• The Late-Capitalist Privileges of
    Being an Art Monster

    Sarah Elaine Smith on Working a Tech Job While Trying to Make Art

    I heard about the job from a friend who regularly texted me pictures of her work breakfast, primarily bowls filled with fresh raspberries, plates of crispy bacon, oatmeal topped with kamut and bee pollen. X worked at a utopian tech company you’ve all heard of. When we hung out in the evenings, she would sometimes arrive from the office with the pockets of her anorak full of rambutans. She was always relaxed and sunny, and most days her office-wear seemed to consist of leggings and a Black Sabbath T-shirt. “All I did today was eat raspberries,” she would tell me. “We’re hiring someone. You should totally apply.”

    Be warned: This is a story of staggering privilege. But it is also a story about what hides behind the sheen of freedom in late-capitalist workspaces, and for that reason, I think it’s worth telling.

    At the time, I had a miserable community outreach job at a construction company that was undertaking to fix 600 bridges across the state in a public-private partnership. “Community outreach” was code for cold-calling school district transportation advisers to inform them that they would have to compensate for a six-mile detour in their bus route, which uniformly displeased them. Apart from the day I got to drive out to Amish country and conduct interviews to determine which detours would be feasible for their horse-drawn carriages, I worked in a Brutalist building out by the Pittsburgh Airport with construction engineers who had clearly been high school jocks and who cautioned me to “be careful with those” when I used scissors to cut open another box of coffee pods in the office kitchen.

    I had moved back to Pittsburgh on the theory that a regular full-time job might be better than adjuncting after calculating my hourly wage, which was a huge mistake. I was making less than half of minimum wage to teach an honors seminar to the university’s elite undergrads. I had lots of time to write, of course. I had produced a first draft of my novel, sometimes writing 2,000 words a day. But my precarious financial situation added a little frantic note to the process: This had better work. This had better be good. This had better be worth it.

    When I got a phone interview at X’s company, I took it in my car on a long lunch break. My friend had put in a good word (a good many words) in my favor, so when the boss interviewed me, she said, “Well, since you and X are friends, I’m sure you know all about what we do here.” Actually, I had no idea, and hadn’t really thought to ask very much. I told the boss that of course I knew all about it, and that I was very excited to begin, which was, to my credit, only half a lie.

    At lunch, you could choose between artfully composed salads of beets, fennel, beef, kombu, or what have you, a daily entree selection accompanied by a historical monograph in an email distributed every morning, or a salad bar populated by pea shoots and halloumi and hydroponic greens grown onsite. The breakfast spread included organic preserves from local farms, honeycomb, eggs and bacon and home fries, lox twice a week, gluten-free pastries, Icelandic yogurt, and, of course, tremendous oval dishes of blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries, as well as huge mounds of cut melon, and sometimes papaya or pomelo or a smoothie. And fresh baby coconuts with straws to drink from. You could take the coconut back and ask one of the chefs to cut it open for you after you were done drinking the coconut water, to eat the meat with a spoon.

    The story of women writers around my age is often about balancing the work of the home with the work of the office and the mind. In recent years, it’s finally been acknowledged that running logistics, remembering birthdays, and nurturing anyone in sight is usually a tacit expectation of women.

    When friends asked me how I liked my new job, they were actually asking about the food. Maybe I’d mention the dumpling buffet on Chinese New Year, or the free washing machines, or the massage chairs, or the refrigerators stocked with the full La Croix rainbow. Sometimes the tone of the conversation pivoted from curiosity to disgust. (Filet mignon and polenta, really? Yeah, I would shrug. It’s crazy.) Almost always, there came a moment when my friend’s face darkened, and I changed the subject, because it seemed like we had stumbled into ugly comparative territory. One acquaintance, also a writer, asked me if I was having fun selling out. (I was.)

    The secret, you see, was this: the company X and I worked for was merely a small subcontractor engaged by the much larger and famous-er company in whose office we dwelled. We did piecework, executed assignments. All these lavish perks were not designed for us; they were designed for the engineers whose instructions we followed. They were the ones the company wanted to seduce into working around the clock. The fact that we also got to benefit from the materials of this psychological manipulation was flukey in the extreme; rewards without pressure, investment, or responsibility.

    The story of women writers around my age is often about balancing the work of the home with the work of the office and the mind, or some variation on those spheres. In recent years, it’s finally been acknowledged that running logistics, remembering birthdays, and nurturing anyone in sight is usually a tacit expectation of women. I’ve never been very comfortable in those roles, although I’ve largely felt obligated to play them anyway and I resent the subtle implication that I’m selfish (and bad) if my public generosity drops below some expected level.

    When I told him I might try writing with a day job, an ex-boyfriend gently cautioned me that I might not be able to do such a thing. Look at all of the time you take for yourself every day, he said. How are you going to keep it and write and work at the same time? He was referring to the fact that I regularly attended a mental health support group and worked out at the gym every day, maintenance of my self and sanity that I consider a minimum.

    But it pains me to say that he was right. During the nearly three years I worked at this particular company, I kept my daily gym sessions and mental health maintenance and worked on my novel every night, which probably wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t been able to outsource so much (so very much) of my personal care and feeding to this company. I tried to minimize the amount of eating I’d even need to do outside of work by eating a hefty snack right before I left the office. And in the evenings, when I would otherwise have to figure out how to cook something reasonable and healthy for myself or drone through the grocery store, I could go right to my novel and dive in.

    I thought of those lines from Jenny Offil’s Department of Speculation: “Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his umbrella. Véra licked his stamps for him.” I happened to be reading that book the day before I started at the construction company. I felt some impending doom, watching all my freedom drain away. Farewell to being an art monster. At least I would have health insurance again.

    But actually, my job at the tech company became my Véra. I still had to lick my own stamps, but I could drop my letters in the company mail bin without troubling to find an open post office after 5 p.m. If I ever wanted for cough drops or allergy pills, I could visit the first aid cabinet in the laundry room. During the August solar eclipse, the office even provided branded polarized glasses and threw a party on one of the rooftop decks. I scanned and faxed and copied for free. When I had phone interviews with editors before my book went to auction, I took those calls in teleconferencing rooms. Thanks to the free food, I saved up enough in the first year for a down payment on a small house.

    And in 2016, when I entered one of the worst depressive periods of my life and could not stop crying for weeks, I was saved by the office layout; there were lots of soundproof rooms where I could have some peace. These had been designed, ironically, as pure-focus zones for engineers, not crying cubicles for contractors, but I am grateful for them nonetheless.

    For me, the real siren song of this job wasn’t the food. It was the lack of responsibility.

    Shortly thereafter, I returned to regular working capacity when I was diagnosed with bipolar II and medicated, but at practically any other job, my level of dysfunction would have been unavoidable, unsightly, and probably would have resulted in termination. I was hardly an art monster, but without all this accidental grace, I don’t know that I could have worked and written and stayed sane at all.

    I don’t know when my job changed from what I considered to be the heist of the century to something unhappier. I started to notice that, despite this outrageously lavish daily outlay of food, turnover within my company was actually quite high. X had moved on years before, back into her dream career. Co-workers often took on long commutes and pay cuts to work in other places where they would have more agency. The other artists, like me, stayed.

    How could we do otherwise? We had found the ultimate day job, the one you never quit. But another mood was on the horizon, even though I tried to ignore it.

    For about a year, I went in cycles between feeling frustrated with my job and feeling incredulous that I had ever allowed my perspective to waver. This had to be every writer’s dream job. How dare I cease being grateful? But then I would spend another empty afternoon inside an unending spreadsheet, culling and arranging little bits of data, zoning out, trying to keep my eyes in focus from the sheer boredom of it, and I would think, I believe there is a better use for my time on earth than this. And then, as if to combat that thought, I would go get a snack. Staring out over the landscape of empty condos and the carpet of succulents planted along the roof deck, I would think, I’m being paid right now, eating these kettle chips, and how could anyone say no to that? What is wrong with me? How could I be such an ingrate?

    Psychological safety for me has never been about reality; it’s been about abundance in abundance. I don’t just want my team to win the game. I want a shut-out, I want to be up sixty by halftime, I want the other team to give up. I almost don’t even want the game to happen. I want it to be over, I want to win. I don’t want to be your good friend, I want to be your only friend. I don’t want my book to do well, I want it to be the only book. It’s the same thing with money: In one sense, I’ve always had enough money, and I know that because I am presently alive. But for this other, scared part of me, a paycheck isn’t enough.

    Nothing has ever come closer to soothing this howl than the free food at this utopian tech company, where I was eating for free and getting paid for it.

    It took me years to put my finger on what was going on here. But for me, the real siren song of this job wasn’t the food. It was the lack of responsibility. I didn’t really care about the company’s objectives, even if it hypothetically ever chose to explain the cryptic, mind-numbing tasks we were set. I could stay there and get safer and safer. I would be safer because I wouldn’t be doing something else dangerous or exciting, something where I could fail.

    I had always taken for granted that having Véra there to fold his umbrella made Nabokov a better writer and that it would be ideal for me, too, to be so doted upon. But what does that mean for all the writers who raise children, feed families, prop up their communities, live in a legacy of generational poverty?

    Presumably that meant I could save all of that risk for my writing life —and for a few years, it did. That haunting pressure I heard when I wrote in food scarcity was gone, and I could show up on the page without feeling like I had to succeed there in order to deserve my life. But something else happened underneath that, too: the food made me loyal. And it made it more and more difficult to imagine a life where I fed myself.

    It takes an extreme amount of privilege to end up in this weirdly lavish workspace at all, and I want to acknowledge my limitations in being able to see all of the ways that is true. I have worked hard, but I started the game on third base, and none of these observations are very useful without saying so. The fact that I could quit my job after selling a novel largely relies on the fact that I could cut my living expenses by buying a cheap house, which I could only do because I had good credit and a financial history that allowed me to save money, a family that didn’t need my support, a family that could cover some of my college expenses so I went into a shallower debt. These facts were never far away, even when I was stretching a stipend, even though I couldn’t always see them. Free food and boring work is a pretty minor yoke to shrug off, is what I’m saying.

    But thanks to this job, I learned something I desperately needed to discover: I don’t want to be an art monster. I don’t think I want to make the art an art monster would make. I had always taken for granted that having Véra there to fold his umbrella made Nabokov a better writer and that it would be ideal for me, too, to be so doted upon. But what does that mean for all the writers who raise children, feed families, prop up their communities, live in a legacy of generational poverty? Living in structural racial inequality is a job for black and brown people, and far from paying, it typically does the opposite.

    I quit that job over a year ago, a little less than a year after I sold my first novel. Something important changed once I eventually saw through the beautiful food and ample wellness drinks to the real underlying contract: stay here, and be a child. Stay here, and never be hungry. Stay here, do our work, and never worry again. Stay here. Your life will be there later. There’s no hurry. You’re taken care of; how could you ask for more? And once I saw this ugly piece of myself, the part that would trade the work I really love for a mere lack of responsibility, I knew my days at the hydroponic cold slab were numbered.


    Marilou Is Everywhere by Sarah Elaine Smith

    Sarah Elaine Smith’s Marilou is Everywhere is out now from Riverhead.

    Sarah Elaine Smith
    Sarah Elaine Smith
    Sarah Elaine Smith holds MFAs in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and poetry from the Michener Center for Writers. She is also a recipient of a Rona Jaffe Wallace fellowship. Marilou Is Everywhere is her first novel. She is also the author of I Live in a Hut, the 2011 winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's first books prize, selected by Matthea Harvey. Her work has appeared in FENCE, jubilat, Tin House, and Gulf Coast, among others.

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