I started working at Watson Wyatt in San Francisco after I’d been let go from my dotcom gig in 2000. I was the first person the dotcom execs called into the office when they learned their funding would be cut and they had to lay off half of their hundred or so people. This brought three weeks severance pay, which meant I had three weeks to find another job. Unemployment sounded like a kind of death to me with my wife’s and my $1,700 per month one-bedroom apartment, habit for high-end grocery stores, and penchant for trips to Paris and Alaska during our time off. I needed a job now.
Watson Wyatt is an actuarial firm, which means they’re hired by companies to calculate how quickly their employees will die so those companies can prepare for things like retirement funds. Yes, there are people out there who do this. I was hired as an administrative assistant, and I was prepared to do my best to act like I cared about actuarial science while attending graduate school at night for writing. Little did I know I would get at Watson Wyatt, and not in the classroom, the most important writing lesson of my life.
I’d had little success as a writer to that point. I’d been diligently putting words to the page for three years, and by the time I’d gotten hired by Watson Wyatt, I’d written rough drafts of two different novels, neither of which was good enough to merit revision. I had a workmanlike approach to writing; I wrote two pages every work day, ten pages a week, but the end results were drafts that veered drastically away from anything resembling a story. It had gotten so bad that by the time I was hired by Watson Wyatt I’d cut my productivity in half, one page per day, in the hope that a slower pace would keep the trajectory of the novel on line. Still, I’d write three pages over three days, then delete two; five pages over a week to come back on Monday and delete four. In my first semester of my writing program, the other students seemed confused by my chapters. “What does this character want?” I heard over and over again. I knew what I wanted. I’d quit a music career to try to write like my heroes—Faulkner, Updike, Hemingway, Beckett. It was starting to look like I’d made a mistake.
On my first day at Watson Wyatt, I was approached by consultant Mysti, who had sandy blonde hair and, business attire aside, looked like she’d spent most of her thirty-some years on the beach. I’d later learn Mysti had been deep into Dead Head culture but had given it up to become an actuary because “some people aren’t what they pretend to be.” Mysti grabbed me as soon as I got there on my first day to help her with something called an RFP.
“It’s what we do to get work,” she said. “I’m going to email you these documents, and you can help me pull it together.”
“Just so you know,” I said, “Paul can pull me away anytime.” Paul, our boss, was tall, from Ireland, and way too excited about having me aboard. “We’re going to turn you into an actuary,” he’d said with genuine glee. I wanted to be an actuary about as much as I wanted herpes, but it seemed too late to correct him. At our initial meeting, it was Paul who’d coached me on how to get the job. He said, “I guess I’d be more excited about hiring you if I felt you had a genuine interest in actuarial science.”
“Well, of course I’m interested in actuarial science,” I said, four days before my severance pay ran out. “Have been for some time.” I was hired the next day.
I had seven different jobs in the four years I was in San Francisco earning my degree. At each I felt like an impostor and wanted to quit soon after being hired. At Watson Wyatt, we had “Casual Friday,” which I thought meant I could wear whatever I wanted. I noticed people wearing tennis shoes around the office on Fridays, so I bought a new pair and showed up to work the next Friday in them.
I made my first stop in the mail room, run by Stan, who had long curly hair like a heavy metal guy. His henchman, Rich, was doing something off to the side.
“New shoes,” Stan said.
“Yeah,” I said, not quite following.
“I don’t like ‘em.”
“I don’t either,” Rich chimed in.
I asked around the office and discovered it was socially okay to wear black tennis shoes on Casual Friday.
Needless to say I wouldn’t last long at Watson Wyatt. Paul would eventually raise his voice to me when I screwed up an airline reservation, which I used as cause for transfer to another department, which was fine until someone there raised her voice to me, which led to my scrambling for my next job. I deserved every bitching out I got. I didn’t care enough about what I was doing to make the changes needed to make it work. If keeping myself fed and clothed meant working in an office for the rest of my life, my naked ass would starve.
Mysti sent me the documents via email, and I opened them.
“Give me a couple of paragraphs right here under Statement of Purpose,” she said, “a couple here under Project Objectives, and let me know when you’re done.” And she disappeared.
I sat there looking at the document, not knowing the first thing about Statements of Purpose, Project Objectives, RFPs or actuarial science. It took me about three minutes to get up the courage to go to Mysti’s office, where she was busy at her keyboard.
“I gotta tell you, I have no idea what you want here,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter.”
Doesn’t matter? “I thought this was the way we get more business. Shouldn’t it be written by someone who, like, knows what they’re saying?”
Mysti rolled her eyes. “It’s a lot easier to change something that’s wrong than it is to come up with something in the first place.”
And there it was, exactly what every new writer needs to hear.
Little good writing comes in one swoop. Something — anything — on the page gives you something to react against, which kicks in the critical faculties most needed to create fully realized pieces. My novel drafts to that point were a travesty, but they existed, which meant, as a writer, I knew how not to do it and could try again. As much as I thought I was searching for the right path, I was on it. The path to writing well is writing, and that was the one thing I could do.
And that’s what I’ve been doing for seventeen years. I go to my desk every morning, type words, and worry about making them into something worth reading later. It’s the most important piece of writing advice I know.