Poor Boys: Learning to Name Myself

2016-09-05

One morning a few years ago I woke up to a phone call from my friend Richard.

"I got a problem," he said.

"What's up?"

"Somebody stole my tire," he explained.

"They stole...wait, your tire? Just the tire, or the wheel, too?" My morning brain was scrambling to wake up. I couldn't picture what Richard was telling me, so I headed over to his place to see what was going on.

When I showed up, there it was in the driveway: Richard's black 1996 Nissan Sentra sans one wheel (and tire). Richard was, as always, finding some way to appreciate the strange circumstances. He's the kind of guy who can always see the beautiful in any situation--not the positive necessarily, but the beautiful. Yeah, it sucked that his wheel got stolen, but he treated the whole thing like it was an absurd gift from the gods. We sat on his front porch and mused about what kind of desperate life events would prompt someone to trespass onto a stranger's property, jack up their car, steal a balding tire, and then leave without the jack. Eventually, we called around and found a place called Poor Boys that could replace the wheel for cheap, so we headed there in my 1987 Suzuki Samurai that had all four of its wheels. I expected to run this simple errand and return with a new wheel and tire for his car, but traveling with Richard almost always means I'll get more than I bargained for.

For some reason, automotive shops--especially tire shops--have popcorn machines in the waiting room. I wonder why that is? While the tire shop attendant mounted the new (used) tire on the new (used) wheel, I sat next to Richard in a filthy chair and stared at the empty popcorn machine. Poor Boys. It was still morning, so the place was empty except for us. Unlike many highfalutin tire shops, this one had a dirty floor--dirty everything, really--and sunbleached cardboard displays propped up in the windows. Richard sat in his chair in his Richard way, fingers interlaced behind his head. He was still smiling about the tire theft. He told me that waking up and seeing his wheel missing was worth the fifty-or-so bucks it would cost to get his car going again. We laughed and felt good in the filthy shop.

Eventually the shop worker returned with the wheel and we met him at the counter and he printed out a receipt on track-feed carbon duplicate paper--every automotive shop still uses this ancient technology. Popcorn machines and track-feed paper. As Richard paid for the wheel, he explained to the curious shop worker that during the night someone had stolen his wheel.

"Shit," the shop worker responded, "I know the economy's bad right now, but stealing someone's wheel?"

It puts me at ease when people cuss on the clock. We all laughed. Then the shop worker regaled Richard and I--two former philosophy students--with a life lesson.

He told us that people don't want to do what it takes to survive because they have strange notions about dignity. He said that he knew men who were bricklayers or drywallers, but then the economy took a dive and those men could no longer find work in those trades. Rather than go out and find a job to make ends meet, they sat at home and lamented that they couldn't find work.

"You can always find work," the shop worker explained passionately, "it just might not be the work you want to do. Can't find work as a bricklayer? Then you're not a bricklayer, anymore. Now you're a carpenter or a burger-flipper. Whatever it takes. If you can't find work in your trade, then I guess that's no longer your trade."

Conversations like this happen whenever Richard goes out into the world--strangers just open themselves up to him, revealing aspects of their lives that could have never been deduced by appearances alone. And so that was it. All of a sudden the wheel theft made sense--it had given us this conversation with the shop worker. I walked away from that tire shop with a fresh perspective on work and identity: you can claim whatever profession you want, but it won't mean anything unless you can make a living doing it. That idea seemed right to me, so I tucked it away in my philosophical inventory for nearly three years.

In grad school I studied literature but I couldn't stand reading. I was vocal about my love of poems and short stories, which I preferred because reading them took up less of my time. I badmouthed novels often. In fact, I had the same feelings during my undergraduate studies--I loved the idea of reading books, but actually reading them felt like a waste of time. I hadn't chosen to read a book "for fun" in nearly a decade. So I was pretty surprised to find that, after receiving my master's degree, moving back to my hometown, and starting work at a gas station to save money for the birth of my first child, all I wanted to do was read.

It was a strange feeling, and I'm not sure where it came from (though if I had to guess, I would say it had something to do with knowing that, at long last, I could read a book without the obligation of talking or writing about it). I read a lot of novels. Even though I had a car, I walked an hour to work every day so that I could listen to audiobooks. I read PG Wodehouse, Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Douglas Adams. I dove parched into the deep lakes of Harry Potter, The Dark Tower, and The Lord of the Rings. I read The Hobbit for the first time since fifth grade. Reading was amazing and magical again, and I started fantasizing about writing something of my own.

Ever since I was a little kid people have told me "you should be a writer." I don't know why people tell me this--often they don't even have evidence that I can write a complete sentence much less a complete story. I could say that the specter of writing has haunted me for over two decades, but that's not really accurate; I think of a haunting as an experience where the haunted is affected in some way by the haunter, but I have always calmly and surely rejected the idea of being a writer. Really, I should be thankful for the sweet-but-economically-unsound recommendations; they're akin to an angsty teen being told, "your father and I think that you should really dedicate most of your life's energy into trying to succeed as a punk musician." Yes, writing stories is fun, but I learned from countless soul-sucking graduate seminars that it shouldn't be taken too seriously. I also learned from seeing a humanities building full of publication-starved writers moonlighting as college professors that, unless your name is as familiar as Stephen King's, writing is not a lucrative career path. I think the specter of writing must live in books, because once I started reading again I felt haunted for the first time in my life by the question that had been hovering around me all along: am I a writer?

Before I could honestly consider being a writer, I had to revisit the Poor Boys conversation--after all, calling myself a writer would be foolish if I couldn't make a living from it, right? That's the line of thought that had seemed so reasonable to me. But I became confused because if you have to write for a living before calling yourself a writer, and the vast majority of books are written by people who do not make their living writing, then how the hell can most writers call themselves writers? By the Poor Boys logic, there are probably fewer than a thousand "real" writers making ends meet by the pen alone. I'd be willing to entertain that possibility--after all, there are very few underwater welders in the world; some professions are just really specialized--but I find it hard to ignore the huge number of bookstores and libraries overflowing with books, most of which were not written by the elite caste of breadwinning writers.

Writers are a weird bunch. Those bricklayers and drywallers I mentioned earlier? I'm willing to bet the unemployed ones don't hang out at home laying bricks or hanging drywall just for their own pleasure. But these alleged "writers" write even if nobody is paying them, even if nobody is reading what they're writing, and even if they have no hope of ever succeeding as writers. Yeah, it's kind of sad, but it's also kind of admirable that they're willing to put in so much work for such a small payoff. Well, at least I think it's admirable. Maybe these people have every right to call themselves writers. Maybe money has nothing to do with it. Maybe the guy from Poor Boys was full of shit.

Now admittedly there may be some exceptions to the idea that we can just arbitrarily ascribe titles to ourselves as we see fit. If I throw together a shelf out of some scrap wood, I don't believe that entitles me to call myself a carpenter; anyone can screw some boards together, but not everyone can do what it takes to be a carpenter. For example, I find it impossible to make perfectly straight cuts with a handsaw. But writing is weird--it's not concrete, consistent, or agreed-upon like carpentry, masonry, or electrical work. An electric circuit is either installed correctly or not, end of story. But try to find even ten people who agree on the quality of a novel, or worse, a poem. Writing is an inherently subjective endeavor, which kind of negates the idea that there could be quality standards. In fact, it seems to me many contemporary writers are trying to see how little effort they can put into their work and still get away with it. It seems like anyone can assume writer as a title these days.

"Well, I figured, what the hell."
- Doctor Emmett Brown, Back to the Future
In July of 2015 I decided to see what would happen if I gave in and took the perplexing advice I'd been given my whole life. I literally told my wife, "I've decided I'm going to be a writer now." Eight months later I had a daughter and the first draft of a novel. My title change probably had little effect on the daughter showing up, but it was essential to the birth of the novel draft. Calling myself a writer gave me a solid, unflinching direction to point myself in. It's easy to get thrown off course when things like firstborns and grown-up jobs blip onto the radar, but that title kept me fixed on my draft. I doubt anyone but my wife will want to read my novel, I'm not even sure it's very good, and I'm almost certain I will make no money from it. But I wrote it. And I think that had I not made the decision to call myself a writer, I would never have finished it.

Naming something is a powerful act. In the philosophy of language there is something called the "performative utterance," which is a type of word or phrase that alters the meaning of things in the world by the very act of speaking it. For example, saying the phrase "I now pronounce you husband and wife" is usually what makes people married. Other examples include christenings ("I christen you...") , judge's rulings ("I sentence you..."), and summoning Michael Keaton ("Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse!"). In all of these cases it's the act of naming that does something. I think my decision to call myself a writer was also a performative utterance--I couldn't be a writer until I called myself a writer.

Most jobs from McDonald's hamburger flipper to insurance salesman to Navy SEAL to CEO require that some authority (not you) names you for that role. You can't just stroll into an insurance company and start making cold calls. On the other hand, being a writer is a self-realized practice similar to identifying with a religious group or political party. You adopt the label by proclaiming it. Like identifying with a religious affiliation, being a self-proclaimed writer is not particularly practical to anyone but me (I would never put "fiction writer" on a CV or résumé). Nonetheless, it's a healthy practice to name things for oneself--it gives us an opportunity to seize some power from external authorities, to define parts of reality on our own terms, and to better know and shape ourselves.