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Paying and Being Paid
Posted By Sarah V. Schweig On March 17, 2010 @ 9:56 am In Academia | 4 Comments
I. What Do People Do?
I’d caught glimpses of them before. Maybe I’d been up very late and into the morning, taking the Brooklyn-bound train from Manhattan and had seen them standing with briefcases on platforms waiting for trains. Maybe I woke bright and early for my hangover, craving Naked Juice and sparkling water from the corner bodega. Maybe I had wild notions of pretending I had a nine-to-five writing schedule so that there would be an end to the thankless work.
They all walked in the same direction with a bounce in their step and cups of coffee in their hands. Because of them, the A.M. New York and Metro New York dispensers that had been magically filled sometime during the night were depleted by noon. Because of them, the trains in the evening were as crowded as summer hives.
Turns out, there’s this whole community of human beings who wake up in the morning, go to work, eat lunch and return home at around five o’clock. Midday, they people-watch while they lunch, they shop and they make transactions at ATMs. Late afternoon, they retreat to the fluorescent cocoons of their offices, and in the evening, like migratory creatures in early spring, they emerge and travel back where they came from, for a run, a shower, dinner and maybe a walk with the dog.
II. When Will It End?
My first week of full-time work, afflicted with existential motion sickness, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and lunchtime was designated solely for weeping, as was the brief window before work, as were the hours following, until, exhausted I dropped off into an uneasy half-sleep. On the third morning before work, caught in the murmurous haunt of commuters, I sat almost doubled over in a chair in Starbucks waiting for the barista to call out my $4 drink when a man rested his briefcase down on the bench beside mine. I was always slightly in the way of these people who moved through space and daylight with the certainty of lethal wasps. I made a motion to shift my tenuously held together waif of a body so as to avoid crowding the man’s hefty briefcase. The man had on a neat tie and a friendly face and motioned to me that I was fine where I was, saying, “You just look so comfortable.”
My stomach turned and my vision blurred as my most recent anxiety attack subsided. How I could have looked at all comfortable, I have no idea, though I suppose mild catatonia could be mistaken for deep repose.
In the window overlooking 17th Street, a mix of cold rain and sleet fell. The wasps, who had covered themselves with parkas and umbrellas and husk-like hoods, zipped furiously by.
“When will it end?” I heard. The businessman was looking at me.
He was continuing the interaction we had tentatively established. This is what people do, I thought, in the mornings before work while waiting in latte lines. When will it end?…When will it end?…Which thing?
I looked at him. “Which thing?” I said.
The businessman laughed. I made the businessman laugh. He replied, with a shrug, “The weather, the economy, everything….”
Then I laughed.
There was a pause. The rain and sleet had turned to only rain and was still falling. He continued, “But we have offices on the square, so when we get depressed, we can go for a walk.”
III. Is it really that simple?
I get coffee. I go to work. In the afternoon, I go for a walk.
IV. But What Would Herman Melville Say?
“Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid,–what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”
V. Why Write?
MFA programs create a set of circumstances that one does not find anywhere else. You have money (lent or granted, most of which you give away to the institution who accepted you), you have a place to live, you have people to talk to who supposedly care about what you care about. This cushy existence might make you think, “How can anyone write—or even exist—without these circumstances granted?” This anomalistic life can cause a web of if-then theorizing about living: If I have a job, I won’t be able to write. If something is expected of me, I won’t do be able to do what isn’t—and only in graduate school will writing be truly expected of you specifically (and maybe not even then). Some programs even go so far as to hold events with titles like “Life After the MFA,” during which a panel of survivors either perpetuate or crush delusions of grandeur.
“The world is ugly, / And the people are sad,” Wallace Stevens writes. It is ugly. The people are sad. How clarifying, then, to remember what the world is and then go from there, because, isn’t the condition of the world and our condition in the world why (if there is a why) any of us are trying to write in the first place?
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