I first realized my life had veered somewhat off-course when I was still living in Detroit. Oh, not off-course in a many-broken-marriages, troubling-cocaine-habit sort of way, but still, off-course for me, off-course from my original vision. I remember the moment distinctly. Running through the airport in a pair of the ridiculous heels I choose to purchase, my briefcase and laptop bag weighing my shoulders down, wearing my best black suit and screaming into my blackberry at one of the graphic designers I worked with that NO, I did not want fifteen blank pages throughout the annual report I wrote and he had better fix it by the time my plane landed in L.A. or I would be taking the issue up with his supervisor. Late, I was so late, thrusting my passport and boarding pass at the flight attendant, the last one to board the plane. I ended my call and made my way sheepishly to my seat, with the recognition that somehow, I had turned into an asshole.
I am writing this from my hotel room in Boston, which overlooks the ocean. Lately, sentences like “I’ll try to fit that in between my trips to Boston and New York” fall from my lips like they were always there, waiting to be formed since before I was born.
I wear suits and high heels and carry a cell phone, a blackberry, a pager and a laptop. I talk about the latest health care coverage in the NYTimes, Newsweek, Time magazine. I know how much the cost of health care is burdening our country. I meet co-workers for drinks and dinner at trendy bars and restaurants. I alternately feel overwhelmed and drained from my job, and completely energized and inspired by it. And sometimes, I find myself completely taken aback that this is what my life has turned into.
The most recent example of my surprise came late last week while I was reading a review in Newsweek or the New Yorker of “Burn After Reading,” and the writer likened the two FBI agents in the movie to a traditional Greek chorus and I thought to myself “Wow, I know the purpose a Greek chorus serves in theater. That’s something I actually learned in school.” The other example I remember most clearly occurred while watching the movie “August Rush” a few months ago – the lead characters are both musicians and the male character, whose name I cannot recall, was strolling through the streets of New York on a sun-dappled autumn day, clothed in ragged jeans and a sweater, strumming his guitar. The first thought I had, as though he were actually a real person, was “Wow, I bet he eats a lot of soup, because that’s all he can afford. Soup. I would like to subsist on pots and pots of brothy soup.” My next thought? “That should be me. I should be wandering through the streets of New York City with nothing more than a writing journal, a pen and my own thoughts.”
Even as it ran through my head I knew how ridiculous the thought was, particularly since I know actual artists living in the actual world and they are by far tougher and more determined than I. But every once in a while I find myself struck by the fact that what I was trained to do – that is, first of all, read literature and theory and critique it through the written word and, secondly, to write well, has little bearing on how I spend my work days. Most of my co-workers majored in communications or public relations, two fields I never considered. Going back even further, to high school, I wanted nothing more than to be a Broadway actress, believing I would never find any world more entrancing than one that smelled of the worn leather of ballet slippers on the stage, one that felt like the slip of pancake makeup on the skin, one that allowed me to lose myself the moment I walked on stage, able to forget from the first line an audience was even there. I am not trained, at all, to say things like we are working to elevate the brand and we need some quick wins here, people…let’s grab at the low-hanging fruit.
Perhaps the most surprising thing of all, though, is that despite sometimes working weekends and occasional battles with co-workers and the daily pulling on of the nylons, I adore my job. I actually like sitting down to a conference table for meetings and, if I can run the meeting? Even better. I like brain-storming sessions. I like the travel. I love representing the interests of our physicians and their patients to my boss and more than anything I love the fight I find in myself in this job, the confidence it has given me to always do what I believe to be the right thing, without fearing recrimination. Working in a hospital, being in charge of its public information, has given me more of a backbone and more sheer determination to serve those with cancer well than succeeding in my MFA program or landing a great role in a play ever did. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps all of my writing and acting experience makes me more impervious to criticism than others…all those rejection slips, all those lost acting roles…maybe all the rejection somehow strengthened me and taught me the whole lose the battle/win the war lesson.
One of the reasons I took the job, beyond its allowing me to move to a city I love and work with a boss I admire, was I believed, despite my scorn for PR lady in Detroit, that public relations could be done with intelligence and grace. Certainly, there are many many folks in public relations who give the field a bad name but I believed, and still do, if one remains humble to the field he or she represents and is willing to delve into the complexity behind the messaging, then its a worthwhile endeavor. Lately, I’ve been wondering, too, if an artistry rests behind it. For the last few years I’ve thought perhaps I was losing the true core of who I am to my day job, but lately I’ve realized life is probably long enough and wide enough to incorporate both what I once knew, and what I am learning now. Maybe none of this has to be an either/or proposition – maybe I’ve been looking at it the wrong way all along. Certainly there is room enough in one life for writing literature and writing messaging, for managing meetings and directing plays. It’s simply up to me to find it.
All of what I wrote above is true, but much of it can be looked at in a different light. I wear suits, but I never go a day without spilling something or other on them. I wear heels, but I often get them stuck in the cracks of Pittsburgh’s nebulous sidewalks. I carry a blackberry but I drop it all the time and every single time I do it calls the same local reporter, who thinks I am stalking him. I carry a pager but I never remember what kind of batteries it needs, and I carry a laptop but inside it, along with all my work documents, is 50,000 words of my in-progress novel, numerous short stories, over twenty essays, and an “Ideas” folder for future writing. Also in the laptop, every song Sonny Landreth has ever written. I eat at trendy bars and restaurants but I will always prefer a cheeseburger and french fries to three perfectly situated strips of sashimi tuna over a bed of spaghetti squash. I believe both in the absolute necessity for universal health care and the importance of reading Pride and Prejudice annually. And right now, today, on a gloomy Boston morning, I believe I can at once be both artist and public relations manager, that if my laptop can sustain press releases and poetry, then so can I.