The Last Staple

I finally ran out of staples.

It took 25 years.

In my first job as a temp at the Writer’s Guild of America in Los Angeles, I went into the supply closet after hours and stole a crate of staples. Not a box, a whole crate.

The staples were for my manuscripts.

Writing was my thing. I was going to be a writer, and you had to get published to be a writer, so I temped during the day and wrote at night on my makeshift desk made out of an overturned door and two milk crates (I sat on the floor). Weekends were for mailing out manuscripts to magazines, in between eating 99-cent Big Macs.

I wallpapered my room in rejection letters. It was an act of resilience. You can’t bring me down! The world needs to see my words.

I remember getting a note from Mother Jones telling me they’d publish a story I wrote about three high school kids at a small-town carnival (yes, it was autobiographical; I was in my early twenties), but they’d only publish it if I were willing to rewrite the mom character who, they claimed, “had decidedly loose morals.”

I refused.

Soon, my wall was full of short, impersonal rejections, and it was time to move on. I went to San Francisco, where I still used a door as a desk but put it on two bureaus this time and got a proper chair. It was all email by then, so I’d started using fewer staples. But the rejections still came in the mail.

That wall filled up, too.

I picked up a job as a Recruiting Assistant for Tech Writers, not because I wanted to get into recruiting but because I wanted to be around other writers.

A strange thing happened at that job that I didn’t expect.

I liked it.

I got promoted and mentored. I loved staying late and listening to my bosses talk about clients, listening to our clients talk about their work. I loved finding jobs for people and making enough money to eat the sandwiches I wanted to eat. I was a natural-born matchmaker with an endless appetite for helping people reach their goals.

I got home from work too late to write proposals for magazines. Tomorrow, I thought, but tomorrow I was busy.

The quest for the next rejection letter became less of a priority.

I still wrote in my journal, typed out short stories, and scrawled ideas down on postcard mailers.

I’d developed a writer’s mind. I’d never see the world the same way.

I write without paper or screen. I write my thoughts, short stories always playing back in my head. It keeps me company, kind of like the young Cliff is always with me. He works hard. Gotta respect that.

My stories no longer needed staples. Everything was mostly email anyway. Over the years the need to fasten paper together all but disappeared. I’d use maybe 1 or 2 staples per month, for poems to girlfriends, lease agreements, letters of resignation, conference handouts, internet recipes, school field trip forms…

It took a while to empty out the last refill, but it happened: I pressed down on the stapler and nothing came out.

It made me laugh out loud, alone in my office. I almost teared up.

Coincidentally, I had a client later that day who had confessed to not caring about his work for most of his twenties, but then at 28, he decided to get serious. That’s why he’d called me: to get serious.

“I can relate,” I said, thinking about the trip into the supply closet 25 years ago.

It wasn’t just that I needed staples for manuscripts; it was a big fuck you to all those cubicles, the grey walls and fluorescent lights, the pompous guy in the elevator, the forbidden 5th floor. It was me shrugging off the persona of an employee and staking my claim as a writer. It was a tribute to my mind.

But, eventually, like my client, I got serious. Or found my calling. Or got sick of being broke. Or whatever.

It doesn’t matter.

It was a fortuitous turn: letting go of what I was meant to be and recognizing what I already was. And that those two things were actually not that far apart.

To be honest, I’m really only certain of one thing.

It’s gonna be weird buying staples.