black and white and dead all over

by Shannon

I temp in an office. It is not ideal. It is, however, a new experience. I am learning a lot, though, if you were to ask any denizen of Corporate America, they would probably tell you that I am learning all of the wrong things. Mostly, I have learned that the world in general is made up of about as much bullshit and bureaucracy as I had thought that it was, and also that people’s priorities are inscrutable and generally wrong. Of course, I am not here to rant about my employment, except to say that when I was fifteen and made the decision to dedicate my life to fiction and poetry, my expectations of grandeur and artistic madness may have been slightly premature, and more than a little naïve.

The fact of the matter is that most of us will end up in jobs like this. Of course, I have the obvious complication of having failed to complete my degree, due mostly to my lack of direction and general disillusionment about the reality of adulthood, along with a lack of discipline that I hope to correct, at least with regard to writing on a schedule, by maintaining this blog. So my employment experience is on par with the rest of my age group only because of the awful economic situation. As romantic as is the idea of living off of second-hand cigarette smoke and black coffee, populating coffee shops and laboring obsessively over the next great work of art, realistically, most of us will end up as small-time local journalists, literature teachers, or soulless corporate zombies. If you haven’t realized this, and need to go get your Kleenex, make some tea, or sob desperately into the phone to an understanding and patient counselor, go ahead. I’ll wait.

And then I’ll tell you why maybe it’s not so bad. I mean, take it with a grain of salt, because this isn’t exactly golden advice bequeathed upon you by your Booker Prize winning literary idol. It’s just an idea from an anonymous blogger, a twenty-something with grand aspirations in an otherwise underwhelming reality. But it’s a good idea, I think. You see, as somebody whose recent string of employment has offered almost nothing artistically redeeming, I have taken to viewing the group of people in each place I work as a unique and peculiar cross-section of the way the world actually is. And that’s something that I really need as a writer. If you’re anything like me, you started dreaming at an early age and never really stopped, with the unfortunate result of growing up both jaded and naïve. I am only now realizing that the characters that populate my head may be almost nothing like the ones that I pass in the street, and I can’t figure out if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Anyway, I have found that I can learn an awful lot by studying the cast of characters I interact with on a daily basis. In the past few years, I have learned that The Public, as a unit, is a distinctly unpleasant and nearsighted monster, and that individuals can be very nice, but generally aren’t if they see you as owing them some kind of service, or if you’re in their way. I have learned that there are a lot of selfish people, though most of them don’t do it on purpose. Also, the universe in which I interact with a person might be vastly and incomprehensibly different from the one they exist in during daily life. It’s as if when they walk through the door and drive home, they get sucked through a black hole, into a parallel universe that I might never see for myself. That parallel universe is usually the one in which they are nice, understanding, and friendly. If you’re lucky enough to be invited into it, be grateful and appreciative, and never give them a compelling reason to revoke the invitation.

So what does that mean, exactly? The more I interact with people outside the immediate bubble of literature and art that my friends and I have always hidden in, the more I wonder if my own characters, who might not say what they mean but generally know it and do it, who have understandable motivations and are generally straightforward, are a hallmark of bad writing. Do I really not understand people at all, or have I just spent half of my life in a different, through equally legitimate population? Every writer strives for realistic characterization, but if I find so many people in the real world highly unpleasant, does that mean that I should write unpleasant characters? Or am I, instead, writing about the exception to the rule, the people who trudge through the mire of paperwork and leap through flaming hoops, secure in the knowledge that the reward at the other end might not be equivalent to all the aggravation?

Ultimately, I guess, the more I interact with the grown-up world, the more I can’t help but question: As a writer, am I supposed to be writing about people as they actually are, or the ones that I would rather interact with?

I know that’s not a real question that anyone can answer, but do feel free to chime in.