Paying the Bills
What do you do when there seem to be no options?
Posted Jun 11, 2018
Freelance writing didn’t pay the bills, so, as a former lawyer, I applied for law-related jobs in the early 2000s. At first I looked where I had experience: law firm marketing.
I thought I should write more, publish more, but it’s hard to be creative while you’re scratching for roots and berries. I considered my options. Not stock options.
A headhunter called to see if I wanted to be marketing director of an 800-attorney firm. I flashed to my former all-consuming law firm life. I remembered asking a partner at a 1,000-lawyer firm, “Who will decide which projects take priority?” His reply: “No one. We have 400 partners, all equal. We are 400 kings.” I knew what it was like to have so many sharp, silver-tongued kings each insisting I do their work first.
I found an ad for a position that paid a quarter of what I’d once earned, but it would pay the bills. At the interview, the managing partner turned to the marketing director and said, “Why don’t you tell Laura what a typical day is like.”
“You’d work nine to twelve hours a day,” she smiled. “But you’d have some weekends off.”
The partner swiveled to me smiling. “How does that sound?”
“I don’t think it would be a good fit.”
He stood up and marched out of the room without a goodbye.
I applied for the next mid-level law firm marketing job that came to my attention. The 28-year-old HR manager insisted I take a spelling and vocabulary test. Didn’t you read the pieces I sent you, written for law firms superior to yours? I withdrew my application.
I had many irons in many fires. I was taking the CBEST (California Basic Educational Skills Test) exam later that week to be a substitute Spanish teacher. No experience required. I’d have to learn algebra and trigonometry in the next three days, a little rusty after 40 years.
“If a truck can carry 5/6 ton of coal and Mary needs 34 tons by Thursday and lives .3 miles from the mine, how many miners will she have to make love to in the next two days?”
We’d moved so many times while I was in elementary school, I was weak on weights and measures. To this day, I’m unable to convert a recipe for six to a dinner for two and am forced to live on take-out food.
Meanwhile, I applied for another law-related job. This time as a trial consultant.
"We’re opposed to the death penalty," said the two 50-year-old members of the National Lawyers Guild, a lefty organization from the sixties.
"About 40 percent of our cases involve selecting juries for defendants in death penalty cases. We take a salary cut to support these cases where defendants can’t pay.”
My close-minded mortgage company didn’t take death penalty scrip.
"It’s very stressful when there’s a trial. Dates constantly change, several jury selections ending up on the same day in different cities. It can drive you crazy."
"I’m looking for a part-time job," I was foolishly honest. "So I can continue my writing."
"This is more than a full-time job. You won’t have time for writing."
"Does it feel like a lot of pressure to choose a jury in a death penalty case?" I asked over lunch.
"Four of my clients received the death penalty last year. It was stressful."
The job interview consisted of ten hours of reading transcripts, opening and closing statements, watching videos of mock juror deliberations, then two rounds of being peppered by staff questions.
They’d worked on this case for months. I’d had 45 minutes to digest it.
"I tend to be a thoughtful person," I confessed. "I work best when I have time to think things through."
"You won’t have time for that!" they informed me. "Sometimes you’ll have four defense attorneys arguing about whether to accept a juror and you have to decide on the spot. Yes or No."
I can’t even decide what to have for lunch. Like being a law firm marketing director, this might not be a good fit.
Nevertheless, I needed money, so if I got the job, I felt I couldn’t say no, though I felt that was the right answer.
They saved me the trouble. To paraphrase their letter: We had many applicants with experience. You weren’t one of them. I looked up at the ceiling and mouthed, "Thank you." Simultaneously: What? A form letter?
I took the CBEST exam (I always finish what I start) and thought math was the easiest part. There were right answers. Reading comprehension was murky (no answers exactly on point). The only part I felt confident about was the vocabulary. Eschew. Gazoontite.
My second essay on the writing test was so good I wanted a copy so I could send it out for publication. This was just the beginning of the fast-zoom-instantaneous age. “What’s something in modern society you would change?”
I wrote: In a world where faster is equated with better, consider slowing down. We’re driven by a cultural sense of urgency, which is often not supported by the facts. A 37c stamp won’t do; send it priority overnight for $15. Or email or fax. We require instant communication. Instead of leaving a telephone message, track someone down to their cell phone, often intruding on them and others.”
Then I talked about how good I felt when I slowed down, lived in the rhythm of time. Leaves bud, leaves fall. At the Farmers’ Market, it was the season of tomatoes: Early Girls, Cherokee Purples, Beefsteaks, Striped Marvels, Zebras. How I admired the different tastes, sweet and acid. And the colors: red, orange, yellow, green.
When I slow down, I said, I am present. I appreciate the moment. My relationships with people are deeper. Centered, when speed is required, I am ready to respond.
I re-inventoried my assets. My safety deposit box might be empty, but I had a file drawer full of stories. I began to send them out, built relationships with editors. I gained traction as my writing appeared in magazines and newspapers, my commentary aired on public radio, my essays were chosen for anthologies. And I began teaching. Writing, not Spanish or law. It began as a way to earn money, but I found I loved passing on what I knew and helping students experience the healing, insight and pleasures that writing could bring.
As the economy improved, I took on some communications projects, one at a time, right-sized.
I hadn’t completely lost my edge, my drive, my dreams of Tuscan villas and bountiful bank accounts. Some days I heard the Siren Song of the New York Times Best Seller List. But it was no longer blind ambition. Swimming upstream without thinking is good only if you are a salmon.
Prompt: What's something in modern society you would change?
Copyright © 2018 by Laura Deutsch