HMV:When I Became a Serious Writer

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Not the one I worked at, but very similar in size and shape.

It occurred to me that twenty years ago as of the 23rd of September, it’s been twenty years since I’d started what would be one of my favorite jobs ever.  Never mind that it was a fifty-mile, hour-long commute one way.  Never mind that it didn’t pay enough for me to quickly get caught up on all my bills.

Dude: I was working in a record store.  That’s all that mattered.

But I’m not going to go into detail about the store too much here; I’ll be doing that over at Walk in Silence tomorrow.

No, instead, I’ll talk a little about the food court, which was across the way from my store.

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Solomon Pond Mall food court: where I had my initial interview, where I ate far too much fast food, and where I wrote a novel.

The mall was built around 1995 into 1996, so it was still shiny and new when I started working there. HMV was the first and only music store there at the time –not to mention this was before the file-sharing boom — so in those few years I worked there, we did pretty good business.  We were in a good spot as well, so kids were always stopping in on their way to meet their friends elsewhere.

The last time I was at that mall was ten years ago, when we went to visit a few people in the area and had some time to kill.  It hadn’t changed in the six years since I’d left the job, other than that the store closed up in 2001 and a Hollister was put in its place.  A brief visit to the mall’s website shows that a lot of the original stores are still there.

HMV was the first long-term job I started after I moved back from my ill-fated stay in Boston a year before.  After the short-term stay at the Leominster Sony theater, a six-month stay at WCAT, and a temp job at my mother’s bank downtown, I had to get hired somewhere, most likely out of town.  I loved my hometown, but I’d long grown out of it.  I needed to figure out a way to live in the larger world.

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The western wing of the mall, looking east. There was a Waldenbooks just out of shot to the right.  My store was to the left of that ‘Food Court’ sign in the distance.

Writingwise, I’d kind of dried up a bit.  The process of writing True Faith had stuttered to a halt for personal reasons.  I’d given up trying to rewrite the Infamous War Novel by this point, having finally trunked it.  The songwriting and the poetry were drying up as well.  It definitely wasn’t that I’d given up…it was that I had nothing to write about.

When I started the job at HMV, I wasn’t exactly sure how long it would take me to get there and back (even though I’d timed it during my initial interview in mid-August), so I would make it a point to get there with time to spare.  My hours were from opening to late afternoon: somewhere around 9 to 5.  Eventually I timed it so I’d get there about an hour to a half-hour early.  I’d sit out in the food court with another coffee and relax.  No stress when I started the job proper, then.

It didn’t take long for me to realize this was a perfect time to do some writing.

By late 1996-early 1997 I was out there every morning, working on something.  My usual spot was the table closest to the store.  [In the food court picture above, it would be right in front of that Dunkies at the far right.  I chose that one deliberately so I would see the store’s lights go on when whoever opened got there before me, signalling it was time for me to clock in.]

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Similar tables and chairs to the ones I used to sit at.  I remember that wave pattern well.  The zipper of my jacket would always get caught in those damn chair backs somehow.

I started The Phoenix Effect on 9 March 1997 at that table.  A number of personal and creative events had taken place between the start of my job and that date, and that morning I chose to start a completely new story.  I had no idea where I was going with it at first, other than the fact that it picked up where I’d left off with the spiritual/new age story ideas of True Faith and expanded on them significantly.  It would be less dystopian, that was for sure.

Soon I was writing three to five handwritten pages a day before I started the job.  I timed it so I’d get those words done, skip out for a quick smoke (a bad habit I’d picked up in college a few years previous), and then head off to my job.

After about a month of that, I realized it would probably be for the best that I start transcribing all this new work so I could start editing and revising it.  I’d already moved my computer downstairs to the basement of my parents’ house and was already working on other transcription projects and whatnot.  It seemed like the right thing to do.

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The Belfry, circa 1998, with the hand-me-down Windows 95 computer (my second one).  The writing nook was named so because of a bat problem one evening.  Note the various snacks, notebooks, music, and other distractions nearby.  Not shown: my addiction to playing FreeCell before I started a writing session.

By late 1997 and into early 1998, I was finishing up the handwritten version of The Phoenix Effect and working on a good solid revision, and by the end of that year I was ready to try my hand at submitting it to agents and publishers.  I was also working on a sequel during my morning mall sessions.  And I’d kept up with the publishing field as I went along.  I knew what I was doing, and what I wanted to do.

This was the first novel since the IWN that I’d completed and submitted back in 1987, so I considered all this a pretty damn good milestone.  Even as TPE was rejected left and right (and for good reason), I knew then I had a chance of making this a lifelong career.

I knew I was a writer at that point.

Alas, by early 2000 the job had become unbearable due to the change in management, hierarchy and schedule.  I still made it a point to work on my writing on a daily basis, but it had become close to impossible to keep the same writing habits I’d had just a few years earlier.  The most I could do is head down to the Belfry every night and work on revisions.  I became stubborn about it.  I would not give this up.

By autumn 2000, I’d quit that job and started a new one on the other side of the state.  It was a shorter commute (thirty miles instead of fifty), the pay was better, and the schedule was a hell of a lot more stable.  By early 2001 I’d switched to first shift, which let me out at 2pm.  I had the entire afternoon and evening to write.

And write I did.  And I’ve never stopped since.

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Spare Oom, 25 September 2016 — still writing, still listening to tunage, still snacking, still distracted.

Twenty years later and that novel went through numerous revisions and morphed into a trilogy and an expanded universe.  My music now comes to me from streaming radio stations, ripped cds and downloaded mp3s, and is all stored on two tiny external hard drives each about the size of an index card.  I work from home and my commute is one room over.  I’ve self-published two books of the trilogy, with the third on the way.

I still think about that store from time to time.  I still consider it one of my favorite jobs ever, even if it was retail.  Even near the end, when my manager and I weren’t getting along.  Being surrounded by music all day kept me happy and entertained.

And most importantly, the job helped me create a solid and dependable writing schedule, and it helped me prove to myself that I could balance a Day Job and the Writing Career at the same time with minimal issue.

Without that, I’m not entirely sure where I’d be in my writing career today.

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