On the Job

Commentary: In Exile

Martha Stewart’s own version of The Apprentice begins next week, and I am on the edge of my seat. Will she throw chairs? Spit fire? What martial arts skills has she acquired in prison? What tattoos?

The Apprentice is a wonderful show for a jittery economy. I watched season one with religious zeal, relishing each applicant’s walk of shame from the coldly lit, dehumanizing boardroom. I slowly fell in love with Donald Trump, my awe growing with every pink slip he disseminated. Like watching rough porn, where the guy gets slapped around a little, you worry at first, ”Should I really be into this?”

But it’s perfectly natural. I won’t pretend to understand the sick pleasure I get from watching others lose a fake job, other than being glad it’s not me and that I wasn’t delusional enough to go on such a show in the first place. Everyone I know in New York gets fired eventually. It’s fully expected. Screwing up has nothing to do with it. Sometimes it’s because your boss doesn’t like your new haircut, or because you ate a fish taco and didn’t offer him a bite.

Last night I bumped into a friend of mine who used to work at the magazine I’m currently employed at. I asked him what he’s doing for work these days. He said, ”Writing a novel.” That’s not really a job. But sometimes I think that the reason that so much creativity comes out of New York is because people get fired and then write a novel, or decide to make a go at fashion or sculpting. My best guess would be that the frozen yogurt craze that began in the 1980s started with a woman who lost her job as a claims adjuster and used the time on her hands to figure out how to make diet ice cream in her freezer.

I feel lucky to have a job at all, especially in the industry I work in, where every fall, 1,400 grads from Columbia J-school vie for the same 56 magazine staff positions available in New York City. But creatively speaking, it’s a nonstarter. My job is piles of research and hours of checking of facts. It’s verifying quotes and prices and making sure that everything is neat and tidy for publication.

When I was in second grade, we’d write creative stories and they could be about whatever we wanted them to be. We’d write them lengthwise on long pieces of paper, and then the teacher would fold the paper and staple it in the middle, making a book. Eventually I started writing so much that my teacher couldn’t get the staple through the paper any more, and she asked me to make my stories shorter. I complied, but only grudgingly.

These days, just finding the time for creative endeavors feels like a challenge. Even in my free time, I feel obligated to be reading magazines to keep up with work and with what’s going on in the world. The idea of being unemployed and writing a novel is romantically appealing, but suddenly there’s health insurance and rent to worry about. And even when I do write creatively these days, I’m not scribbling and scribbling till there’s so much that I can’t get the staple through the paper. I’m just getting it all down as fast as possible so that I can get back to work or to my next assignment. Creativity has taken on an urgency that seems to sap from it what I used to love.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that when I watch The Apprentice, I’m actually fantasizing about getting fired. The idea of being unemployed in this city is terrifying. Even with a job, your security feels tenuous at best. Perhaps what I’m actually fantasizing about is something to kick my ass into gear the way that only the Donald can. ”If you’re serious about writing a novel, then do it!” he’d shout at me from across the boardroom table. ”Otherwise… you’re fired!”

My guess would be that the danger of going into a profession where your job is to be creative is that creativity becomes a chore, and you begin to avoid it whenever you’re not forced to do it. My twin cousins were on the U.S. Ski Team, and I’m fairly certain that after several years of endless, cyclical training, the sport they’d once loved had become more of a thing to be skirted than a thing to be played.

Martha Stewart is probably the best example of creativity gone awry. I bet as a child, she had teachers who were telling her to stop making Christmas ribbon out of recycled VHS tape. But she pressed on, became professionally creative, and convinced millions of others to be creative, as well.

Now she’s an ex-con who’s getting her own version of The Apprentice. I’ll be watching, but not for inspiration.

Will Doig writes from his exile in New York City. He can be reached at wdoig@metroweekly.com.

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