The Fat Kids
Here’s what I did during my twenties, rather than going to school for writing: I got a job as a waitress at a diner.
Later, I became a bartender, as well. I’ve also worked as an au pair, a private tutor, a ranch hand, a cook, a teacher, a flea-marketeer, and a bookstore clerk. I lived in cheap apartments, had no car, and wore thrift-shop clothes. I would work every shift, save all my money, and then go off traveling for a while to learn things. I wanted to meet people, and to hear their stories. Writers are told to write what they know, and all I knew was that I didn’t know very much yet, so I went forth in deliberate search of material. Working at the diner was great, because I had access to dozens of different voices a day. I kept two notebooks in my back pockets—one for my customers’ orders, and the other for my customers’ dialogue. Working at the bar was even better, because those characters were often tipsy and thus were even more forthcoming with their narratives. (As a bartender, I learned that not only does everybody have a story that would stop your heart, but everybody wants to tell you about it.)
I sent my work out to publications, and I collected rejection letters in return. I kept up with my writing, despite the rejections. I labored over my short stories alone in my bedroom—and also in train stations, in stairwells, in libraries, in public parks, and in the apartments of various friends, boyfriends, and relatives. I sent more and more work out. I was rejected, rejected, rejected, rejected.
I disliked the rejection letters. Who wouldn’t? But I took the long view: My intention was to spend my entire life in communion with writing, period. (And people in my family live forever—I have a grandmother who’s one hundred and two!—so I figured my twenties was too soon to start panicking about time running out.) That being the case, editors could reject me all they wanted; I wasn’t going anywhere. Whenever I got those rejection letters, then, I would permit my ego to say aloud to whoever had signed it: “You think you can scare me off? I’ve got another eighty years to wear you down! There are people who haven’t even been born yet who are gonna reject me someday—that’s how long I plan to stick around.”
Then I would put the letter away and get back to work.
I decided to play the game of rejection letters as if it were a great cosmic tennis match: Somebody would send me a rejection, and I would knock it right back over the net, sending out another query that same afternoon. My policy was: You hit it to me, I’m going to hit it straight back out into the universe.
I had to do it this way, I knew, because nobody was going to put my work out there for me. I had no advocate, no agent, no patron, no connections. (Not only did I not know anyone who had a job in the publishing world, I barely knew anyone who had a job.) I knew that nobody was ever going to knock on my apartment door and say, “We understand that a very talented unpublished young writer lives here, and we would like to help her advance her career.” No, I would have to announce myself, and so I did announce myself. Repeatedly. I remember having the distinct sense that I might never wear them down—those faceless, nameless guardians of the gate that I was tirelessly besieging. They might never give in to me. They might never let me in. It might never work.
It didn’t matter.
No way was I going to give up on my work simply because it wasn’t “working.” That wasn’t the point of it. The rewards could not come from the external results—I knew that. The rewards had to come from the joy of puzzling out the work itself, and from the private awareness I held that I had chosen a devotional path and I was being true to it. If someday I got lucky enough to be paid for my work, that would be great, but in the meantime, money could always come from other places. There are so many ways in this world to make a good enough living, and I tried lots of them, and I always got by well enough.
I was happy. I was a total nobody, and I was happy.
I saved my earnings and went on trips and took notes. I went to the pyramids of Mexico and took notes. I went on bus rides through the suburbs of New Jersey and took notes. I went to Eastern Europe and took notes. I went to parties and took notes. I went to Wyoming and worked as a trail cook on a ranch and took notes.
At some point in my twenties, I gathered together a few friends who also wanted to be writers, and we started our own workshop. We met twice a month for several years and we read one another’s work loyally. For reasons that are lost to history, we named ourselves the Fat Kids. It was the world’s most perfect literary workshop—or at least it was in our eyes. We had selected one another carefully, thereby precluding the killjoys and bullies who show up in many workshops to stomp on people’s dreams. We held each other to deadlines and encouraged each other to submit our work to publishers. We came to know each other’s voices and hang-ups, and we helped each other to work through our specific habitual obstacles. We ate pizza and we laughed.
The Fat Kids Workshop was productive and inspiring and fun. It was a safe place in which to be creative and vulnerable and exploratory—and it was completely and totally free. (Except for the pizza, yes, of course. But, come on! You see what I’m getting at, right? You can do this stuff yourself, people!)