The Pen Is Mightier Than the Paycheck

The skills and traits I’ve cultivated that have strengthened me as a writer have harmed my capacity to hold down a “normal” job.

As a writer, I have struggled to unearth my individuality as much as possible. To own and know my own voice, my own truth, and to express that truth without hesitation. To be a “good worker,” it often seems, businesses want that voice dampened, compromised, in service to “the team,” “the company,” “the boss”…

I have developed a need to spend long hours alone, to dwell in my own company. To relish silence. Space. I am not expected to want my own space–especially not as a woman. Not as a city-dweller, certainly, especially not to this extent; I very, very rarely leave the house, although New York is teeming with artists, people making and thinking in wonderfully diverse ways. I like my own art, my own thoughts; reading books and articles, listening to music and podcasts, feeds me plenty. On my own terms. I’m accustomed to that freedom. But in most places I’ve worked, I have not been entitled to silence, headphones, my choice of sound.

[One of the small, pointed interactions I had with my last boss centered on this. I was trying to fix mistakes both he and his wife had made on the same project. I was on the third draft of the same damn letter, and at this point I was deeply frustrated. I don’t like getting things wrong, but at this point I knew I’d catch blame for others’ errors. And that it would be blame. So I got serious. I pulled out my headphones so I could concentrate fully, and got to work.

The boss walked back in a moment later. He stared at me incredulously, then gestured. He said, “What’s with the headphones?” so I pulled them off. I told him, “I want to finally finish this project. I really want to get it right this time, so I’m honing in. The headphones help me focus.” He shook his head firmly. “No. That’s antisocial. You’ve gotta talk to people. Besides, you learn things by listening, by osmosis.” So I put the headphones away, burning at his paternalistic tone.

I was beginning to understand this man was more interested in control than reason. Still, I obeyed. Not the hill I wanted to die on. I needed the money, and it wasn’t a huge deal. But shortly after I obeyed his headphones directive, the workers in the warehouse began blasting the worst music, the most Top 40, earworm-inducing, awful pop, loudly, loudly enough to distract everyone in the office. Including the boss, who grit his teeth. I felt him getting angry again; he knew I was right, and he could feel that I knew he was thinking that. But I also knew that this was only going to make him dislike me even more.]

In the offices where I’ve worked, I generally haven’t gotten to choose my own music or not-music. This is one of the subtler ways employers coerce us into surrendering our autonomy. So we follow rules explicitly. Don’t question. Stay subordinate. Subjugate ourselves for the greater good, regardless of our bosses’ hypocrisy. We accept nonsense with a smile.


When I graduated from college, I briefly, disastrously, taught children, then got a job selling books at Politics & Prose, where I’d often gone with my mother as a child. That was a very cool position for me then. I got a whopping 40% discount on books, which I used liberally, in conjunction with my whopping $8/hr. salary (I was living back at home, or DC would have been too expensive for me). All us employees got to read the galleys (pre-release, promotional editions of forthcoming books) that came in, and we were allowed to borrow the books we sold, too, leaving hardcover books’ jackets in the store to keep from damaging them. Even peons like me could check out new releases, as though the store was a library–with the expectation that we’d write staff recommendations to display in the store, if we enjoyed what we read. We were not expected to lie for the sake of sales, happily. Those writings were my first true book reviews.

The one hypocritical store rule was a deep bow to capitalism. We weren’t supposed to read while (wo)manning the register, even when business was slow. We were expected to always have an air of availability to our customers. For the same reason, we weren’t allowed to sit while at the register, which meant standing for an hour or more at a time. These rules come directly from management books that value profit over treating staff with kindness, the same books that recommend putting goodies near the register so customers will grab last-minute buys, or pricing items at $5.99 instead of $6, because it “seems” less expensive… But besides a few rules like those, and the shit pay, selling books was my dream job. I liked my immediate supervisors, a trio of young adults not much older than I was, but more worldly by bounds. Those three were really cool, and I got to be good enough friends with the woman of the three, Kat, that I went on a weekend trip to Virginia Beach with her and a few friends. Kat was fucking bold. She was sharp, and tolerated no bullshit whatsoever. I was totally enamored with her after she told me about a fangirl moment she had with Toni Morrison, where she told the celebrated author, “I know the critics didn’t get it, but I loved The Bluest Eye maybe the best out of all your books.” According to Kat, Morrison looked straight at her and said, “You know, it’s my favorite, too.” I love both of them in that moment, terribly much.

The floor managers were a little young for me to consider them as true elders, though. The real bosses, to me, were the next tier up in terms of age, the workers with seniority and independence, who didn’t have to supervise newbie brats (like I was), who had better schedules, who had read the most, yet carried their intelligence around without being pretension at all. Their knowledge blew all of ours away.

The first of these “village elders” was Mark. Mark could tell you anything about fiction you ever wanted to know, which made him incredibly popular, since most of the clientele of that store was (is) older women who devour fiction. For that reason, Mark was probably the most useful book seller. He was always on the floor, overflowing with energy, guiding people towards little-known imprints, books in translation, overlooked writers worth better attention. Mark knew a ton about all kinds of literature, really, but since fiction is the most popular genre in this country, at least, that was where he did most of his work. Mark was (is) a veteran, and an incredible self-taught cook who adored Mark Bittman, the minimalist of famous chefs. Mark’s easy laugh betrayed a heart that quietly absorbed so much, sometimes too much. I saw Mark sad a few times, and I admired that he wasn’t afraid to show that side of himself.

Deb was another amazing boss. She was deeply serious. Grounded. She was always listening to the conversations that swirled around her, and she heard everything everyone said, everything beneath what they said. Deb spoke very rarely, only when she had something solid and necessary to contribute, and we all absorbed her thoughts with abiding respect. Deb introduced me to June Jordan’s poetry, which I wasn’t ready for then; in the years since, Jordan has won a privileged spot in my canon, and I will always be grateful Deb pointed me towards her writing. In my last post, I said I’d only had one black female boss in my life, but Deb’s also a black woman. I hesitate to call Deb my boss, though. She was kind of an island of brilliance: nobody’s tool, nobody’s hand-holder, never one to indulge others’ desire for a mammy. She sat and held herself close until a fool needed calling out, or needed to be struck by lightning (I got to know Deb better after I left, actually; we drop lines onto each other’s FB posts here and there. Since I’ve come to better claim and understand my own blackness and political self, I’ve only grown to respect her more).

Another boss with no tolerance for idiocy was Laurie. Laurie was also pretty serious–she rarely smiled–but her deadpan humor surfaced unexpectedly here and there. Laurie was the poet in the group, a real poet: I looked her up, and found one of her poems in The New Yorker. It was very tight, clean, glowing. Laurie completely intimidated me. She was small in stature, but she couldn’t have been more intense, and direct. Her full grey and brown hair hung down to her waist, and she went jogging every morning near the zoo. Laurie struck me as having a measure of discipline I rarely reach, the kind that serves writers who have developed it very, very well. She saw the truth of poems and poets so clearly; more than once, she checked me when I wrote reviews on poetry books. She never told me I was wrong, but she probed: “Are you sure there isn’t more to James Tate than jokes…?” And I always came to learn she was correct.

Andras was the music buyer. He knew everything and more than everyone in my entire life knows about music. His tastes were completely eclectic, and he was so, so happy and eager to share them. Andras taught me about many musicians around the world. Really, he was the person that made me genuinely grasp the concept of “world music.” I went with Andras and my parents to a Community Sing at the Strathmore, with Ysaye Barnwell, where she led us all in one of the most spiritual occurrences in which I’ve shared. Andras also took me to an event at the Kennedy Center honoring artists considered to be national treasures; there, Mariza sang fado, a plaster molder from New Orleans talked about his process, and Chuck Brown played “Moody’s Mood for Love.” Andras and I played together, once: I sang Joni Mitchell’s “California” and he played the dulcimer goergeously… That man has the most beautiful, innocent soul–with a hot streak of mischief. He chose the CDs in the store, which gave us a collection so wide-ranging and sophisticated, we could have simply been a music store. We listened to Andras’ CDs at work, and they were always incredible.

Another person who stood out to me, who was in the younger age range but didn’t supervise me, was Holly. Holly handled what we call “sidelines,” cards and small things like magnets, bookmarks, book lights, literary finger puppets… I liked Holly at first because she was queer, probably; I tend to trust other queer people more easily than the cis het, because I know we have our outsiderness in common. And just in talking to Holly, I learned more about queer culture than I’d picked up “by osmosis” in my college years at Amherst, taking several classes at Smith College, not to mention women’s and gender studies classes at Amherst, and a deeply gay class on Almodóvar at Hampshire College, briefly dating a trans boy, and frequently being a flâneur in Northampton (the lesbian capital of the world). Holly taught me just by talking to me about her life. She was the person who taught me about the cycles of gentrification, the complicated feeling of being the members of society that came in with or after the artists, which signaled to other, less bold white people that the neighborhood was now safe–but eventually being priced out, too, just as the POC who lived there first had been. That’s the main thing I remember learning from Holly, but she taught me a lot, just in talking to me. She was always friendly, never condescending, and an excellent, low-key guide for me as I tried to figure out how I was going to make it to California.

Altogether, this collection of genius, strange minds were just what I needed, coming out of college. People who knew the things that mattered about really living life. People who knew the books I needed to read from then on. Their teachings–and their recommended readings!–stay with me to this day.


I’m no good at following for following’s sake, and it’s safe to say I probably won’t develop that capability anytime soon. And the people I respect tend to be the same way. I’d rather be alone in silence, than socializing with idiots and tolerating ignorance. Luckily for me, I’ve enough support throughout my life that I’ve rarely needed to stay in environments like those. Because high-mindedness will definitely get you places–if “places” = “getting fired.”

Those high standards have also gotten me, a fastidious fucking poet, all the way through my second full-length book. Sure, I’m unemployed–but recently, I started planning a reading with my old neighborhood bookstore, Politics & Prose, as an author. Hometown girl made good. I couldn’t be more happy, and proud.

And damn. I sure hope Laurie likes my poems.

One thought on “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Paycheck

  1. I have often found and strong believe that ‘fools’ are an important part of my life. They serve as a reminder of what I NEVER want to be.


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