Sunday, September 2, 2012

Writer at Work

When I was growing up in Mississippi, in the 1940s and '50s, my father worked as a traveling salesman. And you might say we--my family--lived in a world dominated by work. My father had gained his job during the heart of the Depression, in 1935, and kept it until his dying day, in 1960. It was a source of considerable pride to him--not to mention relief, and the sponsor of most of our family's material well-being--that he had one job through the Depression, the World War, and all of the 1950s. His job meant viability to him--and to us as well. It meant self-esteem. It meant he was a producer. It suggested important self-knowledge and self-mastery. It implied some hold on good character. It solidified him as a family man. Work--having a job, being employed, making a living--became virtually synonymous with its gifts, and as such became a virtue in itself. Yes, the days were long, loneliness palpable and oppressive; the pay wasn't very good. There were no benefits. The work was sedentary and repetitive and humdrum. But those things didn't matter when stacked up against the alternatives: no job, low self-esteem, fragile viability, no pay, no nothing. His job, in other words, defined part of his moral world view....What you "did" might not have meant who you were. But what you did sure made who you were more plausible.

That's from Richard Ford's introduction to Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work, an anthology of short stories centered around the 9-to-5 lives most of us lead.  I'm no statistician (job!) or census taker (job!) or even social scientist (job!), but I'd hazard a guess that on this Big Blue Ball of ours there are more people who work than those who do not.  Employment and the application of skills--sometimes for money, sometimes for no pay--is at the core of our identity.  We are ants in the mound, bees in the hive, and office drones like the one portrayed by Tom Hanks in one of my all-time favorite movies, Joe vs. the Volcano:

As Ford notes in his introduction, jobs give us a sense of pride, self-worth, the satisfaction of being "producers." For the majority of us, we can't imagine not working--though if you ask us on any given day what we love about our job, we'll come back with a litany of complaints about long hours, incompetent/brutal co-workers, low pay, and backaches....all of it segueing into a sigh-filled confession about how we can't wait to take this job and shove it, find greener pastures of employment, and/or retire where, we believe, we'll spend our days gardening and doing 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles.

Still we work.  We travail, we toil, we turn the cogs of society's machinery with our labor.  We wouldn't know what to do with ourselves if we didn't.

I don't talk too much here about my Day Job, but even after retiring from the Army after 20 years as an active-duty enlisted soldier in public affairs, I went right back to work in a 40-hour-per-week desk job similar to the one I'd just left.  The other day, I was talking on the phone to an editor who wants to include my work in an upcoming issue of his magazine.  When I apologized for not returning his call right away because I was in a meeting with my boss, he said, a note of surprise in his voice, "Oh.  I thought you were a full-time writer."  While all writers are essentially "full-time," taking mental notes and jotting ideas on scraps of paper throughout the day, it's true that I also have a profession which takes up a large portion of my day.  It's an occupation which makes my life plausible, as Ford would say.  I am the public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Land Management's Western Montana District.  I squeeze my creative writing (job!) and blogging (job!) into the interstices of my work schedule--most of it in the early-morning hours before I report to the office.  There is a satisfaction to this daily regimen.  I can't not work.

To the best of my recollection, my first paid job was as a lawn-maintenance technician, hired by my father's Baptist church in Jackson, Wyoming.  In other words, I mowed the church lawns and my dad paid me out of the church's budget.  I was 11 years old.  Next came one of the best jobs I've ever held: I was hired by the Teton County Library as--well, I don't even know what they called my position.  I started by shelving books, then gradually moved up to front-desk duties where I checked books in and out, answered the phone, helped patrons find the latest Arthur Hailey novel, and flagged user's cards when they had overdue books.  This was long before computers and I can still remember sitting on a high stool at the front desk, with a long, deep drawer pulled out in front of me, with rows and rows of the rectangular cardboard cards filed by date and Dewey-decimal system (at least, I think that's how they were filed--my memory's a little vague on the nuts and bolts of the system).  I was 13 at the time--underage but ambitious.  Whether the head librarian knew my age and turned a kind, blind eye; or whether I so thoroughly bamboozled her with my Book Love, I'll never know for sure.  What I am certain of, however, is that you can trace a line directly from that library job to the desk where I now sit as a published novelist.  Just as Charles Dickens was shaped by his years in a blacking factory, so too was I formed by that drawer of library cards, their hard edges digging into my tender forearms as I flipped through, looking for miscreant readers with overdue books.

Since then, I've worked, at various times, as a cook at Mr. Steak, a theater-set builder, an actor in summer-stock theater, a manager of a boat-and-RV storage yard, a newspaper reporter and editor, a school janitor, a pizza-delivery driver, a video store clerk, and a tutor in a remedial writing program at a community college.  Each job has been satisfying and frustrating in its own way and has made me who I am today.

As we observe Labor Day tomorrow--a day designed to "honor the contributions and resilience of working Americans," as President Obama notes in his proclamation--I thought it would be fitting to share a few opening paragraphs from stories found in Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar--a collection with a long list of contributors, including John Cheever, Richard Yates, Junot Diaz, Stuart Dybek, Jeffrey Eugenides, Edward P. Jones, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tobias Wolff, Annie Proulx, Joyce Carol Oates, Lewis Robinson, Deborah Eisenberg, Thomas McGuane, Jim Shepherd and others.

The young man called Freckle Face, whose true name was Naldo de Arauja, was a bus driver with a dangerous route--through the Gully and along the waterfront to the airport and back, turning around at Central Square, where all the buses turn around, and doing it again, four times a day.
          --"The Gully" by Russell Banks

Drummond opened the shop every morning at seven so he and his boy could eat breakfast while the first dropoffs were coming in. The boy liked cereal and sat at the workbench in back, slurping his milk, while Drummond occasionally hustled out to the curb to help a secretary haul a cumbersome IBM from the back seat of a car. The front of the store was a showroom for refurbished machines, displayed on the shelves, each with a fresh sheet of white bond rolled into the platen, while the back was a chaos of wrecked typewriters Drummond would either salvage or cannibalize for parts someday.
          --"Drummond & Son" by Charles D'Ambrosio

For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.
          --"Pharmacist" by Elizabeth Strout

R.J. Bowman, who for fourteen years had traveled for a shoe company through Mississippi, drove his Ford along a rutted dirt path. It was a long day! The time did not seem to clear the noon hurdle and settle into the afternoon. The sun, keeping its strength here even in winter, stayed at the top of the sky, and every time Bowman stuck his head out of the dusty car to stare up the road, it seemed to reach a long arm down and push against the top of his head right through his hat like the practical joke of an old drummer, long on the road.
          --"Death of a Traveling Salesman" by Eudora Welty

And finally, I'll leave you with this video from Open RoadMedia in which James Salter, David Corbett, Edna O'Brien, Peter Blauner, Patricia Bosworth, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Susan Dunlap talk about how their non-writing occupations have influenced them as writers:


  1. Hmm...since high school? My first jobs were government jobs--typing up case reports in the office of probation, clerking in the chest x-ray screening department, clerking in the dog bite department (three strikes they're euthanized.) In college I worked for two department stores and did temp work. Right out of college I was a secretary at a publishing company, then worked for the Social Security Administration. That was followed by being a Mom, eventually working as a reporter for local newspapers, followed by being the communications person in a local school district. After moving and having my third child, I did some more newspaper reporting, taught piano, worked as a church accompanist, taught Music at a preschool. Since my last move I've taught piano, wrote for our diocesan paper for about 8 years so far, been the Communications Director at a monastery and retreat center for five, and done some more church accompanying.

    Long list--but I did graduate from high school in 1967.

  2. This was a great post, David. I don't know how you all that you do - and you do it so well. Good work, my friend. Have a great Labor Day!