There is an old Hollywood adage—or maybe it was Madonna who said it—that people in creative professions should never have another career to fall back on. The idea is that creative work is so difficult that if you have a fallback you'll end up, well, falling back. Lacking any other marketable expertise, you'll instead struggle until near-starvation, as you must, and then eventually you'll get your big break, turn your career around, and become successful enough to coin old adages.
I am not a singer or an actor, but I'm a writer, and so that wisdom holds true for me, too. Also, fortunately, I can afford to not fall back, because I have a sugar daddy—um, I mean, a husband—who pays the bills. But I live in New York, and I need shoes, and so it became clear that until the writing work picked up I needed something else to do. Never keen to ignore advice from celebrities, I had no real alternative skill set to fall back on. Plus, still following Madonna's advice, I didn't want to do something like temp as a law firm file clerk—because I might learn I'm an excellent filer, and then I'd fall back on that talent and never write again. So, instead, like many of my brethren, I did what seemed guaranteed not to provide any potential fallback expertise: I decided to work in retail. This, as it turned out, was a mistake.
Don't get me wrong. Eight bucks an hour is great, although compared to one of my dearest friends' GQ contract, it kind of sucks. Actually, it entirely sucks, never mind GQ, but at least it provides a means of buying things. And that's exactly the problem: Every other Friday you get this tiny paycheck, and you feel like you've actually accomplished something. Which is well and good; I'm all for a positive self-image. If your life's dream is to sell Indonesian-hardwood coffee tables, as I did, then you should feel proud. But if your life's dream is to win a Pulitzer, or an Ellie, or at least some sort of fiction award, you should look at this retail paycheck with scorn. This is what I did not do. I should have berated the paycheck, hurt its feelings. "I don't need you," I should have said. Instead, what came out was, "Sweet, drinks on me." I should have used that paycheck to buy time, made it motivate me to work harder at writing, pitching, and looking for editorial jobs. I didn't.
Because I allowed myself to feel a sense of retail accomplishment—an insidious sense, really, of pride in my work. Plus, the work was sometimes kind of fun. When you add proud to fun, you get a job you don't hate. Before you realize it, you're saying, "This isn't so bad. I could do it for a while." But you must not let retail become a crutch. If you do, you'll find yourself getting dumber. You won't have good story ideas anymore. You'll forget how to spell. You'll no longer be good at Jeopardy! Retail is like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, without the pods or the invaders: You'll look like yourself, but you'll really be a do-you-need-votives-with-that? alien.
The part of you that still remembers your real career will find excuses for why retail is a good place to work. The writing business is often dependent on who you know, for example, and where better to meet lots of people, I justified, than at a high-end-ish mass retailer? There are your colleagues, for starters, who are also trying to be somebody and, maybe, will catch a break before you do and then, when they hear of a position or an assignment will, you know, help a brother out. And there are also the customers, who, from time to time, will actually be somebody, and maybe if you're articulate enough about the throw pillows you'll be remembered and then offered a job you actually want. But these things do not happen. Your colleagues who will help you later? Forget that. As soon as someone manages to escape, they cut all ties to their "retail friends." It's like quitting smoking: The reformed are the worst, and they want nothing to do with their old life. And don't expect much from the customers, either. I always tried to strike up conversations with anyone who seemed like they might be in the biz. I once directed Hal Rubenstein to the closest Blockbuster, and did so quite ably, if I may say so. Six months later, surprisingly I still don't work at InStyle. But I remain optimistic about my chances. And if Rubenstein ever comes back, looking for the nearest Petco, he'll know whom to ask.
The worst thing about retail is the managers, but I even convinced myself that they were a real-career advantage, too. One day they'd be friendly and charming and buy me a caramel cappuccino for opening the most credit cards; the next they'd take me off the schedule or make me cry for asking when I should take lunch. This might sound like a bad thing, but quite the opposite is true. Obviously, rather, it's good training for being a freelancer—dealing with an editor who loves your pitch and then never calls again, having a great rapport with an assigning editor who suddenly decides you're instead a nuisance. Retail, I became convinced, is boot camp for freelancing, and retail managers will give you the thick skin to weather the rejection that comes with trying to share your unique voice with the dozens of people who will read your article in Dog Fancy.
So there I was, settled in. I was enjoying myself, making some money—and had totally forgotten that retail was simply a means to a real-career end. Then I found myself off the schedule. Weeks of nothing. I was depressed, felt horrible, partly because I'd been proud of my paycheck—and was relying too much on the work, and had developed a false sense of being appreciated—but mainly because all that time sitting at home made it impossible to ignore how little progress I had made as a writer. It was an ugly sight. I should have used every moment between retail shifts writing, or at least thinking of pitches. But having a real job gave me the excuse to use downtime instead for rest. I was so hopped up on the discount and the human interaction (a powerful narcotic for freelancers, who usually spend so much time alone), on the daily reason to get dressed and wash my hair, that I thought I was really doing something with my life. But, really, I'd done nothing. Forced to take a good, hard look, I realized I was without both income and story ideas. It was a very unpleasant combination.
I saw the light. In the month that I was home, I sent out more pitches than I had in the previous 18 months. Better yet, I got my story ideas back. My real career, nascent as it might be, is back on track.
And even better, after just enough time to give me the wake-up call I needed, they put me back on the retail schedule. Sweet, I thought. Drinks on me.
Sarah Cavill is a New York-based freelance writer and retail lackey.