06/03/2010 11:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Selling Books in the Big Apple, and the Lessons Therein

Heading from my year as a Henry Luce Scholar in Mongolia to New York City in the fall of 2008 was a recipe for a rude awakening; my chosen field of publishing/editing was burning to the ground. I spent five months in NYC before three New York universities didn't give me enough financial aid for their MFA programs and I headed back to Mongolia to work for The Asia Foundation as a literary translation editor. Those months were something of a study in How To Be Existentially Lost Without Knowing It, but what else is there to learn from a California ranch girl's stay in the big city at 24 years of age? I made every mistake in the book, and I was right on the mark.

Jobs were hard to find, my abilities as a writer not in particular demand--and in fact were the source of some of my angst. What good did a concern with narrative, and a sensitivity to imagery and sensory perceptions, do for anyone who wasn't traveling the world? I moved to Ditmas Park, not Park Slope, and worked for peanuts, not Random House. The gig was a good one, however: selling books at events for Mobile Libris, an event bookseller based in the garment district of Manhattan. I sold Rick Warren Vernon Jordan's book at a release party in the Rainbow Room. I sold poetry books in dingy Brooklyn bars at boozy readings. I sold cookbooks at fancy soirees at the Soho House. And I learned why it's okay to be a poet from a hedge fund manager.

That particular night, a cold one in February, I picked up the requisite large black suitcase of books on the landing of the apartment building on 28th St, dragged it down onto the subway with the quiet help of haggard 9 to 5-ers on their way home, and popped out a few sweaty minutes later for that evening's event: a lecture at a prominent business school's alumni club on the 40somethingth floor of a 6th avenue skyscraper.

Up in that conference room, I sat with copies of the book by a financial advisor on how to cure oneself of money obsessions. There were perhaps six people there, all top-tier hedge fund and other financial managers. "I want to ask each of you here," the author said, "how did you come to your attitudes about money? What memories do you have of your parents' habits or things family members said to you when you were a kid about money? How has that shaped your beliefs?"

That was the moment, sitting on the windowsill with a credit card machine next to a stack of books and $44 in my bank account, that I valued my existence as a wayward poet, diving into memories and emotions and looking for meaning there. That was when I allowed in the concept, truly, that the unexamined life is not worth living. That meaning is not distinguished from narrative, and that if small- or sea-changes are to occur in the way humans treat one another and themselves, we must go back to the beginning, and include each event speckling the personal narrative. One of the most revolutionary things a human can say to another, from the royal to the poverty-stricken: you matter, as much as anyone else on the whole earth. Your story matters. What happened, since you were born? What happened to you?

New York was a journey in narrative. I watched a city of 8 million people function on the premise of the five-second-evaluation in order to function within the framework of a single human day. I heard, sitting quietly there next to the credit card swiper, story after story told by one person about someone else, and they started to seem as fictional as the books I sold.

If there was a refrain to what I observed and I were to generalize about it, I would say New Yorkers seemed wedded to narratives based on a) there being very little time to do something and b) very few people one could trust. I'm still enough of a west coast optimist to believe that most times someone commits a deed described as "immoral," some loss, some abuse, or some misinformation has bled into the life of the person to render them on the fringes, to render them an abuser themselves. If you are hurt when you are young by circumstances beyond your control, and you do not have support to move out of them, you may resort to stealing or lying or a host of other options. The justification? "It's not like life handed me anything but crap anyway." That narrative is always available, and it can lead to the deeds we hopefuls envision a future without.

One comely woman at the business school alumni book discussion said, "My friend just got laid off, and she's gone to Chile to bring computers to schoolkids. She's always wanted to. This is a way to think of the recession: the opportunity cost of following your dreams has just fallen."

In other words, it's all in what you tell yourself. It's all in the story, your story. My story had those hedge fund managers in it now, reminding me I'm young and broke enough to follow my dreams with little fallout. I'll retain my concern with emotions and words, though I may never be paid for it; it's too intrinsic to the human heart to ignore, from Mongolia to New York and all places in between where we beautiful and imperfect story-mottled creatures dwell.