I’ve come across a few job-related posts and articles lately that have reminded me of past day jobs — and made me quite nostalgic. As much as I love being self-employed and having more writing time, I have to admit that there are (a few) days when I actually miss the nine-to-five life. It’s not just because self-employment is a rather exhausting 24/7, or because if I really did the numbers, I’d probably discover that, in the end, I make less than minimum wage — it’s that the workplace provides such wonderful camaraderie, so many challenges…and yes, so much good material.
I’m often asked what inspired stories from Forgetting English, and probably the one that piques the most curiosity is “The Road to Hana,” which came directly from a day at the office: One of my colleagues received a ring in the mail, sent by an alumna who had stolen it from her roommate years ago and hoped we could return it for her. Immediately intrigued but not knowing anything about these people, I began filling in the blanks on my own, and this fictional backstory became a large part of “The Road to Hana.”
Other projects of mine are more directly about the workplace, as is a lot of contemporary and classic fiction — this New York Times article about work in literature covers John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road to Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic. And this NYT blog post is about writers themselves working, which most of us have to do if we also want to eat (and, perhaps more important, drink). Note that Charlotte Bronte lived on $1,838 a year, adjusted for inflation, and William Faulkner on about $18,000 in his job as postmaster.
The best work there is, of course, is that which fulfills us — and better yet, leaves a little extra time for writing. But even unfulfilling work can provide amazing material (not to mention the rent and beer money). So use it as much as you can, even if it’s just keeping a journal (sometimes we need time to process, after all). And, just for fun, check out this NPR slideshow on obsolete professions — many of them in publishing.