How to Survive the Recession

Or: A few simple things we can learn from my friend Monroe, the Jamaican cab driver

Lots of youngish and not so youngish writers have been asking me for career guidance these days.

That of course strikes me as totally weird, mostly because I think of myself as not yet a grown up (the Peter Pan complex lives large in the profession), but also because I feel in perpetual need of career guidance myself, a state of being endemic to the profession.

Still, I get it. I’ve been writing and editing for a long time, decades even, and maybe the advice seekers look at me—and people like me—and figure some sort of wacked out wisdom must have filtered down through that cerebellum by now. It could also be that things are just so miserable in the writing profession at the moment that I land in a check-off list of things you’re supposed to do when looking for a job. i.e. reach out to people who may be able to offer up a contact or two. [SIGNUP]

Here’s the problem, though: the only advice I have, especially when cornered and pressured to answer quickly, is the pretty unhelpful standard fare: (1) keep beating the bushes, my child, and (2) unless you think you may literally expire from melancholy if you don’t write for a living, you might want to consider alternative professions. Health care is said to be booming.

As for contacts, yes, I have them, but a lot of good that’ll do. Everybody I know even peripherally still involved in the writing business is as freaked about the state of things as the jobseekers, and because they’re older, more so. It’s not a pretty picture all the way around, and it can make you just plain sad to think about.

But there is another way to think about all this, which I like to call the Monroe Way of Alternative Thinking.

Monroe is a cab driver I met in Jamaica.

I met Monroe years back, at a time when my wife and I had a little extra cash and decided to splurge it all on a 10-day respite in Negril. We plopped our money down for one of those swanky all-inclusive bungalow-complex type places, the kind where everything’s paid for in advance, and what’s not is charged to your room so you really never have to leave the complex and run into anything that might disturb your island high—like, say, reality.

And, I must say, the bungalow we had was pretty swell. Day one, we woke up in the morning, swung open the doors, and there it was—sand, palm trees, lapping waves less than a football field away. Went to breakfast, exchanged a few passing words with fellow vacationers—“Another day in Paradise!” was the favored greeting of the day—then back to the room: bathing suit, beach all day, happy hour cocktails, dinner, rum nightcap, bed.

Can’t get much better, mon.

Day two, same thing: Another day in Paradise!

Day three, I knew one thing for sure: the first person that greeted me with “Another day in Paradise!” was going to get it in the forehead with the closest butter knife.

And that’s when I met Monroe.

Instead of marching back to the bungalow after breakfast in tight formation with the other dozen or so guests of the complex and getting into our bathing suits, I headed in the other direction, out a side door and into a parking lot. That’s where I found Monroe, leaning against his car, which was running with the aid of barely working muffler. He was enjoying a bright and early morning spliff.

Monroe and I fell into conversation—he was planning his first trip to the states, maybe New York, or maybe Oakland, California, which did I think was better?—and before too long we settled on a plan and a price for a full-bore Monroe cab tour of Negril, which would include many stops and a promise that we’d see parts of the island few people get to see.

Within five minutes, the wife and I were bumping along the backroads of Negril in the backseat of a car with no air conditioning and not much of a muffler. For the next five hours, Monroe took us around and through Negril, showing us the big fancy homes of the American pot dealers who arrived in the ‘60s and never left; and the village where he lived, where we met his siblings, who worked in the open market selling everything from incense to pipes to lotions. Along the way, Monroe told us about the island, how it worked and how it didn’t, the laws you had to obey and the ones you didn’t, the ways to be safe and the ways you can put yourself in danger. The time flew.

Monroe had us back to the complex in time for happy hour, where the other guests, many of whom expressed alarm at not seeing us at our designated spot on the beach all day, greeted us with relief. Where had we been?

Over rum drinks and Red Stripes, we told them all about Monroe and our trip through the back roads of the island, sparing little detail about what we saw and what we learned. They didn’t seem to react much.

But the next morning, after breakfast, when I went out to the parking lot to say hello to Monroe, there were five or six guests of the complex standing around, negotiating with Monroe to get the same tour. Monroe was a happy guy.

So, the point here is—yes, there is a point—that if given the time and a willing ear, that’s the advice I’d give to somebody who wants to write for a living: break from the pack, take a chance, learn something new, throw some caution to the wind.

It’s not the safest advice—“Jamaica can be a dangerous place, you know”—and things may not work out exactly the way you hoped, but it sure beats staying in place, just hoping and waiting for something to happen, no matter how bright the sun seems to be shining day after day.

Tim Whitaker (, a writer and editor, is the executive director of Mighty Writers.