Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why I Told My Daughter to Quit Her Job

My daughter called me last night to celebrate her news. “I got the job!” she said. “I'm going to be decorating cupcakes!”

I cheered. My daughter earned an honors degree in Natural Resources from a major university this past May. This is the happiest I've heard her sound in months.

You think that you know where this blog post is going: oh, no, another parent bemoaning the fact that our nation's newly minted college graduates can't find decent jobs! And why wouldn't you think that? New books like Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest are rolling off the presses daily to explain the “shocking truth” behind the fact that 5.9 million people between the ages of 25 and 35 are now living with their parents.

But you would be wrong. This is a very different rant.

My daughter is the poster child for why college matters. She went to a decent suburban high school, finished in the top quarter of her class, played varsity sports. Attending a State university allowed her to continue expanding her intellectual and social horizons. She worked closely with researchers in Natural Resources, learned Spanish, studied and worked abroad, explored electives that enriched her perspective. She continually added to her resume, too, always building toward her post-graduation dream of working as a scientist.

She did everything right, and lo and behold, the system worked. She landed a job with a West Coast environmental engineering company that paid her more money than she had ever dreamed of making right out of college. Hurray!

Slowly, though, things unraveled. My daughter loved living near San Francisco, but even on her hefty salary, she could only afford an apartment in a dire section of Oakland, which led to her being caught in the middle of a mini gang shootout. (She has a nasty bullet wound on her car to prove it.) Meanwhile, her spiffy new job bored her, and her bosses were often negative, even mean-spirited.

For months, she stuck it out. Her student loans were about to kick in and this job paid double what any of her friends were making, plus benefits. As time passed, though, my sunny girl grew more despondent. Every day, she dragged herself into work. And, every day, things didn't get better.

She started looking for work. In California, the unemployment rate is dire—11.3 percent, compared to 8.6 percent nationwide as of November 2011. One of her job interviews for a coffee company required four different interviews, plus test taking. My daughter got the job and was thrilled, especially because the position includes health benefits. But the pay was abysmal: minimum wage.

Did she really want to leave her posh job for minimum wage? How could she—a driven student, a hard worker, a young woman who had always set goals and reached them--possibly justify making that leap?

There wasn't any rational reason for her to quit. But there was every emotional reason to do so.

“Life is too short to be miserable for money,” I told her finally. “Just quit. Take the barista job and figure out something else while you're making lattes.”

I can hear the gasps of horror from most parents out there. How could I advise my daughter to join the ranks of the marginally employed, after our family invested so much into her college degree?

Easily. College, you see, is not really about preparing you for the job market. It's about gaining the knowledge and skills you need to seize opportunities—and that includes knowing when to walk away from something that makes you unhappy.

There's a lot of talk these days—well, all days, I suppose—about what good it is to get a liberal arts degree, what majors are most likely to lead to the best-paid and most stable careers, and the importance of building your resume while you're in school so that you have an edge when it's time to enter the almighty job race.

That's all true, mostly. Obviously, you have to eat. But maybe the goal of college shouldn't be so closely linked to employment. Actual life isn't that different from the game of Life, in the sense that there's a point where at the start we all have to choose the college path or the career path. You can earn the same money either way, and the same good (or bad) spins on the dial can send you into a tailspin of debt or misery: illness, accidents, divorce, tornadoes taking your house. College is no guarantee that you'll be rich, or even middle class. In fact, there are some arguments that suggest technical training is a better bang for the buck.

(A handy example: my younger brother never finished his four-year college degree, yet he makes ten times more money than my other brother and I do, and we both have master's degrees.)

College, if you're lucky enough to get there, is really about figuring out your friends and your values as well as your dreams for the future. Nobody—well, almost nobody—finds a top-paying position right out of college. Most of us have to pay our dues and climb a dozen different career ladders before we find one that has rungs we can reach--and a place at the top with a view that suits us. If you land that seemingly “perfect” job with a salary worth boasting about, but then you hate it and are afraid to quit, your wings are clipped. That “safe” job will kill your creativity, drown your enthusiasm, and smother your ability to get up in the morning with a bounce in your step. Why stay?

The answer most people give is “fear.” We've all heard the unemployment statistics.

But let's turn those around. The unemployment rate is high—even upwards of 12 percent in certain U.S. cities. But that means that 88 percent of people have jobs. Can they make a living on their wages? That depends on how you define a “living.” Maybe you don't need a new car, or a car at all. Maybe you can find a seasonal rental or roommates.

Jobs are like college courses. Each one you take teaches you a set of new skills and offers a fresh perspective on life. They aren't meant to be permanent, most of them. They are only stepping stones.

In my daughter's case, the barista job led her to have enough free hours to do what she really loves: draw comics. She's thinking about publishing her comics online. In her free time, she also happened to stop by a new gourmet cupcake store, where she chatted with the enthusiastic owner and was hired to decorate cupcakes and work the counter. Again, it's not much money, but combined with the coffee place, it's enough for her to scrape by. Meanwhile, she has moved out of Oakland and into an affordable room in a house near the beach in Santa Cruz. She's happily experimenting with cupcake flavors and thinking about helping this new business owner with social media and marketing. She is learning something new every day. Life is good.

When you quit a job, any job, it can be terrifying. But it's also exhilarating, as you open yourself to new possibilities. So go ahead. Take the risk. Quit that job, if you hate it. You might surprise yourself.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Did I Hammer a Nail into My Bookstore's Coffin?

I gave myself a book for my birthday this year: my own novel.

It's still tough to admit that I'm self-published, despite the fact that the publishing world is now a Wild West of rogue indie presses and bowlegged cocky ebook publishers firing their Twitterfeeds in every direction.

Perhaps it's tough to admit because I've been a writer for such a long time, always with the goal of having an editor and publishing house to call my very own. In fact, three years ago, I achieved that goal when my first book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir, was published by a division of Random House. It was a great experience. I had a savvy, smart editor; a darling and energetic publicist; and great reviews in all the right places.

After twenty-five years of working in the trenches as a journalist, essayist, fiction writer, and humorist, I had finally succeeded. My career as an author was launched! Hooray for me!

I didn't get a huge advance, but a reasonable one. Apparently, though, the publishing house paid me too much. I still haven't earned back a penny on that advance, despite selling more books than I ever dreamed possible. That was okay, though. I figured I could build my platform from there and do better with the next book.

No, no, Nanette. Publishing doesn't work that way anymore. These days, if your first book doesn't earn out, that's probably the end of your career—unless you come up with a Really Big Idea, and hardly anybody knows what this is, except that it probably sucks blood.

Over the next three years, I wrote a series of nonfiction book proposals and two novels. Everything was rejected.

One novel came close, however: Sleeping Tigers is an upmarket women's novel that my agent and I hoped would appeal to readers of Eat, Pray, Love. The book tells the story of a woman who starts her life over after a breast cancer scare. She decides to join her wildest childhood friend in San Francisco and track down her drifter brother, who harbors secrets of his own. And, when her brother flees the country, she follows him to Nepal, determined to bring him home.
This was a book with both plot and emotion. It had to make it, right?

Nope. After rejections from editors who were enthusiastic about many aspects of the novel, but “not getting enough support here to make an offer,” I put that book in a drawer. A really deep drawer: in despair over one particular rejection, I actually deleted the entire book from my laptop after consuming half a bottle of Grand Marnier and a box of dark chocolate truffles while watching that creepy movie, Moulin Rouge.

Unlike my other “epic fails,” as my skateboarding son would call them, however, this novel refused to lie quietly in the dark. I suppose that's because this novel had so much of “me” in it.

Like the main character, I survived early stage breast cancer and felt, as my narrator does, that I carried a sleeping tiger inside me that could, at any moment, wake up and use its claws to tear my life apart. I had lived in San Francisco when I finished graduate school and am still enamored of that city, so I sent the main character there to begin her spiritual and emotional healing. And, because I have two brothers and love them dearly, and because I once spent several months trekking in Nepal, I gave my character a brother and took her on an adventure in Nepal that would change her life forever.

When I reexamined Sleeping Tigers, enough time had passed for me to see it in a cold-blooded, critical way. I understood why the editors had turned it down. There were places where the plot dragged or became derailed by side characters who really had nothing to do with the story. There was some strained, self-conscious writing. Some of the images weren't as fresh or funny as I wanted them to be.

Decades ago, editors might have taken a chance on this book and bought it, then worked with me to rewrite it. That hardly ever happens anymore. Now publishing houses are short-staffed, editors are harried, and money is tight.

After tearing apart the novel and rewriting it, I had to figure out what to do with my new draft. Take it back to my agent? He's currently sending another novel of mine around to publishers, plus I have a third novel nearly complete that I'd like him to send out as well. I didn't want to overload the poor guy.

Plus, having been through the traditional publishing process before, I knew that it would take two or three years after the book was accepted for it to be published. Did I really want to wait that long? No.

Finally, a good friend of mine, Terri Giuliano Long, who self-published her well-received novel, In Leah's Wake—a book that falls into the same basic category of commercial women's fiction as Sleeping Tigers—convinced me to be brave and do the same.

I went on the CreateSpace web site, saw that designing and publishing the book on my own could cost less than taking a class at the local community college, and clicked the necessary buttons. If nothing else, I thought that doing this would be tantamount to giving myself a crash course in digital publishing, social media, and publicity—a course that could be valuable no matter how I publish more books in the future. The reality is that every writer now has to be her own publicist.

Publishing Sleeping Tigers through CreateSpace was easy, cheap, and efficient. The staff was remarkably helpful and willing to stay on the phone for as long as I had questions. The process was as user-friendly as sitting in your friend's living room and drinking tea. Or maybe even Merlot.

Still, when my first box of books arrived—a scant seven weeks after starting the process--I immediately got cold feet. Who am I to think that my novel is good enough to be published? Am I now as pathetic as those street poets I used to see in Berkeley, peddling their sappy, mistake-laden chapbooks for a dollar a copy? And how the hell does a writer act as her own publicist?

To make matters worse, it wasn't until after clicking on CreateSpace that I started to think about my good friend here in town, who owns Jabberwocky, one of my favorite independent bookstores. She held the book launch for my memoir, and it was as grand a party as I could have hoped for; she does an incredible job of hand-selling authors she likes. For many years, Jabberwocky has provided a lively space for readers and writers like me to enjoy each other's company, but Amazon has hit her hard. CreateSpace is an Amazon company.

On my web site, I offer people a button that will take them to the independent bookstore of their choice if they want to buy my book locally. Still, I worry that, by publishing Sleeping Tigers with an Amazon company, I've hammered yet another nail into the coffin of my favorite indie bookstores.

At the same time, I'm thrilled to have this option. The characters in Sleeping Tigers refused to die because they had a story to tell—a story I love, and one that I hope readers will love, too. And, in the end, that's why writers write, isn't it? Not for money or glory—admittedly nice perks--but for this simple reason: we want to share our stories.