Help, I’m a paralegal and I can’t get out
I need some sage advice from an internet sage. (I am eating a piece of pizza with sage on it).
I hate my job. More specifically, I hate being a 24-year-old paralegal. I took this job almost two years ago as a precursor to law school and a career as a public defender, or at least that lawyer that gets eaten on the toilet in Jurassic Park. Then the economy collapsed and law schools/graduate schools/cosmology schools became glutted with applicants and I realized how terrible the law is.
Like my entire generation I want to write. But I didn’t eat enough Panera or get enough internships to land something at The Atlantic like my peers. I’m starting a website with my friend but that too seems sad and cliche. I don’t even have a garage/running car to sit in while I blast “The House of Stone & Light” and think about how much my kids will miss me. What should I do?
And what’s it like soaking up America’s problems like a sponge? — Desperate in DC.
Law is a funny business. For all of its lingering popularity on the teevee melodramas, the actual attorneys I know are constantly trying to escape that whole line of work. They’ve always got a scheme: become a judge, start a blog, run for dog-catcher, write books, teach law school, get a cable show, join the Peace Corps, do porn, open a yoga studio, move to the desert and make pottery, open a cat rescue, etc. Nobody wants to actually practice the law. Why is that?
And now the economy is terrible and those giant law firms are firing everybody and — like so many other white-collar industries — the entire profession is “rethinking” itself, starting with those $300 billable hourly rates nobody can afford anymore. So you’d like to maybe skip the whole “becoming a lawyer” thing and go right to the “what I’d like to do after I’m done being an attorney.”
That is fine, and will save a lot of heartbreak. Especially if you’ve got some good, viable career alternative. Oh wait, you want to be a writer? As a job? Are you insane?
You may be a good writer, I don’t know. You might be wonderful, a genius. It has never mattered less, not since the days before people began paying a half-farthing or whatever for the week’s murder ballad delivered by a traveling minstrel with plague lice in her mustache.
Never mind the tens of thousands of laid-off editors and reporters and publishing people in the print industry and the decimated online publishing genre and the dull-eyed human survivors expected to do more work, more words, more copy, more Red Carpet slideshow captions for less money and the constant threat of the Friday email memo saying good-bye forever.
Your real competition is the Internet itself, with its millions of unpaid bloggers and commenters and Facebooking Twittering free laborers for the the Content Generation Machine. Every time you see a LOLcat, make something a Favorite, Retweet, read a Yelp review or laugh at an ALL CAPS death threat in a blog’s comments, you are both witnessing and contributing to the demise of paid writing. It’s done! Not completely, sure, and there will be a handful of humans overseeing the robotic dissemination of all news, ideas and celebrity features in the very near future. But these humans will be efficiency consultants or (whoops!) lawyers, not writers.
Even worse, there’s no prestige to go with the not-getting-paid part of being a writer. Nobody cares if you’re an author or a poet. It means nothing. And if you’re some kind of fool doing the journalism, you are openly hated and mocked by the only people who know you exist. This is part of the Humbling of Everything, the same “oh well I’ll just look it up on the Internet” era that makes once-respected figures like professors and doctors and (whoops, again!) lawyers just tired people with big student-loan balances forced to argue with some excitable amateur who sat up all night actually reading the latest research and literature relating to his or her problem. It doesn’t matter if the customer/patient made a crucial connection the professional missed, or wrote NOT THIS ONE, THE OTHER ONE on her “good knee” in Sharpie, or if it’s just another dingbat refusing to vaccinate a child so that a long-conquered disease can start wiping out the multitudes again. What matters is that the Professional is done — unloved, unwanted and unaffordable.
Even cops can’t get away with the crap they used to pull on everybody — everybody not rich and white, I mean. Since the Rodney King riots, police departments have been putting little video cameras on the cruisers. Might as well, because everybody driving around is going to take video on their cell phone and put it on America’s Funniest Race Offenses. The cop is revealed as just another high-school graduate who maybe spent a bewildering year or two in Iraq getting yelled at by officers and shopkeepers, in Arabic, and would now like to return the favor to some powerless Mexican kids. And it will not be long at all until those bomb-sniffing robots utilized by both the local PD and the Pentagon are upgraded to do the actual law enforcement. You think those Predator drones are going to stay in Pakistan forever? One day soon they’ll be “taking out” drug gangs in Tijuana and money-laundering shops in North Hollywood and meth labs in the abandoned stucco exurbs of Las Vegas.
There is just not a hell of a lot of use for any of us, not here, not in America. You want to write? Fine, write. Write volumes, write sci-fi masterpieces, literary spectaculars, ironic memoirs and footnoted post-post-modern 600-page monstrosities. But do something else for money, for sanity — Sarah Palin got all the remaining advance money, anyway. A writer may be a small step above the person who codes websites or makes “interactive apps” or causes the iPhone to fart when you walk by a cripple, but that’s not enough to die with dignity. And we all need more dignity.
There’s a bakery down the road from me, and every time I go there I feel like people are doing the right things. It’s a tiny place and the early risers nearly always get the fresh bread before I come around, but man it’s nice to buy the muffins and cakes made with care and love by people who know what they’re doing. There are artists I love who paint and sculpt wonderful stuff you can take home for a fair price and look at every morning to help remember why you got up, why you still bother. There’s a native-plants gardener in town who can spot every lousy invasive weed, and who goes to the city council to argue for regulations to protect the Joshua Trees and cholla cactus. These people are doing things. They’re getting by. One day soon, I imagine I’ll have to start actually working for a living, too, instead of just typing nonsense on the Internet for ever-smaller paychecks.
I would say “it was fun while it lasted,” but that would be a lie. It’s not really fun, unless you’re the kind of creep who wakes up in the morning and spends an hour admiring yourself in the mirror before writing a thousand words about your opinion on the health care or whatever. Jesus ….
Also, finally: If this is what you were made to do, this writing stuff, you will do it. You will do it because you won’t have a choice. And you’ll do it regardless of what you do for money. But for the sake of your soul, find a job that requires no thought, something that keeps your mind free from petty annoyances. The baseball writer Bill James wrote his early books for many years from the comfort of a boiler room, where he worked nights as a security guard. Edward Abbey worked as a fire lookout or seasonal park ranger. They had space to think, and they didn’t waste the solitude looking at goddamned Twitter.
Send your important questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. But if you have a REAL problem, call the police or something, as Ken Layne will not really help you at all. This is just a web page on the Internet.