Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Value of Toothless Tonya

Being a hard worker does not make one great. After all, Mao Tse-Tung loved to roll up his sleeves and get to work, and Josef Stalin -- a busy beaver if ever there was one -- was a renowned workaholic. But there is something to be said for the art of work. Hard work gives us writers the opportunity to come out of our shells, to understand how real people really talk, to get a sense of their aspirations and their misery. And it humbles us, showing us that we must put in the hours day in and day out, that what we accomplished yesterday matters little next to the demands of the present.

These days, though, our society's reverence for hard work has waned, even as people are working more hours. I heard an NPR segment on Monday about meaning of Labor Day, and something clicked. E.J. Dionne, the writer and guest who'd written a Washington Post article on which the segment was based, argued that we no longer praise workers for their hard work, but instead we deify capital, i.e. money.

And I realized that's true. And also that it's sad and stupid, because people are working their ever-loving asses off right now and that wealth is being transferred to the super-wealthy, and if that keeps up, things will get bad. But I also realized it's stupid because, from the persepective of a writer, so much great literature has come out of examining the lives of workers: "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" (if you haven't read this book, please do), the U.S.A. trilogy by Dos Passos, "The Jungle." And it's enduring literature, because almost everyone can relate to the characters in these books, regardless of time period or geography.

And anyway, like I was saying before, working hard -- whether that be at a minumum wage job or as an engineer -- gives us writers a window into how the world actually works. Hedge fund managers may think they understand how the world works, but they don't. They're up too high. No, that's not real life. Who would want to be way up there where the air is so thin?

I've worked a trillion minimum-wage jobs in my lifetime: bag boy, administrative assistant, waiter, bus boy, front desk worker at a hotel, mowing lawns, flipping pizzas -- you name it, I've done it. Once, in college, I worked as a bouncer (which is hilarious if you know how non-confrontational I am) and at the end of each shift, it was my job to clean the vomit out of a huge, trough-shaped urinal with a mop. Yes folks, that's how I paid for books and rent my senior year of college. The crowning glory of my four years in higher ed. Cleaning puke.

But what's interesting is that, at the time, my friends (all of whom also had crap jobs while working their way through school) and I looked at our jobs as badges of honor. We inevitably worked beside "townies" (people who'd spent their whole lives in the tiny town where our college was located), and we all wanted not to seem like jack-asses to them. So we tried our best to fit in, enduring last-minute schedule changes to give Toothless Tonya more hours, putting up with derisive laughs from folks who'd been making pizzas since age 9.

But all of this worked to my advantage. I now know how people other than myself think and feel, I know their hopes and aspirations and I know how they can suck sometimes. Which helps me when creating realistic characters. Because if you don't have the ability to deeply empathize with someone who's completely different from you, then you cannot create rounded, interesting characters.

So if you're stuck in a dead-end job or if you're a recent graduate, and if you like to write, try (I know it's hard and it sucks, but try) to see your current situation positively. Because who knows? Your boss Bernie McBastard may find his way into your book someday.


  1. This is exactly what I needed to hear today, luckily scrubbing toilets is way in my past. I was an arrogant and disrespectful teenager that was humbled by these jobs, and I've taken those experiences into my writing. Excellent material.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Yep, I hear you -- it took getting my face mashed down into the dirt to open my eyes to the value of hard work. It makes you a better human being, if nothing else. There's no way I could ever look at anyone doing minimum wage work and think, "They just didn't work hard enough to get a good job" because often times, those folks are working much harder than those at the top. It baffles my mind how anyone could be so cruel, but I guess that's because I've been down in the trenches before. Anyway, thanks.