…You should enjoy this.

I have a day job that’s awesome. I’m not out on an airport ramp, kneeling in a puddle and having 34 degree rain (F, not C) trickling down my spine from the gap at my collar. (No matter where they park the airplane, by the time you have to work on it, it will be in a puddle.) I’m not balancing carefully on a waterlogged, half-rotten interior roof with a mask over my face trying to shield my lungs from the literal sheets of mold peeling off drywall as we hang tarps and lay pallets, because if we can kinda-sorta weatherproof the remnants of a building, we can use it to store the bargeload of filters coming in. (Nor am I back in that ruin and trying to pull case after case of filters while every movement of boxes or tarps sends a shower of volcanic dust everywhere, in everything.) I’m not in the field, up to my ankles in mud and up to my elbows in tobacco sap and bugs stuck on, trying to swing a machete without bruising or, heavens forbid, breaking any sap-stiff fragile leaves. I’m not stuck in interminable meetings where people are distilled down to their productivity, and all the drama, the tears, the emergencies, the hopes, the dreams, the good or bad luck… is given a thirty-second-per-employee reason to decide whether or not to fire them if they fall below an efficiency threshold.

Yeah, my job has drawbacks. No job is perfect. This job would be a living nightmare for many people… but for me, for now, it’s awesome. And you know what? Those other jobs – they, too, were awesome. There were some terrible moments. There were some wonderful people. They were some frustrations that soured entire weeks. What defines a job as awesome is not the job itself: it’s the mindset you use to react to it.

You should enjoy your job. Like breathing, the people who most enjoy their job are usually the people who were recently not blessed with one. (Air is one of the most underappreciated blissful joys of the universe, as anyone who’s had a malfunctioning regulator or asthma can tell you.) But that’s not just because of income and possibly health insurance. It’s because, as writers, you can also look around and see that your job provides you with close regular contact with people who are completely unlike you. What motivates them? How do they come to decisions? What do they want? How do they deal with problems, frustrations, and unexpected good fortune? What are their speech patterns, and what body language do they use?

When you’re creating worlds inside your head, you’ll be populating them with people, doing jobs. The more you understand why people make decisions that you wouldn’t, and reactions unlike yours, the more your worlds and characters will become real. The better you can describe their body language and replicate their dialogue, the more lifelike they’ll seem. And the more aware you are of the intricacies and minutiae, the conventions and processes of your job, the specific terms and phrases… the better you’ll be able to look for and provide those anchoring details to describe another job and make it come to life.

And if you don’t have a job? You probably have other ways you’re in contact with people, other groups you’re in. If you don’t? Study the movies. What details do they use that make another place, time, or people seem real? What just falls flat? Watch the same actor in two different films, back to back – and watch what he changes to convey two different characters.

…and remember to enjoy yourself, and count your blessings.

26 Comments

Filed under characterization, FYNBOSSPRESS, WRITING: LIFE

26 responses to “…You should enjoy this.

  1. Gina Marie

    A million year ago I was a noob. My father had bought me an Apple II, and I found my first true love. I installed a printer (an Epson with a low 3-digit serial number), a 300 baud modem and four floppy drives. The reason I didn’t sleep with my first true love were all the edges and corners. My father was a lawyer, and bought a PC (he learned better later) and I installed drives, a printer, a modem — and Visicalc, Our neighbor at the time was a senior FBI agent — back in the J Edgar days when they were all lawyers of CPAs. I went and installed his printer and the rest, My neighbor, no fool had read the RFP for installing the stuff in his office, and it was in the low six figures. I went in on a Saturday and finished; my father wouldn’t let me charge more than $50, which back in the late 70’s was princely sum as far as I was concerned.

    The thing is, great numbers of kids back then were being diagnosed as ADAH, as Aspies…. I thank Ghu I missed all that.

    My last English teacher said and I quote “Your grammar and punctuation is a abomination before Jehovah. You tell a good story.” That was in the late 70’s as well and it was a nub who despaired about me. To my eternal shame, I blew her off.

    I’m handicapped, you see. I’m more or less as Aspie. Unless someone comes up and slaps me upside the head, I don’t know I’m insulting someone. I had a hell of a time running an LLC, (conservatives think Reagan was a saint…one day he signed a law that trashed my business and turned me into a tax cheat. I have a rather different opinion of the man).

    Still, after I retired I wanted to be a writer. One of my first books is about the first interstellar expedition. It’s only one chapter — the rest of the book is getting there and afterwards. My second book I killed the hero, I was stunned at the reaction. She had died bravely, doing her duty…yet people were telling me I should bring her back; she had survived the thousand gigaton explosion that blew out the planet).

    Needless to say, I’ve made some course corrections since then (No dead POV chatacters!) but I’m still a borderline Aspie and average human emotions are Greek to me. I took a lot of notes, above.

    • TRX

      > Unless someone comes up and slaps me upside the head, I don’t know I’m insulting someone.

      I used to worry/wonder about the same thing, until the percentage of the Pepetually Offended grew so large that I ceased to care any more.

    • Uncle Lar

      Just my opinion, but I think your Kinsella series is some of the finest human wave science fiction I’ve ever read. To me very reminiscent of Heinlein in his prime.

  2. Not a nitpick, believe it or not, but curiosity. Did anyone use a machete in tobacco? We never did. We just pinched off the blooms (topping tobacco) or the suckers (a smaller plant growing from the bottom of the stalk), and broke off the leaves at harvest. We didn’t even have a machete until I bought one for fence work. That in itself raises another question: Since my grandparents grew sugar cane, how did they cut it down?

    • TRX

      The correct tool for sugar cane is the cane knife. They’re shorter than a machete, with a notched end to hook the cane and cut it instead of brushing it away.

      It’s something you’d normally keep stoned sharp, oiled, and put away safely so that bozos wouldn’t use it to hack on pieces of wood or something.

      • Had to look it up. Don’t recall seeing one. I need to ask my father about this.

        On tools: A sharp tool makes more difference than people might think. I happened to sharpen my club ax not long before a pine fell in the yard. Not having a chain saw, I went at it with the ax. Pine is a soft wood, anyway, but it was amazing how the chips flew without a lot of effort.

    • Dorothy Grant

      We used machetes on tobaccy. But we didn’t beak the leaves off at harvest; we topped, sprigged (pinching off the suckers. usually with machete), and then staked the whole plant – that is, cut it off just above the root, and impaled it sideways a couple inches from the base, stacking plant on plant until there were only a couple inches on the top of the stake free. When we’d finished a couple rows, we came back and heaved the stake onto a trailer (the leaves having wilted by then, you didn’t have to worry about breaking them), and then the stronger-and-taller-than-me guys heaved the stakes up onto the rails in the rafters, so all the plants hung down to air-dry. Once the tobaccy was dry, then we cut the leaves off the stems & bundled it.

      • We went through the fields breaking off leaves, taking them to the tobacco barn where we had a long table built under the pecan trees. There we used cotton twine to tie the leaves to wooden sticks long enough to hang in racks suspended from the barn roof. Then we’d fire up the gas burners and let it “cook.” By the time it was dry and out of the barn (and taken off the sticks and tied into sheets and hauled to auction), it was time for another round. We did this until there were no leave left.

        By the time I was big enough for the coveted (by us boys) job of climbing and stacking the barn, we got out of growing tobacco. Bulk barns were becoming the thing locally. These looked like long shipping containers, came in gas and electric varieties, and you packed those things full. There was a gadget like a sewing machine that tied tobacco to sticks, and yanking on one end pulled it all loose, like opening a sack of cattle supplement.We never used one of those, and now all those around locally are rusting away.

        It brings to mind one late summer afternoon when my dad was checking the pilot light in the tobacco barn, and something made him back up and take another look. Good thing he did; a rattlesnake lay right where he was about to place his hand.

        Oooh, wasps in the barn. Standard the start of every season. Usually red wasps. They’d tie an old stack to a tobacco stick and make a torch out of it, and climb up and burn the nest out.

      • Wonder if this was a regional thing. The wife sewed tobacco in 1970s Connecticut as a high school job, and IIRC, she described the boys in the fields doing it the way Dot describes it. (Can’t ask her right now; she’s hip deep in IEP paperwork, when I am glad there is no handy machete.)

        Of course, I am quite sure that the local growers there were producing cigar tobacco, so there may be some differences there, too.

        • I’m wondering if it’s regional, too, like some parts of the US going for air cured tobacco. OTOH, with the humidity here, air drying isn’t an option. Even with heat, my dad kept a close eye on the humidity. Oh, my memories are 1960s through early 1970s.

          What I miss most are the auctions. Back then everyone carried tobacco to auction in burlap sheets that were untied for the buyers, who would inspect each bundle and bid. That, and the smell of cured tobacco. It would linger in tobacco barns decades after they were no longer used.

          There’s still some tobacco grown within an hour or so drive, but not much. I do know that last year a field about an hour and a half away was harvested by removing leaves from the stalk, so it wasn’t an era thing. Maybe something to do with humidity? I do know that the top leaves didn’t seem to mature as quickly as the bottom. If you’ve ever seen where someone’s grown and harvested collards, that’s roughly what the tobacco stalks regionally look like by the end of the season.

          • Never traveled the Southeast except on business, so I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a collard greens field (harvested or not). Nuts, Pima cotton, citrus, and a few vegetable farmers around here (maybe collards in some of those, although I don’t know where; the supermarket does have them in the “local growers” section on occasion).

            Actually, I’ve never seen a tobacco field in person, either – by the time I married and we had the ability to make leisure trips there, all the wife could point out were a few curing barns that were still (barely) standing. None of the extensive fields she has in her memories.

            • Finally asked my father about the sugar cane. From the smile it brought back fond memories. He said we used a short handled Scovil Hoe sharpened to a keen edge. A Scovil Hoe was an eye-hoe designed with a different temper on each side of the blade in order to be self-sharpening. Since it was an eye-hoe, you could cut a handle and run through it. He said that where two men cut cane, one used a long-handled Scovil Hoe while the other caught the cane.

              I mentioned about learning some used machetes to harvest tobacco, and that brought another smile. He was aware of it, and went into detail of how it used to be done, but everyone “here” grew leaf tobacco and harvested it the way we did growing up. Since we moved “here” over a century ago, what he described may have been based on information that old.What he related was an air-dry method where the leaved were removed from the stalk in the winter.

  3. One of the reasons I love the history conference I just attended is that most of the people are normal people. It is not a 100% Simon Pure academic meeting, although there are a passel of academics drifting around. Instead we have ranchers, farmers, ranchers’ and farmers’ wives, teachers, lawyers, doctors, archaeologists, a stray county judge or two, sheriff’s deputies, and anyone else interested in regional history. People who can have a ball when turned loose unchaperoned in a farming museum, or in an art museum, or when gently shepherded through a draw on a ranch to look at something or other (we all know not to turn over rocks or go poking hands into holes). And they all have papers to present and stories to tell.

  4. Caitlin I Woods

    I’m never going back to call center customer service, and I’ll try like hell not to go back to waitressing… but I’ll be damned if I didn’t learn a lot about people at both of those types of jobs. (Mostly my coworkers–with fairly few exceptions, you just don’t interact with the customers enough to get more than a glancing impression.)

    Especially when Bennigan’s started hiring out of the pre-release center. I wish I’d had the guts to ask more questions–I was worried it would be rude. But the sheer range you got…

    Actually, I’ll describe the range in two people, Kamille and Chuck.

    Kamille was our first PRC hire, and I’m amazed she wasn’t our last. She was a host, same as me; this meant she got paid hourly, and also out of a tip pool that was divided up among all the hosts by hours worked. She wasn’t allowed to handle alcohol, so she wasn’t going to be promoted to server. I have no idea what she was in for, but the alcohol prohibition makes me think it was drugs.

    And we quickly learned to *hate* her. It wasn’t just that she never wanted to do her job, which was fairly grating–but she would just *take off* in the middle of her shift and go to shoplift clothes from the local sporting goods shop, or… whatever. Or she’d stay and start waiting tables for someone (presumably for a portion of tips?). All while clocked in, of course–because if she wasn’t clocked in, she had to go back to the pre-release center. Which is bad enough for ripping off the company, but… y’know, also *our tip share*.

    One day she left and never came back. I won’t repeat the rumor about what got her sent back to regular jail, but I don’t doubt, given everything, that that’s where she went. Either way, I have no idea how she lasted that long without getting fired.

    Then there was Chuck.

    Most of the people we got from PRC seemed to be there for being screw-ups, basically–drugs, DWI, what have you. Chuck was supposed to have run a theft ring.

    And I have to assume why this was why he was such an amazing employee; he wasn’t someone who things happened to, he was someone who made plans and instituted them, even if they were, y’know, not righteous ones. Now that he’d been caught and arrested and had a chance to work a little before getting out… well, he wanted to get back to France and (I think?) back to his son. He didn’t seem about to blow that to screw around with a restaurant.

    (He also expressed at one point that working at the restaurant was better than being at jail; he pulled as many extra shifts as he could. Even if they didn’t get to keep all the money (I have no idea), I’m kind of surprised more of the PRC hires didn’t feel that way. He worked straight up until he got released–the ONLY PRC hire I knew who got released.)

    He actually knew Kamille, though they didn’t work at the same time as her. When he talked about her, it was with kind of a “What can you do?” sense of pity. “Drugs,” he said. “People do crazy things for drugs.”

    And I don’t think I could have come up with either of those two–the criminal so blatant that she’ll pull that crap when everyone can see her, and the criminal who outperforms everyone as a waiter not because of any contriteness that I could sense, but because he was damned if he was going to spend one more second at the PRC than he had to.

    There were others–the guy who had stopped coming to work as a waiter without telling anyone because he was sick of it, then managed to come back as a manager-in-training with a fake sob story about sick parents. (He was a *terrible* manager.) The guy whose life seemed to mostly be about writing religious literature with his wife for their fringe-Jewish sect, but needed a side-gig because living in Bethesda is expensive. (He was black. Mostly mentioning because he had the curly forelocks, and they looked funny and neat on him at the same time.) The guy whose main gig was as a poker player, but seemed to be taking some time off from that. (He was the waiter we heard the most good things about and had the most regulars… until he followed some customers outside for not leaving a tip and got fired.)

    (The fancy French restaurant in Little Falls had a much less colorful cast. Mostly the same waiters and bartender who’d been there for the past twenty years, including one who spent his off-season as a choreographer in various big cities, and another four who were all from the same family and just seemed to have an intergenerational service agreement to the owner.)

    So, yeah. I don’t want to do it again–I have issues with prioritization that make getting incompatible directions from three different people who outrank me Hard–but I did meet some really interesting people that way.

    • Oh god — I am never going back to call-center work. I took the job when I was stony-broke and mildly in debt, before I went into partnership with the founder of the Tiny Publishing Bidness, before my books began selling a respectable quantity as ebooks. They said that we would last on the floor at max six months, before moving up or out.
      I stuck it a year. I hated it so much that i have an undying dislike of the hotel chain I was taking reservations for and the location that I was supposed to know everything about. I get the heebie-jeebies even driving past the work location, these days. I was never so happy as when I gave my notice, and left twenty minutes early on the night of my last shift.
      But to give credit to the national contractor I worked for — they did have paid vacation days and hours. I never took any of those which I had accrued, so for several months after I left … I got checks for those unused hours. So -points to them for not being total jerks.

      Still – hated that job, with an undying passion.

      • caitliniwoods

        Ohhh yeah. I was outsourced customer service for a huge cell phone company, bease I’d just found out I was pregnant and knew they’d hire anyone. (The job I had before was part time piece work data entry.) And… I liked most of my bosses and most of the coworkers I interacted with. (Except for the… well, she was pathologically incompetent–she just couldn’t understand most concepts, and was insanely defensive–and made up for it by ratting out everyone in a 5 mile radius to HR for anything she could think of.) But I hated the setup, I hated the cell phone company, and while I was okay with most of the customers I ended about half of my shifts in tears.

        I am glad to know I was strong enough to stick it out for six months. But… oh, boy, I’m right with you–I’m never going back, and still have twitches.

        (After I quit, I had two interviews scheduled by the next evening and now do temp billing backend. SO MUCH BETTER.)

      • Toddler #1, and second on the way (who we eventually lost). So anything – but I made a huge mistake, and was relieved when I was fired, the only job I ever got fired from. Only one that made me physically ill – collection calling for a medical group (in Tucson, where the elderly demographic is very high).

        I can have a cold heart about deadbeats – but when you really don’t know whether the old lady on the other end of the line is surviving on dog food, it gets to you.

    • snelson134

      “Either way, I have no idea how she lasted that long without getting fired.”

      It’s not hard to figure out. Just determine how many Official Victim Groups she checked off and then factor in how likely she was to sue over them.

  5. paladin3001

    I have done some interesting and varied jobs. One job I loathed with a passion and never will do again is being a cab driver. Saw far too much of base human nature, and found that I was starting to lose what I considered to be my ‘self’. Only job that I had to work hard at getting fired from. Just so I left such a bad taste in the company’s mouth that I wouldn’t be hired by any of the other companies in town. Working security is similar, but not as bad. If I have to I will work security again. Given the choice of taxi driving or starving……. Bark soup anyone?

  6. Joe in PNG

    I absolutely love my current role- just high enough on the food chain that I’m my own supervisor, but a step below any position that would require me to attend any regular meetings.
    And like a lot of folks here, I’ve had good jobs and bad.

    The worst was working as a land surveyor’s lackey, with a tyrant as supervisor (to be fair, I was in my early twenties and had yet to lose my youthful rectal-cranial inversion). Second was at a golf cart store/shop for a know-it-all micro-managing Noo Yawk Italian. The man would stand behind you and tell you every single step to even simple repairs.

    Now delivering pizzas in Milwaukee was pretty fun.

  7. I loved being a fish-farmer -which was always wet, and often cold and always physically exhausting. Hated my boss (who did not understand fish and liked to bully people) I certainly learned a lot about the baser nature of folk – and the good side.

  8. I have to wonder how my having had a job every summer since I was sixteen has effected my writing. I am continually astonished by how many people my age (21) tell me they’ve never had a real job.