and learning to move on, eventually
I don’t remember the exact moment I decided to abandon the career I had been cobbling together throughout my twenties. It was around the time I was laid off from a short-term editorial contract, a contract that had been going well and seemed headed for a full-time job. Online publishing what it is, these occurrences aren’t unusual and hardly personal. My editor was apologetic, and I handled it like I just found out my chosen ice cream flavor at Blue Marble had run out, would I like chocolate instead? I was nonplussed, accepting.
So I looked for work, eventually getting it into my head that editorial was for the birds, and I needed to go directly to the source: brands. A lot of creatives find copywriting distasteful, but for me, the line between copywriting for a brand and writing for a lifestyle site was largely semantics. Both were deep in the same pig shit, as they say in my native Indiana (I grew up in a heavily-industrialized region. I have no idea what I'm talking about).
Rather quickly I got an interview with a luxury brand. Since moving to New York, I only once interviewed for a job, and that was an internship. After that, every job I had I got through connections and chats over coffee. This is all to say, I was out of practice, and by the by, I am a horrible interview. I hate talking about myself (but not writing about myself!), and you could perhaps imagine how well that goes over when asked things like "What are your strengths?" (ughhh) or "Do you like living in New York?" (please no).
Somewhere along the way I decided I could overcome my pisspoor interview skills by just having excellent shoes. I went to Barneys, but the only interview-appropriate shoes in their clearance section were violet suede pumps and hello, it was the middle of summer. Suede! Insane!
My next stop was Bloomingdale’s. I rode the escalator past my usual shoe floor, the one with all of the mid-market stuff; the stuff, on a normal rational day, I could talk myself into buying if it was on sale. No, I went straight to the designer shoe department, hellbent on spending money I did not have.
I told myself it was a reasonable purchase: a pair of pointed toe patent leather kitten heels in a blush nude. They had ankle straps, which meant my narrow heels wouldn’t slip out, and a cut-out design that looked like the Eiffel tower. They were Miu Miu, and far too much.
These were the shoes that would waltz me through an interview and straight into a plush job writing copy for the online sales presence of a luxury brand. They were an investment in my future. The ROI would be phenomenal.
On the day of the interview, I wear a lavender shift from J.Crew and the new shoes. My makeup is restrained; I apply a pink-nude lipstick and a subtle eyeliner flick courtesy of a Youtube beauty guru. In the mirror I like what I see, and leave.
I live in Queens, so there's always a moment of cognitive dissonance when I leave my apartment dressed up like a lady who lunches, and then turn a corner onto a street that, at night, is trafficked by sex workers and lined with tamale carts. My Midwestern inadequacy, fermented by the potent cocktail of Roman Catholicism and a statewide aversion to snobbery, always makes these first few steps out the door feel like dress up, a pantomime. I am not this person wearing these things. You are mistaken.
The 7 train takes longer than usual to come. Then the E stopped in a tunnel for 10 minutes. Then I walked the wrong direction out of the subway for two blocks before realizing my error. Then I got an email from the HR person from the company, asking if I was still coming. Then I ran, terrified, scuffing the patent leather tip of my shoe, up the street and found the office and the line to get on the elevator. I make it into the lacquered office, tell the receptionist I’m here, get ushered to an office, and then I’m asked for my resume.
“My resume?” I didn’t print my fucking resume.
It was a short interview. I had blisters on every toe.
Later, explaining my fateful purchase to my husband was unpleasant; our finances are combined, and we always discuss large purchases. Spending that money was a betrayal on my part, made more excruciating by the fact I never heard from the luxury brand again. My husband is a natural schmoozer; he can talk his way in and out of most anything. For him, interviews are pleasant chats with future peers, not gauntlets that provoke fits of insomnia, despair, and bargaining. We are different people.
After the dual disappointment of screwing up an interview and buying expensive shoes that hurt, I freelanced off and on, but mostly stopped looking at jobs. I was probably a little depressed, and I kept replaying a scene from a short-lived job at a department store that before this had receded in memory: it’s a meeting reminding us to sign customers up for store credit cards. We’d get better hours if we sign up more accounts. Me, being an idealistic idiot, questioned the ethics of pushing people to sign up for credit they probably couldn’t afford for the benefit of saving 10 percent on a single purchase. I was quickly informed that our customers are adults, and if they’re stupid, that’s their fault.
Another sentence would sometimes follow. Something my mom said during my years at a traditional office job: “We work so we can buy crap.” Here I had worked for several years, designing or writing, with the intention of getting people to buy crap. It wasn’t always overt; designing a home feature isn’t specifically pushing product, but it is selling a particular dream: with this house, you too could have this life. See how dreamy it is? See the shiny people? Their marriage isn’t failing and their kids aren’t dicks. If you can’t buy the house, at least buy their coffee table. The dream will unfold before you amidst the objets and art books.
I worked to sell crap and I worked to buy it all. So seductive are images of an effortless life that I fully bought into a world I helped manufacture. I believed by buying expensive shoes, I could have confidence in my work. That things were talismans, ready to bless me with the life I thought I wanted.
After the layoff and the failed interview, I stopped looking at all of it. I ignored blogs and Twitter for almost a month. Magazines piled up and emails went unread. I tore through books --a luxury granted by unemployment-- and found that the desire to be known or just noticed waned. I cared, but not that much.
I don’t think everyone that works in some capacity to move product (a lot of my friends do this--my husband does this!) thinks their customers, readers, or users are idiots. It's too cynical a thought, and most genuinely believe their products make people happy or improve lives. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it never fit my personality. Mine is one that always looks for the flaw, the potential problem, which often came off as criticism for the sake of criticism, or simply a bad attitude. Skeptics and lifestyle blogs don't mix.
Don't mistake me though. I will always be, despite intentions, interested in fussy things like grosgrain-trimmed curtains and clutches shaped like crustaceans. My home will continue to look like the cottage of an 80-year-old WASP, and I’ll wear $26 hot pink lipstick forevermore. But I have finally separated from the need to have the things I like be the things that shape my career.
I'm taking classes now and applying for a grad program that has nothing to do with anything I worked toward in my twenties. When I started this process, I didn't tell anyone. I worried changing careers would be confirmation of every professional criticism I ever received, until I remembered: no one cared. So I didn't either.