When I was 7 I made up a game called Paperwork. The goal was simple: Hand a sheet of my dad’s blue printer paper to my younger sister while saying “Take this!” expecting her to file it in an nonexistent cabinet.
I had a rotary phone on what passed as my work desk (it was normally where my sister colored in coloring books, but this afternoon I had taken it over). The phone wasn’t plugged into the wall.
This, to me, was the start who I would become: A swarthy, no nonsense, nacho-inhaling go-getter who made a living writing and entertaining people.
And that’s why I’m kicking back today to reflect on my work for International Women’s Day, which is celebrated in more than 100 countries and is an official holiday in more than 25. The holiday has strong political roots around the world, where women protested and fought for recognition in the workplace.
Since my early days making deals on a dead rotary phone, work has given me a sense of identity I couldn’t get anywhere else. I started writing teen movie reviews for The Charlotte Observer at 13 years old. When I aged out at 17, I was devastated. A has-been already. I fell into bellydancing and writing lurid short stories for a few years until I went to paralegal school.
My work perils started during my first paralegal internship: I didn’t know how to dress for the job I wanted. I wore silver sparkle flats, an A-line skirt with orange flowers and bright pink lipstick. I wanted to move the extra shelves out of the office they loaned to me, but instead of waiting for the mail boys to do it, I asked two of the blue-shirted partner attorneys. I watched them heave that shelf out of my office, and I was promptly scolded in Human Resources for my faux pas.
The only way to get ahead in the legal world was to appear invincible. This was before showing up to work sick was considered a real health risk; it was annoying but you were a trooper for showing up. I laid in an empty conference room, writhing with a fever. And then I surprise ralphed into a garbage can. I could have called in sick then, but no. I tied up the plastic bag, tip-toed like the Grinch across a hallway into the ladies’ room and tossed it into the garbage can without running into anyone. And I still made the meeting.
Unfortunately, no amount of power vomiting could make me invincible to sexism. Working in a law firm meant the good-old-boy attorneys asked you to buy lunch for them, or called you a “good girl” when you completed their expense report. They wanted you to stay in a certain strata and never move up the ladder, because then they’d have to share their resources and money with you. It was easier to keep their foot on your neck for your entire career.
For relief, I wrote at night after the 8:30-to-5 day was over. I’d fill a white bowl with cherries and fog up the computer screen with erotic friend fiction, stories for local publications and pitches for bigger ones. I had no idea where I was going with the writing. I only knew I’d die if I didn’t splatter the page with words.
I’ve never seen myself as a “woman writer.” I’m not sure what that means. I only know how to be me, at a desk, typing. That’s where I feel most like the woman I aspired to be. I looked to many writers to inform my feelings. Like Nora Ephron. Or Elizabeth Gilbert. Even an actor playing a writer like Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give.” I was obsessed with turtlenecks and seashells and a clean writing work space with a bay window overlooking the beach. That’s when I realized, yes, that’s the kind of woman I wanted to be.
It’s been three years since I left paralegal life and began playing Paperwork in my own business as a copywriter, editorial writer and sometime entertainer. When I wake up each morning, I charge to my desk in The Thinking Room — my home office stuffed with seashells, a seagull figurine and books about queer liberation, humor and feminism. There is an urgency to express myself and contribute to the working world.
If that little girl with the blue paper could see me now, she’d say, “Take this!” And I would.
Photos: Joanne Spataro