Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I've Had One Million Jobs

Ok, more like thirty. One night a few years ago I was hanging out with my family, and my mom and I were thinking back over all the years, and about all the jobs I've held. And most of them were service industry jobs. It was impressive--in a "Did I seriously work all of those crappy jobs? sort of way--to tick them off: bag boy, warehouse worker, front desk check-in guy at a hotel, waiter (four times over), bus boy, bar bouncer, secret shopper, steaming clothes in the back room at The Limited. Yes, you heard that right: I was the steam boy at The Limited.

I even worked at the Smithsonian for a while. First in the Tricera-shop and then in the gem and mineral shop. The toughest part of my day was stopping teenage kids from running their hands through the huge vats of polished rocks and making tons of noise. That and listening to my coworker, an older gentleman with a long beard and decomposing fingernails, regale us about fossils.

But hey! How many people can say they worked at the Smithsonian? So I've never had to do international espionage for my job, nor have I starred in my own sitcom. And yes, I used to clean vomit out of trough-shaped urinals in a bar. But overall, I've worked so many jobs that if you lined them up end to end, they'd reach the sun--and that's something.

I bring this up because it is only in looking back that we can see how kick-ass we really are. Believe me, when I was in the middle of working for Lone Star Steakhouse, and when the "Watermelon Crawl" would start blasting over the speakers and us waiters would have to line dance up and down the rows of pasty-faced diners, I did not feel kick-ass. I felt like I was getting my ass kicked. But with a little distance and with the perspective only age can bring, I look back and think, "Wow, that was a funky time in my life."

As writers, we need a huge diversity of experiences. And that doesn't mean you should chuck your life out the window and move to Uganda. What it means is that if you find yourself in less than ideal circumstances--if, for instance, you're stuck in a city you hate doing a job you can't imagine getting up to do tomorrow, if hearing your alarm clock go off in the morning makes your hives break out in cold sweats, don't worry. You will be able to write about this someday.

You will not always have to flip pizzas until 3 A.M. and then ride your Schwinn woman's bike three miles home in the dead of night (stop looking at me that way). Maybe not today, maybe not next week, but someday you will write about these things. And someone will read your story and think: Damn, that's so true!

To me, what so often seems true in stories is when a character runs up against an obstacle that, at least in the beginning, there seems no possible way for them to overcome. You sit there as a reader saying, "There is no way she's getting out of this one." But somehow, more often than not, they do climb out of that sludge pit, they do find a way over that wall, and you feel really happy for them.

So here's the question: how can our characters suffer if we never have? I'm not telling you to love your imprisonment or embrace your captor, because that would be cruel. And don't suffer on purpose to fulfill some fantasy of the starving artist. What I'm saying is this: don't lose heart. There have been plenty of mornings in the past when I felt like driving right on past my place of employment into some Thelma and Louise cross-country odyssey. But I haven't. I hung in there, and I'm glad I did.

You may never win an award, you may never be invited to some classy literary party where you get to dress up all nice and meet fancy people. But what you write will matter, because you've been there and no one else has. So pay attention, because you'll need to record all you see someday.

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