Food things, mostly.

ETC.

The Way We Get By

Illustration by Rebecca Clarke

Illustration by Rebecca Clarke

First published here for VSCO. 

Of all the well-intentioned questions that strike panic in my heart, few are as paralyzing as: ‘Wait, so what is it exactly that you do?.’

I’d love to break it down in a non-tedious way, but:

a) I’m not really sure either.

b) Trying to explain it will likely bore you.

c) Plot twist: I’m going to bore you with it anyway because that’s the whole point of a directionless personal essay. Buckle up.

Like many people I’ve met in New York, my work involves doing a bunch of different things with semi-equal vigor. In lieu of the generously-salaried quasipolitical career I once assumed was in the works, I’ve amassed a tumble of varying (albeit complementary) occupations.

Case in point: I make a living as a food and prop stylist, recipe developer, photographer, and, when the mood strikes, a writer of sorts. I’ve dabbled in art direction, branding, social media consulting, and one of my offish titles is the relatively opaque communications specialist.

It’s tricky to consolidate this in a way that doesn’t sound elevator-pitchish when the ‘What do you do’-type questions arise. When they inevitably do, the conversation typically goes one of four ways. The first is a quizzical look and a, ‘So you’re, like, a food blogger?' (I am not). Others offer reassuringly sporty phrases like, ‘Woah there, quadruple-threat!’ or, ‘One-stop shop!’. A third group were only asking to be polite, and expecting a one-word answer, are now rightfully bored and wish they hadn’t bothered. The remainder nod implicitly; they’re a something-slash-something-slash-whatever-pays-the-bills, too.

So how did this mess come to be? Let’s unpack.

Buoyed by the you-can-do-anything optimism of my baby-boomer parents, I had naturally pinned myself as a complex and deeply nuanced artistic type whose creative genius could not be distilled into something so pedestrian as a regular job. 

Uncharacteristically, I was wrong. What I have instead is a stunted attention span and an inability to make up my mind; the apparent hallmarks of my generation. (Watertight anecdotal evidence for this generalization is a recent conversation with an Uber driver, who insisted myself and my peers have a 144-character-or-less threshold for imbibing new information because of “The Twitter”).

My ad-hoc degree/s (International Studies majoring in Global Politics coupled with Media Communications majoring in Public Relations, Marketing and Advertising) did little to refine my options. As per, my imaginary husband Alain De Botton is on the money:

“Universities are in the business of turning out a majority of tightly focused professionals (lawyers, physicians, engineers) and a minority of culturally-well informed but ethically confused arts graduates aptly panicked about how they might remuneratively occupy the rest of their lives.”

I was (/am) one such aptly panicked arts graduate.

It’s easy to romanticize ambivalence; juggling hobbies is a luxury indeed, and there’s literature aplenty to stroke the ego of the vocational drifter. Picture a languid Eve Babitz swirling the words, ‘I wonder if I’ll ever be able to have what I like or if my tastes are too varied to be sustained by one of anything'. 

I like doing a bunch of different things for the same reasons I flourish in breakfast-buffet situations: I want to fill my plate with all my favourite things. I'm scared of ordering the wrong dish à la carte.

While it’s tempting to conflate your noncommittal personality with a’ 70s-era artist-slash-writer-slash-goddess who played chess naked with Marcel Duchamp, my this-slash-that reality is less glamorous. Money aside, I like doing a bunch of different things for the same reasons I flourish in breakfast-buffet situations: I want to fill my plate with all my favourite things. I’m scared of ordering the wrong dish à la carte.

Lest I inaccurately suggest my line of work is a lavishly bohemian, Kerouac-esque alternative to more readily defined careers (in the same nauseating spirit of viral ‘Why Settle for Marriage When You Could Travel Instead?’ - type articles, which I’m convinced are the journalistic equivalent to herpes 4), it’s not.

I've found it in the interest of financial balance to diversify your skillset. This is especially true when your headlining craft is food styling.

In truth, a patchwork career — at least in my case – is largely concerned with staying afloat. Hemmed in by the constant threat of homelessness (included in every ‘Welcome-to-New-York-Get-Ready-to-Fucking-Hustle’ starter pack), I’ve found it in the interest of financial balance in to diversify your skillset. This is especially true when your headlining craft is food styling, which I’m sure we’ll agree could be described as ‘reasonably non-essential’ to the urgent workings of society.

I doubt I could stray far from the poverty line if forced to rely on just one area of expertise—particularly when the skill in question largely involves arranging linens around and micro-greens atop bowls of pasta. (Kudos to you if you can, though.)

When forced to pick an official occupation, as airline immigration forms so brazenly demand, I’m never sure which one to claim; much less which one I deserve to. If you occasionally get paid to write, are you a writer? Do you change your handle in the presence of those more accomplished, lest you be compared unfavorably? How many bylines do you have to accumulate before it’s LinkedIn official? What is the verb-to-noun tipping point? These are things I’d like to know.

Finding a more encompassing term for my scope of work has proved fruitless. The multi-hyphenate career lexicon is ironically barren, consisting to my knowledge of the words ‘slashy’ and ‘creative’.

Like many words ending in ‘y’ (tasty, hubby, smelly, grumpy) the term slashy troubles me unduly. I think my anguish stems from their collective proximity to baby talk – something that triggers my metaphorical-but-also-kind-of-literal gag reflexes like no other. But I digress.

There’s also ‘creative’, which—recently /disturbingly refurbished from adjective to noun—suggests a pseudo-hipster smugness not even I, a Williamsburg-dwelling millennial who buys kale from a farmers’ market and occasionally wears vintage denim, can palate. Already a parody of myself, stamping ‘creative’ on my (admittedly non-existent) business cards would be the final brushstroke in the caricature. (There’s also the term ‘multi-hyphenate’ itself, but my attempts to execute this verbally have proved disastrous thus far. )

But equally, what does it matter? If your biggest worry about your job is identifying the perfect way to summarize it, you’re probably perched in the nosebleed section of Maslow’s pyramid anyway. Hardly fertile ground for anguish, I agree. And I’m sure the buffet metaphor did nothing to contradict any Gen-Y entitlement speculations you may be nursing by now.

My approach to work, more or less like my approach to everything, is pretty similar to this essay; directionless, hazy, distracted. I’m envious of people who can understand their place, their trajectory, with the searing clarity I cannot. Of those who can brand themselves succinctly; of those know exactly what they are offering. If you’re not sure what you are, upon which yardstick can you measure success. When it comes to your vocational toolkit, diversity is a tough sell. The mental gymnastics of attempting everything is tiring. And the further I spread myself, the more the possibility of excelling in one area seems to evaporate. When your work is fun, easy and relatively lucrative, it’s easy to lapse into complacency; to lose focus.

The late writer Marina Keegan, aptly summed up mine (and I’m sure many other’s) angst in her essay, ‘Song for The Special’, first published in the Yale News: ‘I worship the potential for my own tangible trace,’ she writes. ‘How presumptuous! To assume specialness in the first place.’

I'm secretly terrified that I may never be a Didion or a Leibowitz and will conclude life as a moderately useful Swiss-army knife of the food and lifestyle industry.

It feels silly and selfish to admit the same. But I’m desperate to leave my own trace: book, a hung photograph, my name in the credits—any degree of permanence. I want my work to exist offline, to count for something. How can you do that with attention divided? I’m secretly terrified that I may never be a Didion or a Leibowitz and will conclude life as a moderately useful Swiss-army knife of the food and lifestyle industry; of being someone who once had a marginally-higher than average Instagram following; of drifting into obscurity.

How audacious.

When people are striving impotently to make ends meet; who have genuine problems plaguing their waking hours; how entitled to be crippled by the specter of not reaching your imagined potential. Of having to pick one thing; of it being the wrong choice. It’s strange to reconcile that maybe I’m not cut from the same cloth as Didion or Leibowitz. Why should I think I am? Maybe we’re not as exceptional as the parents who, with unsettling conviction, convinced us we were. How could we all be?

It’s vain to admit, but I do want to be. Because I crave the possibility of my own trace. Because I want to build something meaningful; something I can explain. It’s what drives my work—and for want of a better term (and in 2016, you’d think we would have found one), my ’career’. And I know others feel the same. We keep trying, sans clear direction, in the arrogant hope that one day our name might be shorthand for our skill set. I’m sure I’ll have a clearer answer for the ‘What Do You Do?’questions soon.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to chip away at a bunch of things and see what sticks. I’m grateful that I can.

Samantha HillmanComment