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How (and Why) to KISSASS

On June 29, the New York Times published an essay entitled “I’ve Picked My Job Over My Kids,” in which lawyer and law professor Lara Bazelon wrote movingly about her professional life, how much personal satisfaction she derives from it, and how it gives meaning to her days. In fact, she likes her job so much that she often misses out on important milestones in her children’s lives—several birthday parties, two family vacations, three Halloweens, and so on. “I prioritize my work because I’m ambitious and because I believe it’s important,” Bazelon wrote. “If I didn’t write and teach and litigate, a part of me would feel empty.”

In January, Meghan Daum, a columnist for the L.A. Times and a teacher at Columbia University, told an interviewer, “Even now when I teach there’s just something about it. When I’m in the classrooms, I feel like this is where I’m meant to be.” Back in 2012, Jeff Bercovici wrote an article for his employer, Forbes magazine, entitled “Here’s Why Journalism Is The Best Job Ever,” in which he raved about the benefits of his profession: you get paid to read a lot; you get paid to meet interesting people, etc. Mainstream publications are full of essays by academics, doctors, lawyers, journalists, pastors, actors, musicians, and others in prestigious professions who want us to know how much they love their jobs. And the media love to report on how happy college-educated elites are with their professional lives. But for some reason they don’t much like to hear about non-professionals who are happy with their working lives.

On July 19, Quillette published an essay in which I wrote favorably about my job at an Amazon warehouse in West Sacramento, CA, where I spend my days unloading large trucks and helping to load delivery vans. I wrote that I enjoy the work and the atmosphere of the warehouse, like most of my co-workers, and am happy with the wage I am paid. Much of the reaction to that piece consisted of accusations that I was a sycophant, a corporate stooge, or that I was trying to impress Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, a man I’ve never met and never expect to meet.

A few days after my essay appeared, New York magazine published a reply by staff writer Max Read sarcastically entitled: “America Should Thank Amazon For Giving Workers The Chance To ‘Chant Prime Day Slogans.’” Read didn’t bother to engage in a serious way with my points, and much of the negative feedback on social media was similarly long on haughty derision and short on substance. Amazon, presumably happy to be getting a bit of positive press for a change, posted a link to my article on its various social media platforms, but removed those links after they attracted a deluge of abuse. I have to say that I wasn’t entirely surprised by the reaction my essay provoked.

I’ve been writing personal essays for publications in my hometown for more than 30 years. For 12 years I wrote a column for a monthly magazine here in town. My pieces were mainly upbeat stories about my marriage, my kids, my grandchildren, my hobbies, my youth, and so on. I never had much trouble finding a local market for upbeat musings about my life as a working-class stiff. But finding a national market for such stories proved nearly impossible. I didn’t land a personal essay in a prominent national publication until 2007, when the New York Times published a story I wrote about my marriage in its Modern Love column.

The essay was a huge hit. The Times forwarded me requests from a couple of different Hollywood producers who had inquired about the film rights to the piece (alas, no film deal ever emerged). The Times also forwarded me numerous emails from people who had enjoyed it (this was before readers were allowed to comment on articles online). I enjoyed this attention so much that I began sending out personal essays to all sorts of large regional and national publications. None of these essays found a home until, finally, the San Francisco Chronicle accepted a piece I had written about shopping malls.

In an effort to figure out what had differentiated the Modern Love essay and the shopping mall essay from the vast majority of my writing, I finally hit upon the key to successfully placing an essay about working-class life in a prominent American publication. You’ve probably seen the acronym KISS, which stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. It’s a useful mantra in numerous fields of endeavor, including engineering, product development, political debate, advertising, and strategic planning. Well, if you’re not a member of the professional class, the key to getting your personal essays published in prominent publications is KISSASS—Keep It Short, Sad, And Simple, Stupid.

Although my marriage has been an amazingly happy and successful one, my essay for the New York Times‘s Modern Love column was a wistful rumination on one of my few marital regrets—that I’ve never been the breadwinner in my family. My wife has always been the primary earner. My wife’s ex-husband is aware of this failing of mine, and for years he has seemed to be waiting for my wife to toss my low-earning butt out the door and take him back (he’s long regretted the divorce). Likewise, the piece about shopping malls dealt in part with the fact that my wife and I lived for a long time in scorching hot northern California in homes with no air-conditioning, and so we often sought out the comfort of shopping malls on hot evenings, sitting on sofas in the artificially cooled common areas, reading books and playing cards while waiting for the outside temperature to drop enough to make our living room at home slightly more bearable.

As soon as I embraced KISSASS as my motto, I began to sell personal essays to a variety of national venues. In 2008, during the economic collapse, I wrote an essay about my fear of losing my house to foreclosure that was broadcast on the American Public Radio program Marketplace. My wife and I managed to stave off foreclosure, but we did it by renting a space in an antiques collective and selling off much of what we owned. An essay I wrote about this was broadcast on NPR’s MorningEdition program. I found it was fairly easy to get prestigious venues to publish personal essays about the life of a working-class nobody so long as the tone was melancholy, or even depressing. Soon I was looking for the cloud inside of every silver lining. I began combing through my memories, looking for sad things to write about.

The problem is that sadness isn’t my natural setting. I grew tired of writing cheerless essays about my sorry lot in life. I went back to writing in my usual mode, and sold my pieces mainly to small local publications, which had fewer qualms with upbeat stories about Sacramento living.

It’s all right for successful, college-educated professionals like Lara Bazelon, Jeff Bercovici, Meghan Daum, and others to write about how much joy their working lives bring them. The people who edit the publications in which such articles appear are themselves college-educated professionals. They too probably enjoy their upper-middle-class lives. To my knowledge, when Bercovici wrote positively about his happy experience as a Forbes staff writer, no one accused him of sucking up to Steve Forbes, the magazine’s owner and publisher and a man whose net worth is estimated to be north of $400 million. When Meghan Daum enthuses about her work at Columbia University, no one accuses her of shilling for an institution with an endowment of more than $10 billion. Lara Bazelon has written for the Washington Post, which, like Amazon.com, is owned by Jeff Bezos. But as for as I know, no one has accused her of shilling for him.

But for working-class people, the rules are different. All those upper-middle-class professionals who edit the nation’s most prominent publications permit only one narrative when it comes to the toiling masses. Their lives are nasty, brutish, and short, and must always be portrayed as such. To publish a story about a person who enjoys working at Wal-Mart or Starbucks or Georgia Pacific or Amazon is considered tantamount to white-washing the horrific crimes (whatever those may be) of oligarchs such as the Walton family, Howard Schultz, the Koch brothers, or Bezos.

If you read about a working stiff in the pages of the New York Times, you’re almost certain to find it a downbeat experience. The working class in America are burdened with long hours of hard work for miserable pay. Which is why they are all so angry all the time. Or hooked on anti-anxiety medication. It’s why they are prime targets for populist nationalists like Trump. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom. This type of journalism becomes a self-replicating phenomenon. So that when a publication does run a rare story in which a working-class lunkhead claims to actually like working for Amazon, and claims to actually enjoy his life, the mainstream media treat it as a kind of betrayal. So, if you don’t have a professional degree and you hope to sell freelance personal essays to prestigious publications, take my advice and KISSASS.

 

Kevin Mims is a freelance writer living in Sacramento, CA. His work has appeared in numerous venues including the New York Times, National Public Radio’s Morning EditionSalon, and many others. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinMims16

Comments

  1. Keep writing what you like, remember you write for yourself as well as publication. More than likely there are millions that would like to read what you like to write, you just have to make it past the gatekeepers.

  2. Um, but a lot of people really are burdened by long hours for lousy pay. That is me and a lot of my friends,man. The mainstream media might haul out a lot of questionable narratives, but I’m not sure that’s one of them.

  3. A while back I did a creative writing at the University of East Anglia. It was laughably cheap by comparison to the cost of a degree (just over £200 for a thirteen week course, with assignments). It was also quite useful- especially the bit about writing being like the dance of the seven veils, with the writer holding back information and gradually revealing it. My point is this- at one point, we were all asked why we were interested in writing. Of course, all the usual drivel came out about writing for fulfilment, and the more honest to make a living- when I chimed in with the answer “To manipulate people”.

    Now obviously, I was saying this to be provocative, and got the expected horror and disbelief, along with a few bemused smirks from the more advanced in the class. But what I expected to happen, happened. The teacher immediately leapt to my defence- with her assertion that, although I might have put it poorly, one of the main reasons why she, as an afro-caribbean woman had gone into writing, was so that her readers could see things from her point of view- to walk a mile in her shoes. Plus, I have to say what little I read of her work was about the joys of her unique life, rather than some unrelenting oppression narrative.

    Maybe what I should have said, in pitching a mission statement for writing should have been- to tell your truth to the universe, in such a way that you illuminate and elucidate your world- perhaps with the added embargo of encouraging your readers to think a little bit, without sermonising. And that is what your work does, mate. It tells your truth. It’s honest. Plus if, in order to sell, you have to lie, or at least portray a darker version of your life in taking up the banner as the unelected representative of a group- then you fundamentally cheapen yourself, and it is little wonder that so many writers end up cynical, depressed and verging on alcoholism or as exercise junkies- because the desperate need to sell, essentially shuts off that part of yourself that would be most valuable to the world, if correctly articulated.

    And, of course, that’s the really tricky bit. How to find and reveal a part of yourself that the rest of the world finds fascinating. Have you read some of the earlier Paulo Coelho books? Another option might be to try portraits of some of the people you meet, as a means of opening up the more emphatic side, and then playing with subtlety and nuance within that constraint. It’s more craft than art, this strange obsessive vocation we’ve chosen for ourselves- like the blacksmith beating and twisting a candlestick into shape or the master carpenter seeing the form of something within a block of wood. It’s all about acquiring the tools to master the craft, and then learning to deploy them with a degree of minimalistic proficiency.

  4. Blacks used to say (in the days of Jim Crow) that whites could never understand how good it felt being black. While obviously African-Americans hated being discriminated against, they could also enjoy life even under onerous conditions. I think what irritates upper middle class whites is that you did not include the obligatory description of your marginal status in society. But that marginal status really does exist–studies of happiness seem to indicate that above a certain level of income, happiness is pretty randomly distributed, but below a certain level, people are just unhappy.

  5. What a great piece. Thank you.

    Relatedly: I am a devoted housewife and stay at home mother of six children; I am completely fulfilled in my role as a quality wife to my successful husband and by keeping a lovely home, worshiping with my church, advising my husband’s professional decisions from the sidelines, managing our investments, reading voraciously and writing daily commentary in my personal journals. I am intelligent, well-read, an autodidact, and I write well. No one would every want to hear what I have to say on any topic, because I enjoy and freely chose my oppression at the hands of my husband and church and cannot discuss its horrors which is what the gatekeepers of expression would expect from me.

  6. I have 35 years as a carpenter, a Masters degree, and published a book of poems about work that got a positive review in the NYT some years ago. It was only dumb luck that inspired me to quit a pathetic job as an advertising copywriter and become a construction laborer. In the trades you don’t ever wonder whether you’re working hard or hardly working. You work. And with a trade, nobody asks you to work overtime without pay, or smile when you want to wring someone’s neck. Not having women around all day keeps things nicely simple. Respect is only a matter of doing your job well. More than once, I walked off a job when I was asked to do something I thought was wrong—and I was on a new job the next day. That’s what having a trade means. That’s what freedom feels like. Read about Tolstoy’s Levin mowing in the fields and his intellectual brother uncomprehending. Feeling sorry for the unfortunate is one of life’s principal pleasures—you’ll never change it.

  7. The only criticism I would make of this excellent article is the fact that ‘‘college educated professional’’ is really a redundancy. Surely, to be a professional one has to have a university education. Or are things different in the US?
    One of the things I have noticed about many people in the upper middle class is that they are very keen to be seen as better than those lower down the scale. Whereas, the old fashioned toffs were reasonably straightforward about this, and believed that they had a duty to keep society going. many of today’s upper middle class chatterati are trying to hide their snobbishness under a supposed sympathy for the ‘‘marginalised’’. Thus the poor have to be seen as downtrodden, because in that way the chatterati can engage in the right amount of virtus signalling whilst at the same time making it clear how sophisticated they are.
    Of course the whole point is that these chatterati have no interest in the ‘‘marginalised’’ ever escaping from the reservations. The chatterati want clients, not competitors.
    I’m pretty sure that the chatterati do not consciously engage in this hypocrisy, but the effect of it has been the real reason behind the growth of inequality.

  8. Kevin, this would be the clincher: tell them you voted for Trump (regardless of whether you did or didn’t.) Your publishing days would be over - forever, except for 8chan. Oh, sorry, that was shut down yesterday. As for your New York Times article, I am certain that they would issue a retraction of your piece and then throw you to the mob for vivisection. You would find out real fast just what the Social Justice Liberation Front thinks of the un-woke working class.

  9. You’re definitely onto something Kevin. But it goes so much deeper than just elitist journalism.
    When we live in a world that worships at the feet of high achievers & encouraging children likewise, ‘chopping wood & carrying water’ does’t hold much stock. ‘Contentedness’ is a dirty word. Perhaps unconsciously they resent peace or they just don’t get it & then they wonder where all the anxiety comes from.
    I was at a dinner party recently where all the attendees were in ‘high powered’ jobs & as the only ‘house wife’ I was asked “excuse me, but why don’t you work?”. A hushed silence ensued with all breathlessly awaiting answers to this ‘troubling’ choice.
    It’s very easy to blame it all on the elites but the truth is it’s up to the ‘little people’ to value themselves & pass it down the line.

  10. I hope you had answered that you’re working all the time on your life. That’s what your project is.

  11. The over-educated, NPR-listening, office-working liberal crowd need to feel assured they made all the right decisions in life, even though they’re more or less miserable and unsatisfied. Thus they require constant reports regarding how miserable the blue-collar working class and various groups like black people are. These reports make them feel better about their generally unhappy situation, and also help sustain a feeling of superiority.

  12. I really enjoyed this article. I work with a lot af skilled craftsmen and women. They take immense pride in their work and it shows.

    Yet I see them being denigrated all the time as a class in the media and social media. What you are describing is no doubt a more subtle form of that ‘lessening’ of non college degreed people and their occupations.

    Not surprising at all that many don’t feel affinity for the media, politicians pushing college for all and others who in so many ways convey their distaste for them.

  13. It’s fairly new stateside, but yes.

    When I started my professional life, it was “a degree OR five years experience”- it allowed for people who were home-grown talent to, you know, find other jobs.

    Somewhere about 5-10 years ago, that became “degree only.”

    Now I’m seeing “graduate degree OR 5-10 years experience”.

    Mind, we’re not talking doctors. We’re talking largely technical people- engineers, purchasing agents, planners, project managers.

    In the engineering profession, there used to be a lot of engineers who started as maintenance techs, or military techs->maintenance techs->engineers. Guys had real hard skills, and represented the majority of the guys that were kinesthetic learners. If you wanted to really know about something, those were the guys you engaged- frequently you could barter writing report scripts or stat analysis.

  14. Thank you for this essay!!! I loved it! I felt like I was reading about myself. I’m a writer as well, and, like you, over the years, have made decisions to support my writing as opposed to significantly build my finances. I’ve noticed the same thing as you.

    The class snobbery is so embedded that they aren’t even aware of it. Honestly, even if you bring it up, they are oblivious (at best); at worst, they attack. I think social media encourages narcissism to the point that now large swaths of people have a personality disorder… I’m only partly joking…Anyway, they simply cannot see out of their very small bubble and truly believe everyone lives like them, that they are the ‘normal’ group, that ‘everyone’ works in white collar jobs. So when they write about ‘leaning in’ or the glories of their fabulous white collar job, they believe they’re writing about ‘everyone.’ The nameless faces who aren’t working in cushy jobs, they categorize as either a) miserable wretches who are subjected to the evils of capitalism or b) Brown and Black people they need to rescue from the evils of racism.

    If you go against that narrative, you are the problem. So that’s why your articles have to be ignored. You can’t be a happy blue collar worker working for a large corporation. That’s not possible. You can be a happy worker earning $10/hour working for a politician. You can be a happy worker earning $10/hour working for a large publishing company. That’s because upper class people take these jobs so they’re Good. But lo the fire and brimstone if you dare to be a happy $10/hour Starbucks’s worker or a happy $10/hour meat packer. Unless you’re an illegal immigrant. Then it’s a great job and American citizens ‘won’t’ take it because they’re ‘lazy,’ unlike hardworking illegal immigrants. IN other words, the jobs are defined by how much they support they anti-capitalist pro-intersectional narrative. You are preferably not allowed to even speak if you go against that narrative. Shut up, you racist deplorables, & vote Democrat.

    Another issue is that they truly think that they’ve gotten where they are through 100% merit—I don’t mean people who’ve worked their way up. That’s admirable. I’m talking about people whose first internship they got because Daddy is friends with the board; and the first job because Mommy’s brother works there, and so on.

    Every time I see a mediocre writer mystifyingly get featured or land a lucrative or prestigious position, I look at their bio. They are almost invariably either a) very very well connected, eg, husband worked for Obama, or Daddy is the top 100 wealthiest people in America or b) they come from an intersectional class that it considered the most marginalized, and by ‘marginalized’ they don’t mean actually marginalized; they view it solely through their own categories, and these favor their own social class. So an upper class or very wealthy “Brown” person will be considered ‘marginalized,’ whereas a white person growing up homeless with a dad in jail and friends dying of drug overdose—this person has “white privilege” and doesn’t need their golf handicap.

    At any event, this essay struck a chord for me! Well done, and good luck to the author.

  15. I imagine if your husband weren’t in a high paying job their response wouldn’t be to question your choice, but rather, to outright tell you “you need to get a job.”

    Of course, the chances that you would be in the same kind of company in that case are pretty slim. People tend to self segregate by income level.

    Below a certain income level contentedness is not just a dirty word it’s a sin. Being poor must always be portrayed as a miserable prospect because no one would ever work again if they could be content with less, right?

    Are humans really that obstinate that they must be poked and prodded and threatened with deprivation to work? That is what they seem to imply when they ignore stories of low wage workers or tradesmen who sincerely enjoy their work or their associations with their coworkers.

    They also imply that all the unpaid work that people do as stay at home parents or caregivers has no value.

    To me, this really makes the definition of ‘work’ very narrow. If it’s only considered work when you are being paid for the task you are completing, then what is everything else you’ve ever had to do to keep yourself and your family alive? Especially the tasks that are paid for in other circumstances.

    It’s like we’re supposed to believe that humans only have two modes: Working or not working. I don’t know about you, but after I reached a certain age I had to start actually doing things to live. Food doesn’t jump off the grocery store racks, run over to my house, prepare itself, and then jump into my mouth.

    What is the difference between cooking in a restaurant for pay and feeding a family every day for decades? What about feeding a family every day for decades for pay?

    If you hired someone to do all of your cooking for you, they would be working. But in all the years you cooked, you were not. If you hired a babysitter to go back to work you would have been deemed more productive than all the years you spent caring for and raising your children. Even taking care of your family’s finances is something that would be considered work if you had paid an accountant and financial advisor to do them for you.

    I think that they don’t want to acknowledge that a single stay at home parent is being productive because then it might be possible that any person who is not working for money may also still be productive.

    That makes it really hard to sell the narrative that people who aren’t working for money are just lazy. Or that the working poor who still need government assistance are just looking for a handout rather than just working harder or more or finding a better job. It makes it really hard to blame the realities of poverty on poor people themselves.

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