I met today's guest, Sandra Beasley, back at the start of the year, after a session at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Chicago. Sandra is the author of two poetry collections: I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize (selected by Joy Harjo, forthcoming from W. W. Norton), and Theories of Falling, which won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. Chance meetings like this make attending the conference worthwhile all by themselves.
In June of this year, Sandra left her job at The American Scholar to focus on writing Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, forthcoming from Crown in 2011. Recently I asked if she'd post something here about the big step, which so many writers dream of taking, of leaving one life and starting another. She graciously agreed.
Sandra lives in Washington, D.C., where she periodically contributes to the Washington Post Magazine and serves on the Board of the Writer's Center. After reading her piece below, come on back and read three of her poems online at Agni: "My God," "I Don't Fear Death," and "Love Poem for Wednesday."
Let It Rain
By Sandra Beasley
I just snarled at my boyfriend over a piece of fruit. More specifically, my last banana, which he tried to claim for his lunch. “I’ll buy you another one,” he promised, and he would. He’s good that way.
The problem is that I’d wanted to eat that banana within the hour, and he tends to pick under-ripe produce. So I’d end up running to Safeway myself, which means getting dressed and stepping outside. At which point, I’d remember oh! the envelope I need to mail and oh! the birthday card I need to buy for my mother and oh! I need to make photocopies of an essay and oh! I’ve got a 3 p.m. coffee date—might as well head over early with this copy of Real Simple and read until she gets there.…
“Don’t mooch,” I snapped at him, with the ferocity of someone defending no mere piece of fruit, but hours worth of work. That’s right: the act of putting on pants can derail an entire day’s productivity. Welcome to the life of a full-time writer.
You know the drill. When someone asks what you do, you trot out whatever workhorse pays the rent—in my case it was “scholarship coordinator,” then “personal assistant,” then “magazine editor”—before arriving at your true destination. “I’m really a writer.”
This elicits a respectful head nod or, if talking to a fellow writer, a bittersweet shrug. We know the odds. And you swear to yourself Someday, the answer will be, I’m a writer. No hyphenating. No qualifying.
I quit my job. I quit so that for the next year I can live off the combination of an advance on a nonfiction book, periodic freelance gigs, and honoraria attached to two poetry collections. I am a full-time writer with the bathrobe and sparse cupboards to prove it.
Yet the “what do you do?” exchange is no easier than before. The respectful head nod has been replaced by a quizzical tilt. The bittersweet shrug has been replaced by a narrowing of eyes or, worse, a nauseated smile.
“So you, um, you don’t work anywhere?”
“How are you covering health insurance?”
“That’s pretty brave.”
Yes. No. COBRA. Hmm.
It’s not as if I had been deveining shrimp for a living. I worked as an editor at a national magazine of arts and commentary, the kind of venerated place one settles in for a lifetime (literally: two supervising editors had, combined, over 50 years experience on staff). People all around me—including my best friend, including my boyfriend—have been laid off in their professions. Meanwhile, I walked out on a steady income with full benefits and three weeks annual vacation.
Is “brave” codeword for “idiotic”?
But the thing about life’s big decisions is that by the time you make them, you’ve already made them. The day I decided to leave my job was not the day I gave notice to my editor. The day had come months earlier, when I set into motion the events that necessitated my departure. And the roof fell in.
That’s not a metaphor. Passing through the doorway that morning, I had noticed the smell first. I thought I knew all the office odors: the accountant’s gardenia perfume, fake-cherry bathroom spray, fish-and-broccoli lunches. This smell was unfamiliar. Damp.
“Oh, Sandra,” my boss said. “I’m so sorry. We did what we could.”
Wet white chunks of tile covered my workstation. A broken dishwasher line on the floor above had released a torrent that dissolved our pressboard ceiling. Luckily, my computer seemed to be working despite the surrounding wreckage. I swiped the worst of the dust off my chair and did what we all do in moments of crisis—I checked my email.
The life of a modern-day magazine editor is that every morning you have thirty-six unread messages waiting, and not one will be useful. Submissions that began “I know you’re not considering unsolicited poetry, but….” Pitches for books we’d never review. Another query from the Save-the-Manatees people, hoping we’d print their public service announcement in the unsold advertising space of our next issue.
But when I switched to my personal email, there it was: an agreement that would authorize a New York literary agency to sell my proposal for a non-fiction book.
Sign and return, the email requested, as if that was the simplest thing in the world. So why was I shaking? Maybe because I’d said I could complete the book in a year. I’d lied. Or, rather, I’d made a promise while trying to please (pick me! pick me!) without fully processing the consequences. There was no way I could write a book in a year and keep working in this office. Something would have to give.
To distract myself from the looming dotted line, I turned to the water damage. On the table I’d used as my extended desk, towers of paper had melted into one gummy mass. This had been the worst of my job—the repetitive record keeping that haunts any assistant—and now, I’d spend hours regenerating what I had put off filing. But the table held the best of my work as well. Forty books, comp copies I’d collected on everything from political poetry to the Medici Giraffe.
“What better job for a writer, than to be surrounded by books all day?” I could remember telling people over and over throughout the years. Now those books were waterlogged. And as I looked over each handful I dropped into a trashcan, I realized: sure, I’d been surrounded by them. I’d talked about them. I’d assigned some for review. But I’d never had time to actually read them. What I had surrounded myself with was not words and ideas, so much as unkept promises in bright-colored covers.
What better job for a writer? How about the job of…writing?
The contract was waiting for me. Hands and heart moving faster than my head, I printed; I signed; I faxed.
“I’m stepping out,” I said to my officemates. The saxophonist who always hangs out on the corner of Connecticut and Q was playing “Walking On Sunshine.” There were only two-dollar bills in my wallet, but I gave one to him. I bought a Coke with the other and walked the same square block three times, sipping it slowly.
When I returned to my desk, the overly conditioned air raised gooseflesh on my arms. When I am writing at home all day, I thought, I will keep my thermostat at 76 degrees. Then I heard it. A gentle rushing. Maybe the air-conditioner? I pushed back from my desk. “Anybody else hear that?”
Drip. Drip. Drip. I dashed up to the kitchen, where the building manager was twisting valves under the sink. Someone had restarted the broken dishwasher.
“I’ve got a call in,” he said. “But I can’t stop it.”
Downstairs, the staff gathered around my desk. They laid trash bags over my computer and lined up wastebaskets, trying to catch the spray. The spray became a flow, then a flood. The surviving tile swelled and drooped.
An impatient coworker grabbed the nearest prod—my long-handled umbrella—and began jabbing at the tile, trying to coax it down, smearing the pink-and-yellow flowered nylon with white sludge.
“Back off!” I wanted to shout. “Leave it alone!”
But there was no point. Soon this would no longer be my office. Soon this would no longer be my life. In the days ahead, I would come to understand that the free pens and ever-ready coffee had been an impossibly precious gift. I would come to count bananas like a madwoman. And I would be writing. Writing. Writing.
I can’t tell you if I made the right decision, or where I’ll be in a year. Here is what I do know: there’s no such thing as a wise risk. There are only the chances you must take on yourself. No matter the timing. No matter the economy.
Sometimes that means you stand back, and let the ceiling fall where it may.
Read more by and about Sandra at her website, SandraBeasley.com, and check out her blog there, called Chicks Dig Poetry.