist; four in high school and one in college. And then, in college, my piano teacher told me that I would never be a concert pianist. This wasn’t something that I necessarily wanted to become, which was why I was okay with her telling me this. Honestly, it was kind of a relief; my teacher said I should stop taking piano lessons, because there wasn’t anything left she could teach me, but the music department would be happy to have me continue to accompany the choirs and voice students.

Which is what I did.

And, again, it was excellent practice for what I’m doing now.

(Pun intended.)

And I’ve been doing more accompanying lately, with this choir that I’ve been singing in, and because of that I’ve started brushing up on all of the piano technique I neglected — because when your piano teacher says you’ll never be a concert pianist and you should stop taking lessons, you also decide that you’re going to stop playing all of those scales and arpeggios, and a couple decades later your choral director gives you a four-hand piece that requires you to play a chromatic scale while the other accompanist plays a glissando, and you’re all well, I guess I’d better remind myself how scales go.

And all of that’s coming back to me very quickly, because I did all of that technique stuff essentially every day for sixteen years.

But the other thing I’ve been thinking about is whether all of this quickness, for lack of a better term, is getting in the way of what you might call artistry.

Except Biographies was art. I’m sure of it. Of course, I worked on it for ten years before I actually wrote it. And then when I finally found the key to writing it*, it came out good and fast in a near-perfect first draft because I had the training to do it that way.

Because, in the end, we do the type of work we practice — and that work sets us up for whatever work we do next.

So… not to put too tidy of a button on it… make sure that whatever you’re practicing is preparing you for what you really want to do. ❤️

***

*The key to writing The Biographies of Ordinary People — the reason I was finally able to write a version of the story that took, instead of all the drafts I started and abandoned — was adding the character of Jackie. Once there was a third sister involved, it was no longer a direct analogue for my family and my childhood and it could become something new.

On the Secret Music and Math I Tuck Into Most of My Writing

All right, you asked about “the secret music and math I tuck into most of my writing even though I know most readers won’t know it’s there,” soooooo…

Well, with The Biographies of Ordinary People the music was obvious. I literally gave you every piece the Gruber sisters played or sang or listened to, and tried to give you enough context to understand the story even if you didn’t know the music (though I secretly hoped you’d listen to at least some of it on your own, and if you were part of my Patreon when I was drafting the book I gave you an actual playlist).

The math was less obvious, though it was also right in front of you if you knew to look for it.

The story begins on Rosemary Gruber’s 35th birthday and ends on Meredith Gruber’s 35th birthday.

There are four parts, each with 35 chapters.

Part 1 covers three years (1989–1992); then we skip five years.

Part 2 covers three years (1997–2000); then we skip four years.

Part 3 covers five years (2004–2009). It was only supposed to cover four, both halves of Biographies Vol. 2 were supposed to cover four years each, but I really wanted the three Gruber sisters to meet up at the Obama inauguration, which I mistakenly entered as “January 2008” in my initial outline. (When I realized it had really taken place during January 2009, I thought about making the inauguration its own little section, so I could keep the two parts at exactly four years each. Then I decided nobody would care about it but me.)

Then we skip three years.

Part 4 covers four years (2012–2016).

YES I KNOW THAT’S NOT “MATH MATH”

IT’S JUST NUMBERS

But that’s what I do when I make stuff (writing or, in my previous career, songs). There’s always some kind of scaffolding holding the thing together — go read the author’s note at the end of Frugal and the Beast if you want to see how I constructed each of the stories in that collection, for example.

Now let’s go even deeper.

I read everything I write aloud. In fact, I say most of it aloud before I ever put it on the page. Say it to yourself, if you want:

The last night before they left was Rosemary Gruber’s thirty-fifth birthday.

It’s in 4/4 time.

“Rosemary Gruber” has the same number of syllables, and the same stresses, as “thirty-fifth birthday.”

I took a first-page critique class while I was drafting the novel, and one of the other students helpfully suggested that the opening sentence would be tighter if it were “The night before they left was Rosemary Gruber’s thirty-fifth birthday.”

I’m not going for tight. I’m going for a line that you can speak as though it were a song. So it has to be last, to keep the rhythm of the sentence and the assonance with left.

Next we have “It had, of course, been her birthday since the morning, and the girls had duly remembered to call out ‘Happy birthday, mommy!’ when they came out of the bedroom.”

It had

Of course

Been her birthday

Since the morning

You see the rhythm, don’t you? It’s right there. The words couldn’t be anything but what they were, or it would spoil it.

And the GIRLS had DU-ly re-MEM-bered to CALL out. Read it aloud. Read the whole thing aloud. You’ll hear it.

And that, my dear readers, is the secret music.

Are you glad you asked? ❤️

Writer’s Winter Break Class Prep

So today I’m going to share with you the short piece I put together for the Writer’s Winter Break retreat/conference I’m attending later this week.

(Assuming the weather doesn’t keep me from flying out on Wednesday. It has been snowing constantly since Friday afternoon.)

Here’s the context: for the class I’ll be taking with Meg Wolitzer, I’ve been asked to bring one page of my own writing, one page of another author’s writing, and up to two pages addressing an issue in my own work.

I’m bringing the first page of The Biographies of Ordinary People, the first page of Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers (which I reviewed on this blog a few years ago), and the following statement:

I wrote The Biographies of Ordinary People in 2015 and 2016, with funding support from Patreon; after the novel was finished, I queried it and was told that, while the writing was lovely and the characters compelling, it was too quiet to be marketable. One agent said “I can work with you to develop something that might be more appealing to a large audience, or you can keep what you have as an art book that will appeal to a select few.”

I chose art book, published and marketed and toured it myself, and the people who loved it loved it.

Then I told myself I needed to learn how to write something that might be more appealing to a large audience.

In the past two years, I outlined one speculative fiction novel about Mars that went nowhere, drafted a second speculative fiction novel about parallel universes that I immediately trunked, and got most of the way through the draft of a cozy mystery with a Millennial-aged amateur detective (she’s got student loans and a social media obsession). My writing is no longer as lovely and my characters are no longer as compelling; I’m writing for “the market” and it’s not working.

I don’t think this is necessarily a genre issue; I read avidly and love all genres. One of the reasons I picked Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers as my published-writing sample was because it is either a literary fiction or a science fiction novel (I’ve talked to indie booksellers who didn’t know where to shelve it) and I would love to write something like that.

The other reason I picked The Wanderers is because the opening chapter does what I was trying to do with the opening chapter of Biographies — introduce us to the world of a woman who lives mostly in her head, who has issues being honest with the people in front of her and is about to leave everything she’s ever known — but it’s tighter and more satisfying and plotty in a way that Biographies is not. 

You turn the first page of The Wanderers wondering why Boone has called this meeting, what he’s going to ask Helen to do, and whether she’ll agree to do it. (To be fair, you also turn that first page feeling pretty sure that she’ll agree to do it. This is how stories work, after all.)

You turn the first page of Biographies remembering what it was like to live in a tiny apartment in the Pacific Northwest in 1989. That was actually what I was going for, and why the people who appreciated this book did in fact appreciate it, but… it’s not enough for what I do next. 

And I don’t know what that’s going to be, but I want it to be better than what I’m writing now.

I’ll be back from the retreat next Monday, and I’ll let you know how it goes. ❤️

(also there will still be a guest post on Wednesday)

(don’t miss the guest post)

Goals and The Scatter: Cultivating a New Year of Creativity

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the first in an ongoing column about the creative practice.

In the past year, I’ve gone a bit sour on cruising the internet, and gotten back into curated newsletters. (Side note: if you have favorites, please share!) A friend of mine, the lovely and thoughtful San Francisco Bay Area poet Allie Rigby, publishes a monthly one called The Herd. In this month’s issue, while admitting her ambivalence about New Year’s resolutions, she encourages her community to think about what they want creatively in 2020—and to share one intention with the group. “There is magic,” she points out, “in sharing a goal.” So I’m going to do some magic right now; you’re my witness. In 2020, I’ll write my second book.

Also, I’ll get the first one in front of a series of publishers I think are right for it, until one of them agrees. Plus, I’ll do some serious vocational discernment, work daily with a plan I’m designing to mitigate the frightening ways my body handles stress, and spend a full day, once per month, in silent retreat from all tech and to-do lists.

I was going to share just the art-specific goals with you here. But that contradicts something I’ve been learning for years, which crystallized in 2019: everything you do feeds—or eats, or a little of both—your art. Maybe also this: your life is your art. 

I wrote my 2020 goals while driving up the central coast of California on my winter holidays. During those same holidays, I interviewed for a new job, then received the news that they want me to start this month. Change has been coming in this department for some time, a distant storm I’ve been feeling just over the horizon, charging the air. I’m relieved to feel the rain falling. The inevitable thunder and lightning both excites and worries me: a new employer and colleagues to learn, a project I’m helping to invent as we go along, some travel, work dreams, changes to my daily routine. And as all of that whirls around me—oh right, I’m writing a book and managing my stress so it doesn’t kill me.*

Most creatives don’t live by our art alone. Writing is a full-time job, for which I need another such to pay the rent and take vacation and buy good wine and feed the cat, et cetera. I suspect I’m preaching to the choir right now: you read a blog about the art and finance of a creative life. You know this is a balancing act. So how does one actually balance?

I don’t know. But following my earlier bit of magic, I’m going to set in motion another. I’m going to tell you about The Scatter, and how I’m using it to build a creative life that aligns with my goals and my values, while respecting my limits and also the essential mystery of being human.** And I’m going to let the shared statement of that intention roam free in the world, and see what good work it can do. 

You may already recognize The Scatter. It’s that daily frenetic task-switching from article to email to work to laundry to existential worry. It’s the inability to focus on knitting or reading or going for a walk—just that, and only that. It’s the compulsion to check Twitter again, or your email, or your stats, even when you lack any specific question or interest, just because you have a free half-minute burning a hole in your brain. It’s the need to check eight things off your to-do list today, and the feeling after you’ve done them that you could really do more. It’s the way you question your competence and worth when you realize how exhausted you are, and the way you still think you can get all of that done tomorrow. 

My Scatter started to show when I took a job that couldn’t provide the intellectual challenge I need to focus for eight hours a day. Humans are great at adapting to non-optimal situations—I got my work done, and well—but all such decisions exact prices, produce side-effects. I did this job for some time, and it afforded me many things, including quite a lot of bandwidth for writing. It also brought The Scatter, dropped on my kitchen floor every day like a critter the cat dragged in, and I have to clean it up. 

I told my (wonderful) therapist recently that I couldn’t find time to do all the things I need. I had already edited out of my life so many things I liked or valued but just couldn’t keep saying yes to without exploding; why hadn’t that solved the problem? She asked if I’d considered not trying to do every important thing every day. Maybe some things are weekly, she suggested, or monthly. 

Around this time, I also discovered that I can do about one thing a day before my body starts throwing stressed-out signal flares. I had to say this out loud to realize its truth, and then I had to figure out what I actually meant by it. 

Every day, I get out of bed and perform the rituals of bathing and dressing. I do some kind of contemplative practice, I do whatever my current project is, and I walk or I dance. Most days I also work (tech Monday through Friday, writing Saturdays and Sundays.) I’m doing, by a conservative estimate, at least five things. 

Outside that baseline, I’ve got one free square in the middle of the day’s game board. So if I want to draft an essay, or submit poems, or volunteer at my library, or have dinner with a friend, or go to the DMV to renew my drivers license—that’s my One Thing. 

So I made some lists. First, every activity I require and/or value. Then I crossed some of those out. What could I edit? I did. (Now I just have to stick to it.) 

Next, I placed those activities into four columns: Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Yearly. (Very quickly, I started writing this out as DWMY.) Daily is my baseline. I make time for each thing on the Weekly list at least once a week. The idea is the same for Monthly and Yearly.

  • Weekly includes items like writing sessions, naps or baths, housework, email correspondence, movie nights, errands and incidentals. Yep, those are all things I used to try to fit in daily or every other day. 
  • Monthly is for volunteer work, therapy and discernment time, silent “sabbath” days (see my 2020 goals, above), manuscript development, submitting individual pieces for publication, outings with friends, seasonal projects, less frequent incidentals like medical appointments, and freelance writing pitches or assignments. I was previously trying to do most of these every week. 
  • Yearly is things like theater, travel, craft workshops, personal or writing retreats, and social visits with out-of-town friends and family. And yes, you guessed it, I was trying to fit all of these in much closer to monthly. 

I’ve been practicing with my DMWY list for about a month—half of which I spent on vacation; that part doesn’t count. So I don’t know yet how effective a tool it will be. I do know some important things already, which suggest this can help me both to control The Scatter, and to work effectively and joyfully toward my 2020 goals. 

First: when I’m feeling The Scatter, I can know that I am doing enough, and doing good things, if I put a mental checkmark by my Daily baseline items, plus one item from my Weekly, Monthly, or Yearly list. This is already helpful, although it’s going to take time to accept that I may simply get less done. Which is ok. 

Second, when I’m feeling exhausted, or having a lot of stress symptoms, I look at my lists: how many extras did I take on today? Yesterday? How does the week ahead look? Soon I’ll be able to ask myself things like: What’s my pattern this month? If I’m feeling unbalanced, I’ll be able to look at my lists for Weekly or Monthly items I’ve been neglecting.

Last, and perhaps most importantly in the long term, DMWY builds unscheduled free time into my day, and reminds me that such time is crucial. Building a valuable day around Baseline+One Thing means there’s almost always time left over. In the past few years I’ve tended to fill that uncritically in the moment: an hour of writing here, a half hour catching up with online articles there, an extra errand, a cat nap, bouts of Twitter. And still I felt I was “getting nothing done.” DMWY has already helped me identify what I truly need and want to accomplish, and set limits on the daily exercise of that accomplishment based on experience of my own traits and limits.

The rest of my day? That’s for play. For “boredom,” which is great for creative life. For refusing to define, or schedule, or quantify or try to “use” every minute of my time.  

I am, of course, capable of doing more than One Thing, and many days demand it. Life is complex and doesn’t often cede authority to my personal plan. But the limit of One Thing is just true for me, and hard-learned. DMWY is an experiment: (how) can I best align my actions and values and limits, and accomplish what’s most important to me in the short and long term? I imagine this will take time. And In spite of my regular feelings to the contrary, I have nothing but.  

***

*I just said something possibly wise and possibly crap about your life as your art. I guess now I get to find out which adjective applies. 

**This is going to sound a lot like another 2020 goal. I don’t think of it that way because I started it in 2019, but keep reading and see if it doesn’t just dovetail right into my Official 2020 Goals. Calendar years aren’t objectively real anyway.  

On Creativity and Insomnia

So… I don’t think I’ve had a true week of good sleep since my birthday.

(Which, in case you don’t already have it on your calendar, was in the beginning of November.)

There was some Life Stress stuff on the weekend prior to my birthday, followed by me drinking the first cup of coffee I’d consumed in god knows how many years (and eating a pile of candy for the first time since going off sugar) then not sleeping for most of the entire night.

And I kept trying to catch up, to give myself plenty of time for rest and do all of the good sleep-hygiene things that I already know all about, and things kept happening and sleep kept not happening.

Not every day, thank goodness.

But at least once a week.

At this point I’m half-asking myself whether I need to buy a new mattress or an entirely new bed, because I know enough about how CBT works to understand that I’ve started to associate my bed with not sleeping—and because my silly internet foam mattress has started to develop a hip-shaped depression in the center of it anyway, a year or so after the 100-night grace period has worn off.

And then I go sleep on the sofa, which is still as firm as the day I bought it.

(I cannot tell you how much I love my sofa; how the minute I sat down on it at the furniture store I was all this one, no other sofas need apply, and how I’m literally writing this post from the sofa right now.)

But the reason I’m telling you about this now, after roughly two months of watching my Fitbit sleep score drop from the high-80s to the mid-70s, is because not sleeping is starting to make it harder for me to make things.

I’m still getting all of my work done, of course; that’s something I’ve always been able to do. I’ve written articles from planes and buses and emergency rooms and beds and sofas. I was completing freelance work the day after I got hit by a car. I’ve also got enough buffer in my schedule that I can time-shift stuff if I really need to step away from work for a day or two.

But the fiction-writing side of things is getting more difficult.

In part because I’ve been taking the time I’ve set aside for my own work and using it to take naps. (Which I know can mess with your circadian rhythm, I own Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep and refer to it frequently, and I only nap in the early part of the afternoon.)

So my new goal is to get myself rested before this Writer’s Winter Break next week, because I spent most of the Maggie Stiefvater writing seminar I took last year absolutely exhausted (I was in the process of shutting down The Billfold, which was not “conducive to sleep”) and I don’t want to feel like I’m not fully myself while I’m there.

Wish me luck. ❤️

Goals (and Anxieties) for 2020

Soooooooo… I feel like I ought to share my goals for 2020, because that would be the correct thing to do on my first post of the new year, but some of my goals are so fresh and so tender that I don’t want to make them public quite yet.

Here’s what I can share:

You already know that I want to finish drafting MYSTERY BOOK, and not just “in 2020” but “as soon as possible.” I’m 39,570 words in, with maybe 15,000 words to go.

The trouble is that I’m at the part of the story where all the pieces are coming together, which means I need to think about each individual move as carefully as if I were playing a sokoban game—and this means I can only write about 500 words at a time before I have to stop and think about the next move for 24 to 48 hours. (This is also how I beat Cosmic Express, if you were curious, and how I’m currently tackling Sokobond.)

But writing the BIG SCARY SCENE with the CAR and the DANGER was fun, and no that isn’t a spoiler because what is a cozy murder mystery novel without a BIG SCARY SCENE where our amateur detective is trapped with THE PERSON WHO MIGHT BE THE MURDERER but PROBABLY ISN’T because THERE ARE STILL 15,000 WORDS TO GO?

In terms of freelancing and budgeting and all of that: I set up my 2020 budget under the assumption that I would have another six-figure year—which seems likely, based on my current workload and projections—but also gave myself plenty of room for adjustments if things change. Personal expenses are still capped at an average of $2,500/month; I put a lot more (theoretical, unearned) money in the business column this year, but those are all expenses that can be cut if necessary. Fewer conferences, less money on professional development, and so on.

The real question—the one that is occupying my brain when I’m not thinking about how murder mysteries get solved—is whether I’m going to try to hit Disneyland Paris or Tokyo Disney in 2020. I keep running the numbers on what it would take to do a business class overseas flight on points, and I don’t think that’s going to happen, and part of me isn’t even sure this summer is the best time to take an overseas trip, and I know that if I do visit Paris or Tokyo I really need to combine that with a visit to see friends and relatives who live on either the East or the West Coast (depending on which park I choose), and then of course I keep reading (and writing) all of these articles about the environmental cost of international flights.

But I still want to visit every Disney park in the world. Sooner rather than later, because I don’t believe in “someday.”

Even if I don’t add a new Disney park to my tally this year, I do want to take a for-serious, two-weeks-in-a-row vacation—even if one of those weeks is a staycation where all I do is watch movies and bang on my piano and read books. (I had a few days to myself this holiday break to do exactly that, and they were wonderful.)

Also that writing retreat that I’m attending in (*checks calendar*) SIXTEEN DAYS. I should not be worried about this, it is supposed to be a retreat in which I can spend serious time improving my writing, but I keep thinking about the part where I’m going to get to take classes with Meg Wolitzer, and how I won’t be able to think straight because all I’ll want to do is tell her how much The Interestings meant to me—I mean, my eyes literally filled with tears just typing that, and I am not the crying type.

Also I’m worried that everyone else is going to be cool and artsy and really good at wearing scarves, and I am going to wear the same utilitarian striped dress that I bought five of so I could take them on book tour (because it’s going to be Florida in February and those are the clothes I have for that weather), and I know I shouldn’t worry about it because it doesn’t matter and I look great (or at least good enough) in that dress.

But still.

Wow, I didn’t realize that retreat was sixteen days away until ten minutes ago.

Better get back to drafting MYSTERY BOOK. ❤️

From 2009 to 2019

I knew I wanted to write a post summing up the previous decade, and then I decided to let the past ten years of creative work sum things up for me.

So… here’s one link (and in one case, two links) to represent each year. Some are music, some are words, some you’ve probably seen before, and some you probably haven’t. Not every link leads to something I created during its respective year (the first link is actually a Billfold article from 2014, for example) but every selection tells a true story about something that happened during that year.

Here we go.

2009: I saved my first $10,000.

2010: I got out of debt and bought a guitar.

2011: I helped put together a They Might Be Giants tribute album.

2012: I moved to Los Angeles for love and music. (Neither worked out.)

2013: I moved to Seattle for love and money (one of them worked out) and began writing 5,000 words a day for all kinds of freelance clients, including The Billfold.

2014: I got to perform in Molly Lewis’s original musical Thanksgiving vs. Christmas.

2015: I began writing The Biographies of Ordinary People.

2016: I got out of debt again.

2017: I moved to Cedar Rapids for family, community, music, and money.

2018: I tried running The Billfold (it didn’t work out). I also bought a piano.

2019: I had my first six-figure year as a freelancer.

Here’s to the next decade. ❤️

This is technically “2010 vs. 2019” because that’s how far back my Apple Photos go. It still counts.

Another Novel-Writing Update, or “Why Did I Think I’d Be Able to Finish This Draft During the Holidays”

So… I am pretty sure I won’t finish MYSTERY BOOK by the end of the year.

First because I followed the Lee Child method of letting the characters tell me where they wanted to go next, which unlocked a new subplot (which is a good thing because I really wanted this book to be closer to 70K words than 50K).

Second because there have been several days in which I’ve chosen to prioritize rest over novel-writing—which actually means I’ve chosen to prioritize other stuff, like client assignments and filling in as a piano accompanist and doing community volunteer things, and then in the time left over I’ve chosen to prioritize rest.

Which, part of me is all “this is the time of year in which people are asked to do a bunch of extra stuff, and here you are doing it, and it’s good to be part of the community,” and the other part is “I have written so many Lifehacker posts about the ways in which our priorities reveal our values, so does that mean I don’t value my MYSTERY BOOK draft?”

And then I remind myself that it took nine months to draft the 90,000 words in The Biographies of Ordinary People Volume 1, and another nine months to draft the 90,000 words in The Biographies of Ordinary People Volume 2, and I’ve been working on MYSTERY BOOK since October 1 and I’ve already got 30K good words. (I had closer to 40K words at one point, and then I chucked a bunch of them out because they led the characters into a corner and then the characters stopped wanting to do things and then I had to open a new doc and paste in only the words I wanted to keep and memory wipe all of the corner-path words from my characters’ heads so they could start making choices again.)

So maybe now really is the time to prioritize holiday caroling at the community center, because MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF YEAR and etc.

But I’ve also got this January writing retreat hanging over me, and although the absolutely eminently sensible thing to do would be to WORK ON THE MYSTERY BOOK DURING THE RETREAT, since the whole point of the thing is to “dive deep into your creative work” and “focus on your manuscript,” the event ends with the opportunity to pitch a bunch of agents.

Which means I feel like I should be in a position to show them an entire finished draft, instead of saying “I’m still working on this.”

Except we’re also going to be workshopping our manuscripts during the retreat, so even if I had a complete draft I’d probably want to rework it after it went through the workshop process. I’m feeling a lot of confusion and stress about this whole “end the experience with an agent pitch” thing, and maybe I should just email the organizers and ask whether we’re supposed to pitch finished work or the stuff we’ve been workshopping for the past week.

I still feel like MYSTERY BOOK is the exact right project for me to be working on right now, because every day that I don’t get to jump into the draft is a huge bummer. (When I was writing that PORTAL FANTASY DISASTER, there was a point at which every day I managed to avoid working on the draft was a relief.)

But I’m pretty sure it won’t be done by the end of the year. ❤️

Yet Another Excerpt From MYSTERY BOOK In Lieu of a More Substantive Post

Because #amwriting. ❤️

(This is one of the sections that doesn’t directly involve any amateur detectiving, so there won’t be any spoilers for the murder mystery plot.)

(Also, you’ll have to read the book to find out what Larkin and her mother fought over. It was a pretty big deal.)

***

Larkin knew that her mother had signed her up for an 8:30 a.m. job interview before the two of them had fallen into their largely un-commented-upon conflict, in the sense that neither of them were really talking to each other except to say the kind of bland, polite courtesies that were intended to assure the other that they were still loved, deep down, underneath all of the anger. They avoided each other in the kitchen and the bathroom, except to say “excuse me” and “thank you for making the coffee” and, as Larkin’s mother had said before Larkin left that morning, “I hope you have a good interview.”

Nothing could be good about an interview that Larkin didn’t want, for a job she didn’t want, at a time of day in which nobody should actually be working, while wearing an armpit-scented suit that fit so badly that she’d had to loop a hair tie through the buttonhole on her pants. Although her mother had not set any of this up as a result of their fight—if anything, it was one of its instigators—it still felt like a punishment. Larkin was being anti-grounded; told to leave the nest and report to duty and strike out on her own (she couldn’t come up with anything but cliches this early). 

The administrative assistant whom Larkin might be replacing did not offer Larkin any coffee. Instead, she let Larkin sit in a black plastic chair while she fielded phone calls, typed rapidly at her computer, and kept the copy machine continuously running. Larkin wondered if she was even qualified to take over this woman’s position, even for two months. She could type fast enough, but she hadn’t touched a phone that wasn’t attached to a pocket-sized supercomputer in years.

And then she was called into another office, and introduced to a couple of people who said nice things about her mother, and asked why she was interested in the job.

Larkin wasn’t expecting this question. Well, she was expecting it at some point, but not right out the gate (cliches, again). She was supposed to tell them a little bit about herself first; set the room at ease with stories of her ambition and competencies. Instead, she said “Because my mom said I needed to get a job.” 

“You know this is just a short-term position,” one of her interviewers told her. “To cover a twelve-week maternity leave.”

“Yes,” Larkin said. “That’s why I’m interested in it.” Good. “Because I don’t want to do this kind of thing forever.” Bad, bad, bad. “I mean, I’m currently working on my dissertation.” Better? Larkin tried to recall how her interviewers had been introduced. She realized that none of the people at the table were faculty; that they were all administrative assistants and HR associates who might very well want to do this kind of thing forever. 

“Larkin, can you talk us through your resume? Have you done administrative work before?”

Larkin had been ready, when she came in, to say something ease-setting about how anyone could make photocopies, and how she’d made plenty of them when she was working for various theater directors  in New York. Now she was pretty sure her name-dropping wouldn’t impress and her joke wouldn’t land. “I haven’t worked the kind of admin job that’s behind a desk,” she said. “I’ve been an assistant director and an assistant stage manager, both of which require a substantive amount of support work including taking notes, typing and distributing those notes, making copies, running errands, and so on. But no, I have not had a job like this before.” She added, as convincingly as she could, “I am eager to learn.”

 “Well, we were hoping to get someone with a little more experience,” another interviewer told her, “but your mother said you were as sharp as a tack.” (Apparently everybody thought in cliches at this time of day.) “Of course we’re interviewing a few other people”—and Larkin knew she hadn’t gotten the job—“but we’ll let you know.”

They stood, Larkin stood, hands were shook, smiles went all around. Then Larkin was escorted outside, into a brilliantly warm October day, the air like a thousand Post-It notes clinging to her skin. It was 8:52 and she had no idea what she was going to do with herself—for the next ten minutes or, if she was honest with herself, the next ten years.

Then she heard a familiar voice call her name.