On change, maybe

I started a new job this week. As an archivist at a well-known, burger-making, Wisconsin corporation. And it’s got me all freaked out.

(I want to digress here, briefly, but for a reason:

I’ve been thinking a lot about San Francisco, lately, and McSweeney’s. My first adventure. I was an intern there for three months. It was hard. I don’t think I was very good – more on this word later, I think – at what I did. I wasn’t meant to be in publishing: it’s a job you need to do with a very, very, fine-toothed comb. I don’t have that kind of patience. McSweeney’s, for me, was exhilarating when I wasn’t editing: when I was answering the phone, when I was thumbing through new books, when I was fact-checking.

I used to stay up all night, early in that internship, and think hard about my work: was I good enough? I’d walk to McSweeney’s early in the morning. Through the Mission District, which was never open at that time. Left on Twenty-Second, left on Valencia. Those streets, for me, will forever be warm and hazy. All the interns sat at a big, dining-room-like table. There were never enough seats for us. Sometimes I’d work from the basement, on an old sectional that was clearly pulled from a staff member’s home. It was cool and lonely in the basement: the walls lined with old publications and original art. I thought a lot about earthquakes in that basement. We would’ve been doomed, I think. I really wanted a full-time job at McSweeney’s. And, if I did everything perfectly – if I said yes to everything, if I caught every typographical error, if I did all the right things – I’d get one.

I didn’t get one. Now, back to Wisconsin.)

I’ve spent my nights lately reading books: pouring over Corporate Archives and History and The Records of the American Business, thinking about mission statements and access policies. It’s odd. I know where to start. I don’t know how to start. To be given control over a project that has yet to be conceptualized – or even picked at – is unusual. What have I, in twenty-five years, done alone? (Professionally, let’s say. Because there’s plenty I’ve done alone.) My first job out of college was entirely solitary, but it wasn’t one that made me think: I was a file clerk at a big law firm in the Financial District of San Francisco. (Sometimes, mid-day, I’d sneak into a storage room and sit on the floor between the tall file cabinets. After ten minutes alone, the lights would turn off. I’d take naps.) But since moving to Madison – and even in San Francisco –, my work has always been monitored – and I certainly don’t mean that negatively. At the Historical Society, I work for a Board: the decisions made, the assignments completed, the documentation written – it’s all done with the guidance of professionals who have far more experience than I do. Class, too, is guided. Which is how it should be. But now here I am with this new job – this new desk, this new computer, this new title – and people are looking to me for guidance.

So, I’ve been reading. Relentlessly asking for advice. Attempting to plant myself somewhere in this field: somewhere between student and new professional. I’m still a student – I’ll be a student for another year, still, at least – but I’m also, you know, creating an archive. Leading an archive. Running an archive. I’m an archivist. Full-fledged. (I keep stalling here, right at this point, and I’m thankful that a friend – and noted giver of good advice, quote me on it – called me out on it recently. You’ll be a good archivist, he said. I hope so. I want to be, I said. And he said: You have to start being an archivist at some point, Sam. And he’s right.)

Good is relative, I know. I didn’t know this at McSweeney’s. Success, on some level, must indicate that something ‘good’ has been done – but, maybe not. Failure is good. I fail a lot. Confusion is good. Asking questions is good. (I ask a lot of questions.) Being intentional is good. Starting over is good. Being afraid is good. (Mary Oliver would say, actually, that I do not have to be good. That I do not have to walk on [my] knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. She’s right, for the record.) I want to be an archivist in many forms. A conscious archivist, a curious archivist, an intentional archivist. (The wise son, the wicked son, the simple son. Passover jokes.) I want to keep asking questions. I want to build something worthwhile. And, I want to do these things without attaching qualifiers to my work. I don’t want to end the day and ask, “Was what I did today good?” I don’t want it to be a yes-or-no question.

At McSweeney’s, my process was: do a task, seek approval. Do another task, seek approval. Do a third task, seek approval. I still fall back into that. It’s natural, I think. To want approval. But to let it drive me is a mistake, especially professionally. Right? (Look at me, seeking approval.) This time, I don’t think I want to be good. I want to be intentional. I want to be curious. I want to build something. That’ll be enough.

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