Monday, February 06, 2012

Posted by Laurel Garver on 7:47 AM 28 comments
...was not my bachelor's program in English or my master's in journalism, though they certainly helped. According to Steven Pressfield in The War of Art, my best preparation for a writing career was having a string of really crappy jobs to put myself through school. Why? It's essential to learn to do what it takes to get to a larger goal. Work ethic and professional spirit are learned in the trenches. So when I'm tempted to potter around instead of write, I have to apply the same mindset that kept me diligently on the job selling spark plugs to huge, tattooed truck drivers. Wearing an enormous Strawberry Shortcake foam-head costume around a county fair and talking in a helium voice to mobs of sticky three-year-olds. Scraping nine-month-thick layers of soap scum off of dorm tubs and disinfecting urinals. Vacuuming an acre of cafeteria carpet for two hours a day, seven days a week.

Pressfield says that accepting and even expecting misery as part of one's work experience is what separates the pro from the amateur. A pro shows up for the job day after day, even when it's boring, back-aching, humiliating and gross. She makes work a priority even though she has hayfever and needs to cram for a history exam and ought to visit her lonely grandpa. She does the difficult tasks, perhaps cranking her music, or joking and commiserating with coworkers, or dreaming of Bermuda. But the job, for all its misery, is a means to an end. She pushes through for the payoff--a paycheck.

In writing, one pushes through to a gripping story and a clean, error-free manuscript. Getting there may entail misery--insomnia and loneliness and boring Google searches and humiliating critique sessions.

Most of us start out writing for fun and as a form of play, and that's fine for one's early stages of development. But writing for publication requires taking things to the next level, Pressfield argues. Moving from amateur to pro. And the best training for that is developing a work ethic that can persevere through hardship and humiliation. For Pressfield, it was a stint in the Marines. I'd personally rather not handle firearms, thanks. But there are plenty of other unglamorous jobs that can provide the same mental and emotional training.

Have you worked crappy jobs? How have they shaped you?

*this is a repost from Sept. 2010

28 comments:

  1. Oh crappy jobs, let me count the ways...mucking stalls, tavern cleaning after a night with a rock band, Alzheimer's caregiver (poor things lose bodily functions quite regularly), dishwasher at a 5-star restaurant (pots and pans til 3am is not fun).

    But you're right, he's right. Crappy jobs do make you take your work ethic seriously. And believe it or not, I would rather do any of those jobs any day, than work at a fast food place. THAT job was one I never stick with.

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    1. It sounds as if you've dealt with some quite literal crap jobs. LOL. I too liked the point Pressfield makes about how work ethic gels in the trenches, so to speak. We should never be ashamed of having tackled humbling work. It is soul-growing.

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  2. This strikes me as yet another variation on the 'to be a real writer you have to suffer' theme. Writing is my job, and yes, that takes a certain work ethic, but I haven't had to do a worse job to get it. A deadline achieves the desired effect perfectly well.

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    1. Pressfield would likely argue that always avoiding being humbled in any way makes one poorly prepared for a writing career. Developing a work ethic in humble circumstances keeps the ego in check so one can handle criticism with grace rather than have a sense of entitlement to be always praised no matter what. As an editor, I have no desire to work with writers who are above getting dirty and tackling tedious tasks in their work. And believe me, it always shows.

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  3. Oh, man. Yup...it helps to experience everything you can, as a writer. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I've worked many jobs, and yes, some were crappy. I could go on and on about it, actually, but I won't. Haha. Probably the very worst was...well, honestly, there only some aspects that were bad about a few of them. Overall, I don't think I've had it all that bad. The first thing that came to mind was my first office job. I was the receptionist, and I was hired as eye candy. The men ruled the place, and they said whatever they wanted to say, no matter how sexual. They didn't make any physical advances, though, and once they got to know I wouldn't take their crap, they learned where the line was. And it was actually fun.

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    1. Among other things, it sounds like your experience helped you think creatively about how to fix a bad situation--and that kind of problem solving skill is invaluable for building plots and themes.

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  4. I completely get that transition of having to take things to the next level. Yes, I've had my share of crappy jobs. In all honesty, I really enjoyed being a waitress though.
    ~ Wendy

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    1. We do learn to hang in there by tackling and succeeding at less savory jobs. There were some things I liked about janitorial work too. Making a gross place clean, and having my brain free to daydream. Funny isn't it?

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  5. The worst jobs are the monotonous ones where you go into zombified mode until the end of the day.

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    1. My first editing job, I had "down weeks" where I stuffed envelopes for 7 hours a day. I kind of liked the dream time, but yes, the hours do drag by doing monotonous things.

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  6. Some jobs end up good material for stories, but I've also had the kind that suck the life right out of me--reminding me that I want to write!

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    1. Yeah, some of my bad job stories would make good fiction fodder. Or even humorous non-fiction fodder.

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  7. Yes. But more than that, like Coleen said up there, these jobs give you GREAT material for stories! I know I've used some of my terrible experiences to put my characters in some interesting positions. :D <3

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    1. Indeed they do! I ought to be making use of mine. Great idea. :-)

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  8. HA! Then I am totally qualified, my friend. UUUGH. Had quite a few jobs in my day...quite a few crappy ones too...

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    1. Be proud of your accomplishment, then! You've been amply prepared in the School of Hard Knocks.

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  9. Oh yes!
    There's nothing like cleaning a public bathroom to cultivate humility and a work ethic and a desire to go to college.

    I also gave the main character in my first book a crappy job, because it seemed realistic, even essential, that he would have one.

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    1. Yeah, I think Pressfield really gets it--how real work ethic happens. Some of my favorite scenes in YA fiction happen in on-the-job awkwardness. Elizabeth Scott's Perfect You is a great example.

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  10. That is so true! We really do need to have that work ethic to be able to push ourselves through those hard times that come with writing.

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    1. Every real job has un-fun moments, and it helps to have experience pushing through that.

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  11. Perseverance is huge! Thanks for the reminder - and yes, I remember working in the college cafeteria. Certainly not glamorous, but worth the lessons.

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    1. Perseverance is one of those virtues that can really only be learned the hard way, don't you think?

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  12. Good career advice as well as good writing advice! I guess another message here is "work hard and don't anything for granted." Hufflepuffs will rule the world. ;)

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    1. I think the famous quote from Thomas Edison about success being a little inspiration and loads of perspiration is helpful.

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  13. My crappiest job was working in a college dorm cafeteria washing dishes! I was always motivated to work hard because I wanted my boss's approval. I'm really motivated by approval. Unfortunately with writing, there's very little approval to gain, except on that rare occasion when your CP says "hey, that's amazing - you nailed it!"

    While publication def. has approval associated with it, then there's all the scary book reviews to face (or not). Sorry, I'm rambling! Your post really got me thinking!

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    1. It's interesting that you could identify what helped keep you going in a difficult job. I think that means you should try to have at least one "cheerleader" on your team--someone who keeps reminding you that you're on the right track when you struggle. Another thing to keep in mind is wisdom a published author shared with me: Trying to please everyone will make you crazy; find your audience and please them.

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  14. What an inspired post, Laurel!

    I worked as a toilet-cleaner in college, too. On Saturdays, which usually meant cleaning up post-partying puke. Blagggh.

    But yes, when the going gets tough with my writing, it's good to remember those tough working environments ... and be glad the only puke I ever have to clean up now is my own kids', which isn't half as bad! Yes, I'll take the headaches of novel writing over dorm toilet cleaning any day!

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    1. I went to a Christian college, so the partying, when it happened, was well hidden (like puke left inside a dorm closet and allowed to dry into a rock-hard mass).

      Pressfield's point is that surviving gross jobs makes you stronger. Remind yourself of this whenever the writing gets tough!

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