What Early Job Later Informed Your Work as a Writer?

Francine Prose and Leslie Jamison discuss early jobs that later influenced their work.

Comments: 11

  1. A good question that provided actual insight into the person; good lessons on how we prepare to live by living...

  2. I agree: one of the best of these questions, provoking some of the best responses.

  3. The question is, "What Early Job Later Informed Your Work as a Person?"

    I spent my sophomore year drunk. I had my first job my junior year in high school. I unloaded trucks, stocked shelves and cleaned for a defunct chain store evenings Mon-Sat. My parents were not happy. I was college-bound, but at my high school we didn't have to attend full-time if we didn't want or need to. I decided to go half-time my junior and senior years. Just requirements. That way I could work part-time.

    The store had a manager, a co-manager, an assistant manager and a manager trainee. There were about sixty other co-workers. Most were not college-educated or college-bound. The Vietnam War was going on, and I was anti-war. My best friend at work was a recent high school graduate, two to three older than me. He was in the Marine Corps reserve; his goal was to be the first black Commandant of the Marine Corps.

    On the list of seniority, I was # 60 out of 60. But every single person in that store, including all the managers, treated all others with respect. To my managers, even *I*, a 16-year-old student trainee, was a valued and important member of the team.

    I quit that job the following May so I could go with my father to D.C. on a government trip; I was in front of the White House the day Nixon resigned. To pay for my trip, I scabbed for two weeks during a strike (we all knew that the union would win). The next year I pumped gas at the PX gas station. Another great job because of great people.

  4. I left my final class in college with the words of my writing teacher ringing in my mind: "Steve, you have a way with words; you just need something to write about." So I moved from Georgia up to New York City to work for the Journal-American (Hearst daily), then UPI, thinking that's what she meant. I learned years later, it wasn't. A couple of decades on, I wrote some nonfiction books and articles. Although I was pleased to be published, that didn't ring my bell either. So, I retired to do what I wanted, which was to tell stories. I've finished four novel manuscripts and one book of short stories and never been happier, though I haven't found the time to try to market them. Write on!

  5. This is my favorite question/answer ever, in this space. Real stories. Well and honestly told.

  6. These are the two best essays of this series, by far. And "taking damp quarters from the palms of 8-year-olds" is their best line.

  7. Some menial and not so menial (union) working class jobs during and after college helped me for the future translator part of my life absorb the rhythms of the common tongue and many expressions that I would have never encountered otherwise; and, as an immigrant, Americanized me. Much later in life, unexpectedly and suddenly broke, I found myself doing work that actually led to the book “WRITE SOME NUMB'S BITCH”, a title that derives from a promoter's imprecation to his salesMEN!, that is, I was very much in a Mametish world! I was writing this book as I was working in that profession and earning a living, an utterly unexpected event in my then well planned life, but for which earlier exposure to the common touch had somewhat prepared me.

  8. Totally agree. At the same time as I did a philosophy major, then a lit major, I worked for a year full-time in a factory on night shift. That third "off-campus major" in working class life was every bit as important and probably helped me to get much more meaning out of the other two majors. I also agree with your point about such an experience opening us up to many more diverse and enriching modes of language, and thought, in ways that can be foundational for the rest of a life shared with other humans. I daresay Shakespeare and Chaucer would also agree with you about that, as would the two writers here, Ms. Prose and Ms. Jamison.

    Hey, schools and universities, here's an idea. Stop trying to run student lives 24/7/365 and instead just stick to teaching classes, while giving students space to explore their own lives independently the rest of the time.

  9. I agree with those saying this installment of Bookends is a huge improvement on the recent string of such essayettes (though Benjamin Moser did quite well at bat last time).

    No big surprise that when you ask writers to tell stories, instead of pontificate on vague abstractions, the results are much richer and more engaging.

    A lesson from Lit 101, NYT?

  10. The writers' stories and the comments here remind me of Arthur Miller's tribute to his early work at an auto parts company, which he memorialized in his beautiful play, "A Memory of Two Mondays." The key line, delivered by the young narrator as he is about to leave the shop and pursue his education, is: "They should build a monument to those who stay." Yes, they should, and he did.

  11. I have had jobs I would not dignify by speaking about them, but this near miss was the important turning point: When I was a student I was seriously skint, and I signed with a temping agency to try help find employment. They were useless and never forthcoming with so much as a days work. After about 6 months of this I heard about the wonderful chance to do a course in radio broadcasting in Wolverhampton, something which would give me a chance to develop my writing and interviewing skills like no tomorrow, and I was debating whether to go for it. I had ever done anything like that at the time, and I was quite young and still a bit unsure of myself. THEN I had a phone call from the temping agency. "Hi" they said breezily, "Are you free to do two days work at the weekend?" By now I was wise to these jokers, and asked what it entailed. "Its helping to clean down some industrial machinery!" "What kind of machinery?" "Never mind that, its an excellent wage - overtime available - its quite close to where you live - you'd be a fool not to jump at it, really...." I gritted my teeth, "WHAT kind OF machinery?" The guy on the other end took a deep breath, "Its a - its an Industrial Sized Suet Pudding Mixer!" I carefully put the phone down, and rang the radio station. I have never stopped writing since, and have never eaten suet pudding.