Is being a writer worth the spoon-ring job?

Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2004

Right before I moved to Portland, my landlord, Joe, wandered over to give me some advice about making it in the world Outside.

"I ought to teach you to make spoon rings," he said, giving me a serious look. As usual, he was standing on my front lawn in a Hawaiian shirt, holding a Labatts. "All you need are some spoons and a ring sizer. You make good money."

I didn't know it at the time, but Joe's sentiment was right-on. Everybody needs a spoon-ring skill, something you can do when money's tight and you just need a little extra cash. The way I had it set up, I was writing freelance stories part of the time and temping the other part. The idea was the temping was my spoon-ring job. And it was paying for the writing, which, at least in theory, was something I liked to do.

Then, around the middle of January, the temp agency quit calling. After three weeks without temp work, I decided I had to try something else. When I looked into it, child-care positions were all that were readily available.

How hard could it be? I'd baby-sat in high school, and even been a live-in nanny for a summer in college. I could read books and make peanut butter sandwiches and push strollers. A therapist once told me that watching kids was good for my inner child. Within a week, I had my first interview.

I met mother and son in a coffee shop near my house. Mother was pretty and from somewhere in the south. She gave son a sandwich cookie filled with jam, which he immediately spread on his lips like Chapstick. Mother left us to find napkins, and son conveyed the essentials: he goes to "Montessowri," has two pug dogs at home and he's recently had a birthday.

"I am fo-wer," he explained, holding up four jam-smeared fingers.

I liked him. The combination of jam and speech impediment was beguiling. Mother and I were just working out the details of a schedule, when son blurted, "I gotta go POTTY!"

Mother excused herself, and whisked son to the bathroom. Time passed. My tea grew cold. What were they doing in there? Then I knew. Despite the fact that he was theoretically potty-trained, son still needed assistance and was probably the type to yell for it from the bathroom. He was, as they say in the business, "a wiper."

I hadn't bargained for this. I had specifically decided I wanted to watch an older child because I didn't want to deal with diapers. But I would so rather have a diaper than a wiper.

Still, it didn't matter because it was too late. I had already committed.

I started to rethink my plan altogether. Was being a writer worth what I would have to go through in my spoon-ring job?

I suddenly wasn't so sure. Working in journalism is like going to college; you have to earn credits to advance. But to people at newspapers here, most of my credits in Alaska looked like they came from community college and didn't transfer. So, even though I have been working at newspapers for a while, I am a freshman again, delighted to take any assignment no matter how menial or boring.

I had just spent five days, for example, on a very dry story I'd been delighted to be assigned, covering city-planning issues. When it came out, a source's name had been misspelled through an editing slip-up.

When I write for newspapers, fear of mistakes tortures me, and even though the mistake happened not to be my fault, I still felt the smart of remorse. And all this - the worry, the dry stories, the freshman feeling - this is what I would be wiping for? I should have learned to make spoon rings.

Anyway, I thought about this all the way to my next dry assignment, a story about the anniversary of a 150-year-old Presbyterian church. I slipped into the back pew just as the old organ began to bellow. I was drifting off when the minister began a sermon about three servants who were given money by their master for safekeeping. Two of the servants invested the money, while the last one buried it. When the master requested his money back, he rewarded the two investors and tossed the guy who buried the cash to the lions.

I'm sure the story was partly meant to motivate parishioners to put bigger checks in the basket, but as the minister went on, I began to think about my spoon-ring job. It occurred to me that you never know when you are going to get fed to the lions, so you might as well invest time in something you care about, even if it is risky and hard.

The choir began to sing. I felt moved. Newspaper work is dry and worry-producing, but taking reporting assignments got me out into the city, and expanded my thinking. I decided that at least for the moment that was, for lack of a better phrase, wiper-worthy.

• Julia O'Malley is a former Empire reporter and now lives in Portland, Ore. She can be reached at

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