"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I know this letter isn’t on par with most of your letters, but I am in desperate need of career advice. I graduated with a master’s degree in a specific field (library science) a few years ago. It took me over a year to land my first job in the field, and I’m stuck at the bottom of the ladder in a medical library. The job I have isn’t really in the field I would like, and although I have been applying to my dream job for over four years, I’ve never had so much as an interview. I have been doing everything “they” tell me; networking, going to workshops, continuing education, willing to relocate, and still nothing.
My question is this: Is it OK to give up? I could be working in a nonprofit or in administration somewhere, and I feel like I’m wasting my time here. The field is flooded my new grads every year and more and more people are going for their MLS’s. It’s only going to get worse. How long before I am allowed to give it up?
Treading Professional Water
Dear Treading Professional Water,
There is a field you like. You would like to work in it. I suggest you work in it.
But how can I work in the field without a job? you ask.
You don’t need a job to work in a field. You can just go and work in that field.
This is easier in some fields than in others. For instance, to write all you need is a pen. To ride horses, you need a horse; horses cost more than pencils, but then again a horse doesn’t wear out, and you can borrow one.
The principle is the same: Without asking for permission, you start doing the thing that matters. The idea is to do the thing that matters as much as you can.
What is the thing that matters? You know what field you want to work in, but what is the thing in that field that matters? You may have to do some work to suss this out.
What is the doable thing in that field? Is it painting? Is it playing in an orchestra? Is it organizing events? How do you do this thing, the doing of which you desire so keenly?
One problem with my solution is that our jobs exhaust us so that we cannot pursue the thing we actually love. That means that sometimes we must be strategically chaotic and allow for failure; we must let things fall apart. We may think of ourselves as responsible and competent. That can work against our own best wishes. We may believe ourselves to be good, responsible people who would not let anything fall apart. So we must entertain the notion that certain aspects of economic life are a con. We must entertain the notion that we are suckers, chumps, schlemiels. For instance, when you look around at all the irresponsible and undeserving people who for no apparent good reason are given responsible positions they don’t deserve and you wonder why, one reason is that part of work life is a con. Some people know this and don’t bother to tell you because a con works better if not everybody knows it.
So, in a loving way, I am asking you to be a little bit reckless and irresponsible and see what happens.
Is it amoral and irresponsible of me to say this? I sort of hope so. I’m trying to indicate that in the world of work there are amoral and anarchic forces at work, so you can let a dish fall to the ground now and then if you don’t want to be a waitress all your life.
It’s just the way things are, anarchic and caveman-ish. And also full of magic.
Doing the thing that matters will make you happier even if you are making no money at it. I can’t tell from your letter what this thing is, so you may need to work just to identify it. It may have lodged in your mind as a job for so long that you have forgotten it began as an activity. So break this desired career down into its activities and test each one, taste each one in your mind and ask, is this the activity that ripples through my spine, that explodes lotus flowers in my mind, that makes my heart speed up? Taste each desired activity.
Now, you can’t do this just off the cuff. It needs preparation. It needs the kind of preparation one does for making love, or for meditation. It needs the preparation of a room and the preparation of the items to be tasted. I don’t know what these items are for you. But lay out all the things related to this, and taste each one. Dream of each one. Lay them out and gaze on them.
Or maybe you know already what the activity is. Fine. Go do it. Keep doing it. Become known as the person who does this, and eventually you will find some way to make money at it.
Best of luck to you.
As an afterthought, I would like to make a bit of a social or political critique: One reason I don’t give career advice per se is that I think “career” is often an artificial and unsustainable construct. It suffers from the same unreality as our view of the economy. That there can be an endlessly expanding economy strikes me as foolish, as does the notion of a career as an endless ladder up.
What matters are the concrete things you’re doing in your life today.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)