Jobs are in the news. Young people can’t get jobs, or at least the jobs they’d like. People who assume they have jobs with the government aren’t being paid .. at least right now. Unemployment numbers are going down, but they still tell a sad story.
Even one of my granddaughters (aged 12) has been thinking of what job she’d like to have in the future. In the past six months she’s decided (at different moments) that she wants to be a lawyer, a cosmetologist, a baker, a rock star, a chef, or a nanny. Or maybe, she thinks, she could work at McDonald’s.
She has a few years to sort out those answers. I’m not worried about her. Yet.
But it got me thinking about jobs I’ve had. All my life it seems I’ve read about authors who’ve done just about everything. They’ve worked as waiters, spies, pizza deliverers, teachers, tour guides, movie extras, musicians … just about any job you might have heard of. A perhaps not-surprising number of my mystery writer friends were, or are, lawyers. (Kate Flora, I’m thinking about you!) Some writers have hitch-hiked the world. Or lived in a myriad of places in the United States and abroad.
You don’t often hear about the prior job experiences of someone like poet William Carlos Williams, who was a New Jersey pediatrician during the day and wrote at night. Or authors Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, both of who were customs inspectors at various times. It’s much more exciting to think of Walt Whitman and Louisa Alcott, both of whom worked as nurses during the Civil War.
So, I’m here to admit, my job history is limited. Although relevant.
My first job earned me fifty cents. I booth-sat for a dealer at an antiques show in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, while she was taking a dinner break. I was about twelve, and very proud to be entrusted with her booth. I glued the fifty cent piece I earned onto one of her dealer’s; cards, and kept it for years. It may still be in a carton of memorabilia somewhere. The first money I ever earned.
When I was in high school I worked after school and weekends at our local public library as a page; someone who shelves returned books. When I ran out of returned books I gradually worked my way around both the children’s department and the adult books (upstairs), checking each shelf to make sure the books were in the correct order. I found hundreds shelved incorrectly. The librarians loved me. I earned fifty cents an hour for that job, too, although my salary was upped by a nickel every six months. It usually came to $12-15 a month.
During my summers in Maine I worked at the Boothbay Playhouse a summer theatre Equity company, for six years — three in high school and three in college. I ushered, worked the box office, sold candy at intermission, listened to lines … and listened (while I was doing other things) to every performance during those years. One summer I also worked at The Boothbay Register, a weekly paper in Maine. I was the assistant editor. (The editor and I were the entire staff except for the Publisher, who pinched. A memorable introduction to the world of work.)
In college I babysat, typed other students’ papers, worked the college switchboard (an old-fashioned cord board,) and was in charge of the campus costume collection one year. (I majored in both drama and English, but was basically a “dramat.”)
The plays I wrote as an undergrad got me my first job in the Bell System, because I “could write dialogue.” Yup. All those years of listening to plays and then acting in them and directing paid off. I became an executive speech writer at 21.
And at AT&T I had an assortment of jobs over the years. Yes, I wrote speeches. But I also went on to write and direct corporate films, was on-camera talent and producer of a daily CCTV show, did patent law research, was in charge of a program under which AT&T managers visited shareowners, managed the annual proxy count, was part of a team that outlined for AT&T’s board how divestiture could be accomplished, helped implement it, worked in sales for a short time, and ended my career being in charge of the AT&T Archives and the people who answered customer complaints sent to the Chairman.
Some of my jobs were challenging and fun. Some were not.
While I was holding all of them, from the very beginning, I knew that some day I wanted to write fiction. In many of my jobs I wrote, but it was all (theoretically, at least) nonfiction. In my spare time I also wrote … poetry, and then newsletters and articles about adoption, and then literary short stories. I didn’t start writing mysteries until my late 40s, and although I wrote plays for children’s theatre in college, I didn’t write for children again until my early 50s, when I wrote my first historical for young people.
So, as I think back, did I waste all those years? Some people have suggested I should have started writing fiction much earlier; perhaps in my twenties. That those corporate years were wasted years.
But those years paid the bills and enabled me to adopt my four daughters, to offer a home to my mother when she needed one, and to save enough so that when I became a full-time writer, in 1998, I had some money to fall back on.
And I learned a lot in those years, even about writing. I learned to write for different audiences, from The Business Roundtable to assembly line retirees to engineers. I learned to focus and strategize and plan and organize the way I worked, which is an enormous help now, when I don’t have a secretary or assistant to delegate to. I became comfortable either in front of a camera or addressing large groups. I met people in many walks of life, from women who’d spent their careers working on assembly lines to telephone installers who lived out of motels to executives who traveled in company planes. I saw parts of the United States I’d never have seen otherwise. I crossed picket lines during strikes to work as an operator, and was hit by ripe tomatoes.
Some of my job experiences have ended up, fictionalized, in my books. Others may do so in the future.
But all of them gave me a deeper understanding of people and places and times that enable me to see the world in a wider way than if I’d stayed home all those years and just written.
Those job experiences made me, in many ways, the woman … and the writer .. I am today.
No – I haven’t been a doctor or actress or stripper or private eye or television comic. But I’ve known some of those people. And, no matter what jobs are in my granddaughter’s future, I hope she gets to know a wide variety of people in a wide variety of circumstances, too. No matter what she chooses to do, having experienced different people in different places will help her understand the world she’ll ultimately choose her part in. As I did.
What are the odds? Two of us among the MCW gang with a double major in English and Speech/Theater. It’s a good combination. I figure I learned good grammar, etc., (though not how to write fiction!), how to do research, how to keep smiling at a signing, how to read an excerpt/give a talk and handle a q&a session without a lot of “ums” and “ers,” and, from having played roles on stage or directing someone else, quite a lot about character development . . . that’s development of fictional characters, not my own character. I’m a heck of a curtain puller, too.
Great blog! Interesting – my major was French and German Lit and I took a ton of English lit, and was involved in theater. Commonality? Could the theater experience be a good preparation for writing dialogue?
I definitely think all types of drama training help with writing .. dialogue, plot, brevity … plus learning how to speak in public is now essential for a writer. I recommend improvisational theatre (which I loved) for jump starting creativity, too!
I also sometimes wonder if I should have gotten more serious about fiction writing sooner. But I don’t regret my life or all the things I learned along the way. I only regret all the stuff I probably won’t get to write.
I always say I’m the poster child for a liberal arts education. I was an English major, too. If you can analyze, organize, synthesize, create and communicate, you can do an awful lot of things.
Lea, I too started my working days as a library page, at 50 cents an hour. I did correct mistakes when reading shelves, but I also found some great reads back in the stacks. Nobody ever yelled at me for it–maybe nobody even noticed I’d switched to a different kind of reading. And I did a lot of babysitting. In college I was a paid reader for a blind classmate. Since then I’ve taught German and hula, read German enthnographies for a food study (the Germans wrote a lot about Africa), placed high school exchange students with American families, and written blurbs for instructional television series, all before embarking on mystery writing.
It’s amazing how similar some of our backgrounds are! And I’ll admit to sneaking peaks at those books I was shelving, too … and still know how to find books at any library using Dewey Decimal!
My double major was history/English. Started working raking blueberries in summer and taking care of chickens the rest of the year. The blueberry raking made it into my 2nd fantasy novel…the chickens are still waiting. My 27 years in mental health certainly gave me plenty of useful stuff for writing…characters, events and a ton of insight into human emotion and motivation. Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking column.