Monday, August 23

Posted by Laurel Garver on Monday, August 23, 2010 10 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?


  1. Well, I've worked for crappy people. :)
    But I think they did shape me in subtle way.

  2. Great post. I'm picturing you in a Strawberry Shortcake outfit. chuckling. And, selling spark plugs to truck drivers - interesting. Jennifer's response is funny, too. Haven't we all worked for crappy people, or WITH crappy people? My best writer training is dealing with all those crappy people and learning about personalities. Also, speaking of crap, unclogging 3 million toilets while raising four sons on my own. I'm on a campaign to bring back the outhouses.

  3. You are right, work ethic means a lot in this business, because most of us aren't born perfect writers.
    And all those jobs also add a lot of mental fodder for future stories, not to mention the work ethic part!

  4. I'm with Jennifer. It wasn't the jobs but the people. And that definetly shaped me. I hope into a better human being.

  5. I lucked out with most of my jobs - dishwashing, waitressing, retail, coaching. Even though they were hard work, I had great people so I enjoyed them :)

  6. Love this post:) I think every job has given me pieces that I need to shape where I want to go.

    It is important to remember that writing is more than a hobby, and real work isn't always pleasurable!

  7. ...but real work does have a payoff!

  8. This post sums up my journey, minus the really crappy jobs. Lol.

  9. Jennifer: Haven't we all? Those experiences definitely shape how I conceive my antagonists.

    Mary: The character gigs were some of the best paying, with the plus of anonymity. LOL. Your mommy plumbing trials have given you superior stick-with-it skills, my friend. You just have to remember you have that in you when fears tempt you to give up.

    Lydia: You know, I never considered writing fictionally about my crappy jobs, but perhaps I should. And yes, work ethic is essential to succeeding at anything. Even "fun" work like writing has hard places that require us to dig into our reserves.

    Holly: and yet you learned to persevere, to keep showing up. That is one of the most important "transferable skills" you have. Hang on to that when fears tempt you to give up.

  10. Jemi: It's interesting that you consider work like dishwashing and waitressing as not crappy. They're actually quite tough! That tells me that you have the added trait of being able to find pleasure even in tough circumstances if good relationships are there. That will serve you well. Loving your characters and sensing their love of you will get you through hard places, I bet.

    Tamika: Yes! Pressfield argues that part of what it takes to succeed in completing novels and seeking publication is conceiving of it more like a job, which has its plusses and minuses. The perseverance we learn in ordinary jobs serves us well in creative endeavors.

    Jaycee: Isn't it empowering to know that developing endurance at other pursuits, whether education or work, gives one an essential skill to succeed creatively?