Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pardon me while I throw up

I haven’t told many people – in fact I haven’t told anybody other than Kristin – but Friday is a pretty big night for me. I’ve been asked to read my story "Summer Fun" at the first Joyland Chicago reading.

This will be the first time I’ve read my work out loud in public. The thought of it makes me want to throw up. Actually, I think I just did a little bit in my mouth.

At this point my fear is winning. I’ve wavered about whether or not I will cancel or just not show up. Then my sane side (I do have one – though I usually keep it hidden) reminds me to calm down, it will be fine.

Self-confidence has never been my strength. While I’ve begrudgingly accepted I have some writing ability, I never believe I can write well enough. I’m not alone, either. I’m sure many, many writers feel the same way.

I don’t know if that comforts me or scares me even more. I do know it’s weird to hear someone like Chris Jones express a similar lack of confidence about his writing.

Jones, a writer-at-large for Esquire, can lay claim to being one of the best magazine writers going right now. His narratives are rich in detail; his style nuanced; his words perfectly chosen. I read his stories with delight, but with a sense of jealousy for knowing he’s pulled off something I can’t do.

Apparently Jones feels the same way … though I’m sure it’s not after reading one of my stories. In a recent Q&A he did for the Nieman Foundation’s Narrative Digest, Jones talks about a story by fellow Esquire writer-at-large Tom Junod.

Mercenary” is a remarkable piece I’d encourage people to read for themselves. I’d try to summarize it, but fear I’d give away too much. It’s best to read it fresh. But for my purposes here, just know that it takes a very talented writer to pull off what Junod does. Even Jones agrees.

“I still read stuff like that all the time, where I feel totally useless as a writer, because I wouldn’t be able to write that piece,” Jones said in the Q&A.

I can’t imagine Jones feeling “totally useless as a writer.” How can that be? This guy is a two-time National Magazine Award-winning writer, most recently for this story. His work has been anthologized in not one, but three Best American collections: Magazine Writing, Sports Writing and Political Writing.

Yet, he feels there are things he can’t pull off as a writer. And I know exactly what he means.

As I’ve analyzed this – and believe me, I spend way too much time analyzing my writing – I’ve come to two conclusions. One, all writers suffer from a lack of confidence to some extent. There is always someone they wish they could write like.

The other is something that might actually be useful. Writers don’t need to be better than other writers. We only need to be as good as we can be. That takes work. It takes a desire to not be satisfied until you know you’ve done the best you can with the material. It shouldn’t matter what somebody else thinks.

It’s all subjective anyway. You might read a Jones story and think he’s overrated. You might read that Junod piece and think he’s a hack (though if you think that, I’d have to question your ability to read at all).

So I find comfort in knowing I did my best with “Summer Fun.” I like the story. I think it could use some more work, but nothing major. I know that others have liked it, too. I’m also sure not everyone likes it.

I just hope those people aren’t at the Book Cellar on Friday. I also hope I don’t throw up on the microphone.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The unemployment line

Optimism is starting to return when it comes to the U.S. economy. This week’s declaration by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that the recession is “very likely over,” provided a much-needed lift to people’s spirits.

But Bernanke also warned this doesn’t mean the unemployment rate, which is at a 26-year high 9.7 percent, will stop rising. It could top 10 percent by the end of the year. According to the AP story, “Some economists say it will take at least four years for the jobless rate to drop down to a more normal range of 5 percent.”

This news happened to coincide with my trip to the unemployment office this week. I needed to reinstate my benefits because I went a stretch without any freelance work.

By its nature, freelancing is uncertain work. Three weeks ago I was awash in assignments, struggling to get them all done on deadline. A week later I had nothing. Last week I had only two small assignments.

So I needed to get my unemployment benefits going again. I was told it was simply a matter of calling Tele-Serve and pressing “2” instead of “1” at the beginning in order to reopen my benefits claim.

As I learned before, nothing is ever that simple when it comes to unemployment. During the call I was told I needed to contact my regional unemployment office, which I tried to do right away. But the line was busy.

It remained busy for the rest of the day. When I finally got through – at 4:45 p.m. – I got a recorded message telling me normal office hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and that I should call back then. I was confused because on my clock 4:45 comes before 5 p.m. But whatever.

So I called the next morning. Busy. Called that afternoon. Busy. Tried several times in the late afternoon/evening. Same thing. I repeated this routine the next day and the following Monday, stubbornly – and oh so foolishly – believing I could get this fixed without having to go to the office.

(A friend of mine wrote a poem about waiting in the unemployment line. He wrote it a few years ago, and Kristin showed it to me last month. You can download it here if you want to read it – it’s worth the effort.)

I did not want to be stuck in line. Yet there I was earlier this week. When I arrived the line already stretched to the door. The people ahead of me had to shift just so I could get inside.

This was my third or fourth trip to the office, but never had I needed to wait in this long of line, even though it was only about a dozen people (this is the North Aurora office, not Chicago, after all).

I eventually got to the front and signed up to talk with someone about my problem. This was 10:47 a.m. While I waited I looked around. Nearly every seat was taken. Men and women, some together, some by themselves, some with children filled the office.

We were white. We were black. We were Hispanic. We were well dressed. We were dressed down. We were together, though our circumstances were likely much different.

I looked at people’s faces, saw despair in many of them. Some carried the vacant look I saw on driver’s faces during my trip through Nebraska.

A woman quietly argued with a worker at the information desk. From her body language it was clear she was mad. The man patiently listened before answering.

“Unemployment is at a 26-year high,” he said. “There is a woman who has worked here for 32 years and she said she’s never seen it like this.”

The woman turned away, walking out of the building while still muttering.

Yet there was no yelling. No screaming at the front desk guys to answer their questions. We just sat … and waited. At 11:35 my name was called. I talked with a very helpful man who straightened out the problem in about three minutes. I was on my way back home in about an hour total.

All in all, not too bad. But about 40 minutes longer than my previous trips. In reflecting on my visit I came to this conclusion, while still understanding one anecdote doesn’t prove or disprove anything.

The recession may be ending. But I fear we’re a long way from recovering.