Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I Remember...Working

One of my favorite books on writing is Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. One of her writing prompts in this book is "I remember".

When I look back on my twenties, one of the things that strikes me the most is how much they were defined by my work experiences. I spent more time working than doing anything else.

1. I remember doing several internships in college. I always wanted to be a professor, but I figured it would be good to get work experience in other fields in case I needed a Plan B. I soon learned that when many people think of the intern, they think, "Ugh, I do NOT want to stuff all these envelopes, clean out the file cabinet, or make dozens of calls. I know! Let's get the intern to do it so that we can all leave early! And let's make sure to look sympathetic when we dump all this work on her, so that she can't tell that on the inside we're laughing gleefully about the fact that we don't have to do any of this crap."

2. I remember working at my desk in the office that I shared with other graduate students on a Friday night. A group of grad students were getting ready to go out to a bar (not one of them invited me to come along), and one of them laughed when she saw me still sitting at my desk. She said, "It's Friday night," not in the robotic yet catchy way that Rebecca Black sang it, but as if it was some kind of social crime to stay in and work on a Friday night.

3. I remember wanting to hurl my books at them and reply with some witty retort, but I couldn't think of anything to say. It's too bad my "inner writer" had apparently taken the day off and couldn't come up with something equally condescending for me to say back to them, something like, "You're right! I mean, it's not like you guys don't burn the midnight oil every other night; the fact that I choose to work on a Friday night automatically means that I'm a loser!"

4. I remember working at the concession stand of a movie theater one summer and observing the way that people would get really emotional over their snacks. For example, one of my coworkers put butter on a bag of popcorn for a customer, only to get yelled at; the customer started screaming, "NO! I said NO BUTTER!" Everyone looked at the customer, not my coworker, with pity, because it's obviously the worst thing in the world if a cashier gets your order wrong. (The customer is always right...and will never let you forget it.)

5. I remember working in retail and how a nice customer once offered me a tip for being so helpful with his order, but I wasn't allowed to take it because it was against the store's "policy".

6. I remember working in a bookstore and how customers would often ask me for directions to various other places in Chicago. If I didn't know the answer, they would actually hold up the line at the cash register for several minutes because they wanted me to ask my other coworkers for specific directions on what was the best restaurant to go to or how to get to Navy Pier. I resisted the urge to say, "Um, I can't tell you how to get to Navy Pier, but I can direct you to our travel section where there are dozens of tourist guides on Chicago. I can also direct you to some etiquette books on how to not make your cashier totally lose it."

7. I remember how my hands shook the first time I wrote on the chalkboard during my very first class as a teacher.

8. I remember how I burst into tears at least once a week during my first few months as a teacher, just because I felt so overwhelmed. I'd be at home watching TV; a random commercial would come on and all of a sudden the tears would start flowing and wouldn't stop. I don't cry that often anymore, though I do still occasionally wring my hands at certain commercials, particularly the ones featuring "Wives", i.e., Basketball Wives, Mob Wives, Real (Annoying) Housewives, etc.

9. I remember how my high school students showed me poems and rap lyrics that they had written. It was so refreshing to see that they were learning to view writing as a way to express themselves and not just as something that they had to do for school.

10. I remember how I started writing in coffeehouses as a way to take a break from all the other work that I always had to do. Being able to enjoy good food and coffee while writing something that wasn't constructive criticism on students' papers or notes on my graduate research was a relief. My fiction writing became a comforting escape, especially because it was the one thing in my life that didn't feel like work. It soothed me enough to keep me from breaking down in tears in front of my students, hurling books at my classmates, or yelling back at rude customers. As long as I got to keep writing regularly, I had something to look forward to. And that made everything else a little more bearable.

What about you? When you look back over your work experiences, what are the first things that come to mind? What was something that helped you deal with the not-so-good experiences?

One of my favorite fellow bloggers, Richard Boemcke (whose writing always makes me wish that there were guys like him who lived in Chicago) recently released the pilot episode of his Web series, "Twentease", which he also wrote and starred in. I watched the first episode and I'm already intrigued; it's "a show about people not making it in their twenties". Check it out! I think you'll like it too.

Twentease - Pilot Webisode from Richard Boehmcke on Vimeo.


  1. I used to work in a book store so I found that funny about you being a tourist info advisor. Especially in a BOOK store w/ so many travel guides. Working w/ the general public can be a headache, or you can get loads of good material. I know I did & thanks for reminding me! :)

  2. I remember how I am alternatively not a worker and someone who words too much depending on how my family is feeling at the time. According to them, I either spend the whole day at home doing nothing or I work my fingers to the bone and I should just quit. I remember not understanding how they can think it's both at the same time. I remember feeling misunderstood 99% of the time. Oh wait, I'm still feel that way.

    A lot of your memories hit home for me. I write to escape the ambiguous criticism of my committee. I'm starting to wonder if it's me or if it's them. At least I can control what I write even if I can't control what other people think.

  3. HA! Slip-works not words. But really, aren't they the same thing?

  4. Hi notesfromnadir,
    A bookstore is a good place to get material, though working there did give me plenty of headaches. I think that the things that irritate us are often the things that are worth writing about.

    Hi Anna,
    I totally relate to your comment about "the ambiguous criticism of my committee". I really like and admire the professors on my committee, but at the same time it's often difficult to produce work that they will approve of. I've learned that their criticism is good and necessary, yet at the time it can be hard to figure out how to incorporate all of their suggestions into my own work.

  5. No butter? Who could eat popcorn without any better?

  6. Hi Whispering Writer,
    I definitely need butter on my popcorn. I think that customer who got upset figured that eating unbuttered popcorn would make her feel like she was being healthier; I think, though, that it's okay to treat yourself once in a while.

  7. Oh ugh, work experience. Yes. I remember so many, so vividly -- most of which I'd love to forget!

  8. Hi Talli,
    There are plenty of work experiences that I'd like to forget too; unfortunately it's often the not-so-good memories that refuse to go away.

  9. I love this post. These experiences have brought you to the person you are. I can relate to the shaking hands and the tears. Teaching is hard.

    About a year ago, I wrote a post about my jobs, nearly all of them in my 20s:


  10. Hi Theresa,
    I enjoyed the way that you described your work experiences in your post, especially because I could relate to several of them. I also worked in a grocery store when I was a teenager, and I didn't like it very much either; basically being a cashier means that I did the same thing over and over again for several hours a day. Based on your description, it's easy to see why you favored teaching over your other jobs; that professor you described sounds like he was a wonderful mentor.