A Living vs. A Life

Earlier today I was having a conversation with a new acquaintance about writing.  He asked me, “Do you write?”  A seemingly simple and straightforward question.  But I found this to be interesting for what he didn’t ask…

He didn’t ask, “Are you a writer?”  These two questions are different forms of the ubiquitous, “What do you do?”  The first questions action, the second questions identity.

Somewhere along the way “What do you do?” became a question of identity rather than a question of action.  We started responding, “I’m an actor,” “I’m a lawyer,” “I’m a data entry processor.”  But none of these really capture our true selves, nor do they suggest anything more outside of vocation.  We let ourselves be confined to one dimension.

What if “What do you do?” became a literal question.  If it’s true that actions speak louder than words, then reflecting on this question might paint a more interesting and detailed image of ourselves.  We are multidimensional creatures.  We are more than our vocation.  We are depth that cannot be captured in a single word or sentence.

“Are you a writer?” implies a confining definition, whereas “Do you write?” leaves room for a more intricate, multifaceted identity.  “Are you a writer?” is a box to contain, and “Do you write?” is one part of a greater whole.  When we identify ourselves as something, that’s usually where it ends.  We’ve limited ourselves to that definition.

I had a college writing professor who encouraged us not to limit our identity to being writers, but place writing alongside other aspects of our whole selves.  It involved placing less emphasis on what we do–or want to do–for a living, and more on what we do to live.  “I’m a fisherman who practices law.” “I’m a coffee-enthusiast who teaches high school.”  “I’m a father who writes poetry.”  Being a writer (or anything else, for that matter) need not be a confining, limiting identity; it can be an additive one.

So when asked a broad question of identity such as,
“Are you a writer?” or “What do you do?”

I would challenge us to respond:
“I’m a ___ who ___.”

What do you see are the differences between “Do you write?” and “Are you a writer?”

How would you define yourself differently than you may have been defining yourself in the past?

How does changing the way we define ourselves to others change the way we see ourselves?


Six-Word Memoirs

Applying for another job today, and part of the application process is having to come up with your six-word memoir.  Genius!  Love the idea, but I’m overwhelmed by having to compress myself into six words.

What would your six-word memoir be?  I need some inspiration here!  Such a great challenge…

What I Didn’t Say on My Job Questionnaire

I applied to a job sometime last week and received a follow-up questionnaire via e-mail asking some basic interview-type questions.  One of these questions is one we get all the time in interviews: Where do you see yourself in 3-5 years?

I was immediately frustrated–nay, infuriated.  I might have had a different reaction straight out of college, when I was still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but today is a different horse altogether.  Here is what I didn’t say:

How unfair is this question?!  I mean, obviously if I get this job, I’ll picture my life a lot differently than if I’m still stuck in a dead-end job.  Here I am, scraping by, barely keeping myself afloat, and you want me to construct some fantasy life that I may or, most likely, may not be living in 3-5 years?

Let’s go back 3-5 years from today.  Did I picture myself living in my hometown, having spent half of my time since graduation unemployed and the other half of the time earning barely a poverty-level income?  Absolutely not.  I had huge dreams.  I wanted to go to grad school.  I wanted to move far, far away–someplace like Colorado, or Tennessee, or Oregon.  I wanted to be independent, to prove myself as a “real” adult.  I wanted to get married or at least have someone I loved who loved me back.  I thought, least of all, that I might have a job that used my basic skills.

After nine grad school rejections, after moving away, getting laid off, and having to return home broke and with my figurative tail between my legs, after three soul-crushing jobs and the prospect of moving back into the house I grew up in, after all of my friends have spread out to every corner of the world, I have watched each aspect of the dream for my future break apart and disintegrate in front of my eyes.

Needless to say, I have learned that plans don’t work out.  Life is one crazy, chaotic ride, and to think you have any control over it whatsoever is just a joke.  So this job wants me to construct a vision for 3-5 years from now?  Here it is:

I picture myself dating someone, or maybe married, or still single.  I picture myself still in Chicago.  Or, maybe in Nashville or Portland or Boulder.  Or, hell, who’s to say it won’t be Duluth, Quebec City, or Hong Kong?  I picture myself in management or owning my own business or as a stay-at-home mom.  I picture myself as a lottery winner.  I picture myself as a grad student.  I picture myself at church, on my knees, or living in a box, covered in dirt.  I picture teaching, learning, reading books.  Painting, climbing, digging, running, running, running, running…

The fact of the matter is that I’m afraid to picture anything, honestly, for fear of it being nothing but a reflection that will ripple away in the waves.  But, in 3-5 years I sure hope I’m at least happy.

Do you have a vision for your future?  How has a vision for your future not worked out?  How has a vision worked out?

Why I’m So Mad

I am a rule follower.

I wait in line.  I pay my taxes.  I return library books on time.  I don’t interrupt.

Yes, I am a rule follower, and I was raised by a rule follower to be a rule follower.  My whole life has been built around following rules.  If I follow the rules, I’m a good, obedient girl.  If I follow the rules, I won’t get in trouble (on a related note, I have always been terrified of getting in trouble–I got sent to the principal’s office once in third grade for cutting a boy’s finger with a pair of scissors.  It was all a big misunderstanding, but I still remember it to this day and how awful it felt to be unjustly accused of NOT FOLLOWING THE RULES, this specific, unspoken rule being “Do Not Cut People”).  And this is key: I will get what I think I deserve or what has been promised to me for following the rules.

I’m hope you’re following me here.

I don’t speed, I don’t enter doors labeled “EXIT,” I don’t sneak into movies, and I don’t bother people who are on vacation when I have specifically been asked not to bother people who are on vacation.

So I’ve been doing this my whole life.  And as I got into high school, the rules became about my future.  Get good grades and participate in good extracurriculars, and get into a good college.  Get good grades and participate in good extracurriculars and get a good ACT score and write a winner of an essay, and get into a great college.  Study hard in college, graduate with a superb GPA and do an unpaid internship (or several) and get a good job.

But that’s where following the rules have failed me.

So the reason I’m so mad is because I followed the rules.  I held up my end of the cosmic bargain.  I do not have even a sliver of the life I thought I would, and I feel that familiar feeling of injustice–the same one I felt waiting outside of the principal’s office in third grade.

I understand that the world doesn’t work the same as it did a generation ago.  I understand that “life isn’t fair” and doesn’t necessarily adhere to the same rules I do.  But aren’t I allowed to mourn for a future that has died as nothing more than a vision?  Aren’t I allowed to be mad, at least for a little while?

Moving forward from here…

Well, I’ve been a little lax on the blog updates lately.  Life has been a little crazy lately, and in the spirit of my last update’s question, I would like to let you guys know exactly what I did about my bad day(s).  This might also answer the question of where exactly I have been and why I haven’t been updating my blog in the last, oh I don’t know, month or so…

  1. I got a new job. True to my word, I applied and interviewed twice at a big coffee chain last week and by Wednesday, I had a new job.  On Thursday I gave my two weeks notice at my current job.  So, in a matter of about a week, I will be making my transition into what I hope might be a more life-giving job.  Now, I know on paper it might look like I took a bit of a step backwards, but I think it’s actually going to help me a lot in the long run.  I’ll have more flexible hours which will give me more time to research grad schools or teach myself SEO or take more classes at the local community college.  Either way, I’ll have more time to do something that will get me closer to my goals.  I won’t just be sitting in a cubicle, staring at a computer monitor all day long.  I’ll be interacting with people and engaging in things outside of work that are interesting to me.
  2. I’ve been traveling a lot to see friends–this topic could be an entire week of entries by itself.  In junior high, a friend of mine referred to be as being like the center of a Venn Diagram (yeah, we were kind of nerds).  I have always had multiple groups of friends that never really overlap except through me.  Even now, I have my sorority friends, my creative writing friends, my friends who lived in a certain dorm in college, my high school friends (this group is split into several sub-groups), my Oregon friends, etc.  This has been both a good and bad thing, especially since graduating.  The bad news is that they are all spread out all over the country.  The good news is that I get to go to a lot of cool and fun places to see them all.  This weekend I went to Bloomington, Indiana where a creative writing friend is in law school now.  Last weekend I went back to my college town where I got to spend a lot of time with my sorority friends as well as a smattering from some other groups.  Each group of these friends knows a different part of me, and when I’m having bad days like I described in my last post, it’s easy to just keep to myself.  But after spending two weekends in a row with really great people who know me in such different ways, it’s like I’m able to rediscover those parts of myself that they love.  I’m able to come home feeling refreshed and ready for whatever comes next.  I am so appreciative of the people in my life.  I just want to say thank you to all of you out there.  Everyone I’ve talked to has been so supportive of me, especially recently with this blog and the job change.
  3. A brief grad school update–kind of. Going along with my last point, when I was in Bloomington with my creative writing friend it just felt so good to be on a college campus again.  She also pulled a bunch of old projects off of her bookshelf and we spent a couple of minutes going through them and reading old poetry from our peers and each other.  It was just so good to be with someone who knows me as a writer because people around where I live now don’t really know me like that.  Likewise, she was surprised to find out that I was a singer in high school, which is mostly only how people know me here.  I digress, but the point I’m trying to make is that it was nice to rediscover some projects that I don’t even have copies of anymore and to be with someone who knows my writing and is so encouraging about it.

I had every intention of making this a tighter and all-round better written blog entry, but the traveling and interviewing and giving two weeks notice has all taken its toll on me when it comes to stress and sleep deprivation.  But at least I wrote something and at least I’m making positive steps with my life.  So in the interest of keeping my health and sanity in tact, I’m saying goodnight for now.

Bad Days and What To Do About Them

Sometimes I have these bad days.

Today was one of them.  It wasn’t that everything seemed to go wrong, as is the case with most bad days.  It was that I just started to feel so overwhelmed with my beige job, my lack of nearby and available friends, and my uncertainty about the future.  Before I knew it, what started off as a beautiful October morning ended up with me in my car at lunch, tears dripping down my face in despair.

Let me explain.

I like to believe I was created with certain gifts and skills, a uniqueness that I’m supposed to use in order to leave this world a better place that when I started.  I love to write, I love to read and engage intellectually, I love to be organized (though you wouldn’t know this if you saw my room right now), I love to find out what makes people tick, I love to sing and draw and dance and, basically, do anything creative.  I feel alive when I’m doing these things.

At my job, I sit in a cubicle across the room from a window that looks out onto a highway.  My desk is covered in various piles of papers, and I spend about 90% of my day staring at a computer screen and typing in names and numbers.  The other 10% I spend on the phone, most of the time getting yelled at by someone.  Today was different–maybe 70% data entry, 10% yelling telephone people, and 20% removing staples from another stack of paper and separating pages into like piles.  I don’t have much of anything in common with any of my fellow employees (I am the youngest by approximately 10 years), so there are days I speak so infrequently that when I go to ask a question, my voice is hoarse from the lack of use.

Perhaps you can see the problem here.  Simply put, I am doing absolutely nothing all day that excites, interests, or invigorates me.  On these bad days, I am so miserably aware of how dull I’ve become.  I become a shadow of myself, a mere shade of who I want to be.

So here’s the deal.

I can complain about this all I want, but it all boils down to what I am going to do about it.  I’ve spent far too long wallowing in self-pity.  One of the reasons I started this blog was as a form of accountability for what I say I’m going to do, so if I say I’m going to apply to grad school, I’ll actually have to do it because you all will be asking me about it.  I really hope you will help me in this way.

Here’s what I’m going to do:

  1. Apply to grad schools.  MFA Creative Writing programs.  I have put this off for a long time now because I don’t want a repeat of two years ago (aka getting rejected nine times).  But back then I think I applied because I didn’t know what else to do.  Now I realize I really want it–no, more than that, I need it (see my previous entry on the importance of writing).  This community college class just isn’t cutting it for me.
  2. Get out of this life-sucking job and into a life-giving job.  Even if I just get a job at Starbucks, I will at least have some human interaction.  I really want to work somewhere that inspires me and that taps into at least one of the skills I list above.
  3. Cultivate relationships by…
    1. Keeping in touch with old friends.  My friend Christine and I just established a weekly phone call night because we’re so bad at keeping in touch with each other.  She is also a great listener and will do a lot to ground me.  Hopefully I will have some sort of positive impact on her too.
    2. Getting more involved at church.  I realize I may be alienating some readers by dropping the c-word, but the church I just grew up in just relaunched their 20-somethings ministry.  They’re really big on the whole concept of “belonging” right now, and that sounds pretty good to me.

    So today was a bad day.  That sucks.  What are you going to do about it?

    An Introduction: Life Plan B…or C…or D

    Well the weather is beginning to turn.  I’m sitting on my balcony wrapped in a nubby blanket, and the leaves on the tree near me are yellowing.  I really enjoy autumn, but I’m not sure I’m ready for it to be here quite yet.  Autumn is a reminder that time moves on.  Leaves fall, the sun is around less and less, and before we know it, summer will be buried under the ice and snow that we adore so much here in Chicago.  Lately it’s been reminding me, at the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, that time is speeding up, and I need to figure out who I am before I run out of it.

    I graduated from college with an English degree a little over a year ago.  Post-graduation, I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee where I had a job working for an internationally-known sculptor.  For a hectic seven weeks, I wrote press releases, newsletters, and grant requests, edited photos and filmed installations, and traveled across the country taking down exhibitions and meeting with potential buyers and heads of museums.  Seven weeks in, I got laid off.  I didn’t know anyone in the area except my roommate, a college friend of mine who was working as a waitress at the local dive bar.  I spent months unemployed because I found that in Chatt, if you aren’t related to someone, you’re an outsider.  And as a result, no one wanted to hire me.  I was working as an intern for a publishing company, but it was unpaid.  By October, I decided I needed to go home to Chicago.  On Halloween I packed up all of my stuff, drove 12 hours, and moved back in with my parents.

    I remember in high school the media started calling people my age the “boomerang generation” because of the way they went off to college and then, after graduation, moved back in with the ‘rents.  I promised myself that I would be independent, make my own way in the world, and not rely on my parents for everything…and yet here I was, post-college, living in my parent’s guest room.

    I spent a long time looking for jobs, finally landing a temp job doing data entry for a financial firm.  That ended after a couple of months and I was back on the job search.  One of my mom’s friends found me the job I have now doing data entry for a payroll company.  I’ve been at this job for 7 months now.

    My story is like so many other recent graduates out there these days.  Recently, a friend told me she just feels lost.  Like she doesn’t know who she is anymore since she graduated from college.  That is how I have described myself quite frequently since donning my mortarboard.  May 2009 was so beautiful and full of hope.  I was so excited to “begin” my life.  I am baffled by how I got to where I am today.

    I’m blogging about this because I feel like it is a pretty common sentiment among my peers and those going through transition during this awful economic time.  My story is one of thousands out there–maybe even tens of thousands…or more.  I’m looking to answer these questions:

    What is my identity now that I’m not a student anymore? I spent 17 years of my life in the education system.  And I was good at it!  Now I have to develop a completely new skill set, new goals, new outlook on life.  How do I even begin going about that?

    Who am I when I’m unemployed? Or, more applicable to my situation, who am I when I’m unhappy in my job? Our society places so much of our identity on our occupations.  As a result, it has begun to color my outlook on meeting new people or seeing old friends because I know the inevitable question, “What do you do?” or “What are you doing these days?” is going to come up.  I have difficulty finding the energy for it.

    What can I do to make my life more fulfilling? I assumed (naively) that post-graduation I would find a job that had some aspect I enjoyed.  I had this grand image of living in an exotic place, making interesting, creative friends, having stimulating conversations.  It’s not that my life doesn’t have its happy moments, but most of the time, I feel as if I’m just marking time until I become that person I envisioned.  A blog entry I read recently by Michael Hyatt stated that you should be moving towards something, not away from something else.  Right now I am stagnant.  What can I be moving toward?

    I want to hear from all of you out there in similar situations as well.  How are you coping?  What are you doing to make your lives more interesting?  What kind of person to you envision yourself being, and how are you doing making that a reality?

    First, A Story

    Recently, I attended a night out for a dear friend who was about to get married.  I sat on my bar stool and made small talk with a friend of a friend who I had met a couple of times before.

    So, Allison.  What are you doing these days?

    I knew the question was coming sooner or later.  A variation of this comes up nearly every time you meet someone or see an old friend for the first time in a while.  Where are you working?  What do you do?  Or, as this person stated it, What are you doing these days?  This form of the question is popular with my peers, as it leaves room for a non-job, like a graduate program, or, more realistically, for unemployment.  Needless to say in this economic state, the latter is all too common.

    It’s a question that, since college, I have come to dread.  I have applied to grad schools and been rejected.  I have been laid off.  I am a college degree-holder who is underemployed and already on life plan number 12.  I give him my canned answer:

    I work for a company that does payroll for extras in TV shows and movies.

    I hope that he picks up on words like “TV” and “movies.”  It makes what I do sound glamorous…or at least vaguely interesting.   I leave out the basic truth that I spend my days with never-ending stacks of paper on my desk, and I type the information into a computer word-for-word.  Sometimes I calculate payroll.  I answer phone calls from very angry people.

    He says,

    Oh.  What was your major?  Accounting or something?

    I laugh and politely say it was English.  Our snickers are sharp, sarcastic.  I twirl the straw in my drink.  He tells me he’s a fitness trainer at a gym.  I ask him what his major was in school, and his face forms a lopsided smirk:

    Civil Engineering.