I was washing pots in a college dining hall kitchen when another pot washing student mentioned to me that he had published a short story in a science fiction magazine.
I almost dropped my scrubber. Having dreamed, prayed, aspired and–too often–despaired of seeing my stories in print, I assumed that published writers were unique life forms who possessed something I lacked. Of course, when I summoned what little bit of self confidence I had, I told myself that someday I would join their ranks, merely because my stuff was the best I could do, and the way you “make it” in the arts is to do the best you can every time you’re at bat, with the hope that sooner or later you’ll make it to first base and when you peak you’ll hit a few home runs.
Back in it that kitchen, I felt my life was an unending string of strike-outs.
As I scoured through what had once been mushroom gravy, I asked him how he wrote it. He said he came up with an idea, wrote the story in less than an hour. Somebody told him to send it to the magazine and, a few weeks later, he got a check. It was so easy he thought so little of it that after cashing the check, he didn’t hold on to the copy of the magazine that the editor sent him.
Was he lying to me? The skeptical voice inside me that would help in my journalism career said it was a little too convenient that he didn’t have the magazine. And, in this pre-Internet era, I couldn’t take off my gloves, pull out a cell phone and google his name.
Having washed a mountain of pots in my college and post graduate career in restaurants, I know that some pot washers humiliate each other because pot they occupy the lowest rank in the food-service employment hierarchy, and when you’re the lowest of the low, you can do things to each other to push another closer to the bottom. Had he done that just to put me on the bottom?
I went back to an extremely crusted sheet pan.
Way back before food service became a degreed profession, if you wanted to learn how to cook (or, like me, you wanted a free meal), you washed pots because you couldn’t break them and your job was a simple matter of scraping off the burnt goo so the pots could be used to make more goo. After that, you moved to dish washing, which was more complicated because, not only did you have to remove the goo, you had to use the right mix of detergent, water heat and water pressure to blast lipstick off the glassware and keep those nasty spots off the cutlery. That, and you weren’t supposed to break anything thing. If, after several weeks, months or years, nobody heard a dish shatter, someone may show you how to chop onions.
After I graduated, I worked in restaurants to support my writing habit. Before the habit became regular enough to devote myself to it completely, I rose as far as fill-in chef, somebody they’d call when whoever was supposed to do the cooking didn’t show up. When I filled in, I couldn’t be expected to know the menu as well as the regular chef. I burnt some things. I dropped some things. I sent some plates out that probably shouldn’t have gone out.
But I learned to do what had to be done, not just because that was the job. When you can reach that state of non-judgemental action, you can do more things correctly, or, at least, adequately, and maybe even accomplish a few miracles.
I never quite achieved that non-judgemental state as a writer. Yes, I had times I was “in the flow,” gulping coffee and pushing out the words to meet a deadline. I had moments when I was surprised at how passages seemed to write themselves.
But, even when I met the deadline, I always experienced a let-down when I saw my work in print. I’d find a misprint, or a passage I could have stated better, or a chunk of the article that had been removed to make room for an advertisement that had come in at the last minute.
Once I saw that the name of an interview subject who had asked me repeatedly to make sure I spelled his name right, had been spelled wrong. I felt bad for several days, long after I called the guy and apologized.
It was worse with books. Unless an author has hundreds of thousands fans who will buy multiple copies of everything he writes, most writers feel an enormous pressure that each book sell more, get better reviews, and–most important of all–generate more subsidiary rights sales (“Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber wants to make a musical out of my novel? Bring it on!”). The slightest sign that this may not happen (which, in fact, NEVER happens, for the overwhelming majority of published writers), sends the author into a panicky, downward mood spiral. The only cure for post-publishing blues is investing even more expectation in the next book you commit to finishing.
It’s ironic that in so much human endeavor, the sickness is the cure, and vice versa. After a while you get tired of the ups and downs. You just want to live long enough to reach the point where you just finish the job.
It took me years to learn that non-judgemental action is the big lesson in washing pots. Yes, it’s a boring, steamy, noisy job, but, sooner or later, the goo comes off and you move on to the next pot. If you ask yourself a cosmic question, such as why a college educated soon-to-be-published writer has to put up with rejection while this other guy whom you’ve never seen before and probably hasn’t taken the courses and read the books that you did, blithely lands a short story in a science fiction magazine, you start to slow down. You wonder what significance washing pots will ever be significant in your literary career. You contemplate the series of unfortunate events that brought you to the pot sink (in my case, I just wanted to make a little extra money). And then, somebody from the kitchen yells at you about running out sheet pans. You find the goo-encrusted sheet pans and find a place for one under the faucet. You pick up the scrubber, pour on a little detergent, and scrub. You go on to the next pan, and the next and, a few hours later, all the pots are washed and you go back to your dorm room, wet and exhausted, with a definite feeling of accomplishment that no amount of envy, or rejected science fiction stories, can subvert.