Once upon a time, only the wealthy could afford to write. The rest of the world was too busy working. And therefore, much canonized literature often avoids the topic of work completely. Sometimes, I find myself reading and wondering, despite beautiful language and character development and honesty: Do these people work? Do they have a job? How can they afford this? Life is expensive. I remember reading Charles Bukowski’s The Post Office in undergrad and thinking, Aha! The postman! Finally a job!
We all have to do it. If we’re lucky, we find something we like, and it doesn’t feel so bad to clock in. For most of us, work will be work. I had a coworker who once said, “If this were fun, they’d call it something else.” I come from a family of workers: mechanics, cabinetmakers, secretaries, cosmetologists, truck drivers, teachers, pilots, sales associates, farmers, fishermen. We work hard even when we don’t work. My father, years retired, is in his shop, the one he built by hand in the backyard, every day. His father, eighty-eight years young, still works: “What retirement?” he’d say. My family works to live—or perhaps—lives to work. We don’t know any better. We have never been wealthy people. We work hard. We are rich in experience.
Traditional work, though it might be personally taxing, is fertile ground for a writer. All that good writing really needs is high stakes and motivation. High stakes are the foundation of a workplace: someone needs a task completed, and someone must do it because they need a paycheck. Boom, immediate tension.
When we work, something shifts in who we are, or who we thought we might be, or become. There’s a part of us that adapts or changes; we become an employee, our identity grows to include this thing we do to make money and live. And for the rest of our lives we either embrace this part of our identity or are at odds with it. I am Katrina, the professor, the waitress, the writer. In another life, I might have been Katrina, the real estate agent. Or Katrina, the mother and wife. Our careers and work shape who we become, and sooner or later one bleeds into the next. I am guilty of this: Picture late 2016, off the clock, in a country bar, debating gun control with a farmer, off the clock, me shouting, I am an educator! In that moment, I was not. I was a wine-tasting-room associate—no—at that moment, I wasn’t working, I was only drinking, I was a patron, I was a guest. Still, even out of a classroom, I wore PROFESSOR/EDUCATOR loud on my person. This was no longer a paycheck. This was who I was.
Waiting is no different. In restaurants, you are in “the Industry” like admittance to a secret club. Before the main course, after the appetizer, when the server has stopped by to check on drink number two, one might say, “I’m in the Industry,” to ensure good service, or a better pour on a second glass of wine. People in the Industry will stack plates according to size with the silverware on top, signaling to their server their Industry status—helpful but not intrusive. One might tell their server they are in the Industry if food is taking too long; it’s an understanding, it’s a recognition, like saying, It’s okay, I see you, I get you, me too.
Isn’t that why we write in the first place? Aren’t we trying to find a mirror, or someone that says, I see you, I get you, me too. Stephen King wrote that “Writing is telepathy,” transferring one thought and feeling from the writer’s brain into readers’. When I read Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” I remember the mindless work of entering data for the advertising team at a local newspaper. When I read Kitchen Confidential, I see Anthony Bourdain cooking on the other side of the window as I pick up hot plates at my table. When I read Plath’s The Bell Jar, I remember being a courier: picking up coffee and pizza lunches as an intern. Even reading Denis Johnson’s “Work” in Jesus’ Son takes me home. I never stole copper wire for money, but I can remember feeling desperate to get paid. I can remember hating work, feeling like it were crushing my soul, but knowing that I had to keep moving, to survive, I had to do it anyway.
- Have your students read Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams.”
- Ask them to consider a job they have or once had. They can think of any kind of commitment where they had to do something in order to receive some kind of payment. Here’s a list of some jobs I’ve held: intern at a local newspaper, T-shirt folder at a mall clothing store, filing clerk, jury duty, bread bowl maker at a clam chowder house, camp counselor, ESL tutor, babysitter, ballet teacher, editor, candy striper, and always a waitress. It should be something where a profit or benefit was received for completing a task, so even if it doesn’t fall under the definition of “traditional work,” but they received something in exchange, it is fair game.
- Ask students to draft a list of their duties. They can think of this a little like filling out their job experience on an application. What did they do there? Specifically. What was required of them as an employee?
- Perhaps some of these duties are more involved. Students should feel free to list a step-by-step process if necessary to complete this step. For example, as a bread bowl maker I clocked in three hours before the chowder restaurant opened to make bread bowls. This involved four steps: (1) Slice the top of the sourdough loaf; this should just be the top “cap” of each loaf. (2) Cut a circle inside the bowl where the cap was removed. Don’t cut all the way down and puncture the bottom of the loaf. (3) Keeping the center intact, pull the middle of the loaf out. This should be the shape of a cylinder. Clean out as much bread from the inside of the bowl as possible. Discard the small pieces not attached to the cylindrical hole. (4) Dip the bread cylinder into drawn butter and put it back inside the bowl with its cap on top. The bowls will be preset for grilling and filling this way.
- What else is involved in this kind of work? Ask students to think of the duties they had that maybe weren’t listed on any training manual. What else was required of them to complete their work that they weren’t getting paid for? What type of skills did they have to manage for this work that they didn’t think they would have to have for this job? As a waitress, I learned the fine art of bullshitting. This was never spoken about in any interview or job training, but the good servers knew how to “sell” anything—even an experience. Some of my managers might have called this customer service, but what was required of me at times exceeded standard definitions. See laughing at a guest’s bad joke because one wants a decent tip. See mild bouts of flirting with tables full of men.
- After students have both lists completed (this can be done either as in-class brainstorming or outside writing), ask them to recall one specific incident at the job in question where they executed the physical task as well as the personal skills they developed. What did they learn about themselves in this moment?
- Have students write a short scene describing what happened with close attention to setting detail (Where are they? What things are there? What are they doing physically?) and motivations (What task needs to be completed? What type of profit is earned for completing this task? What else is required of this job for which they are not receiving reimbursements?). As they write, students should try to balance the blend of the physical actions of the work with the personal emotions connected to it. For example, when I was eighteen and making those bread bowls, I was also juggling my early morning exhaustion with the exhilaration that I would get to see Randy, a cook, when he clocked in an hour later for prep. These mornings were the only times where we had a few hours to talk uninterrupted by service, and they became the beginnings of a workplace romance I didn’t expect. He used to save me the softest bread fluffs to eat for breakfast with the leftover drawn butter. And so I learned, in addition to how to prepare bread bowls, how to maneuver that morning shift so I could stand next to Randy in our assembly line, stealing flirts and scraps of bread for us to snack on before the restaurant opened. Today, if I eat clam chowder, I have to get a bread bowl. And I often don’t understand why places don’t give any of the bread insides with the bowls themselves. I wonder where it all went. Or who was eating it instead of preparing it to be eaten by others. I’ll look behind the line for a curly-haired, blond boy whose eyes squint when he smiles. It’s never as good as Splash Café on Pomeroy Street in Pismo Beach. I have a tiny circle scar on my left thumb from slicing the tops, from not being careful with my hands and where I was putting them, on the sourdough, on Randy’s face in his basement bedroom after work. Now I know to curl my fingers in when holding something that I have to cut. I make sure the blade isn’t anywhere close to the inside of my hand, all that tender skin.
- Ask students to attempt to combine the work with their identity in this scene to show how a past or present job experience has shaped who they are and how they move through the world because of it.
Example of the Exercise
This is an excerpt from my autobiographical novel, We Are Always at a Bar.
Hours before the truck, I’m in my button-up in front of a table of four white-haired ladies who want a chardonnay, nothing too bitter, nothing too tight, easy-drinking, light, something to sip on before their meal. I bring them a taste of the same thing I would bring them if they had said oaky or unoaked or metallic or sweet, because wine service is less about actual tasting notes and more for impressing guests with descriptions and aromas: unripe banana on the Chardonnay palate and wet cement in the Pinot Noir. And in a ripple of awwws, the ladies say, Yes. This is fine. This is very nice. Thank you. It’s my last table, and I have already begun with the tequila: one with Hector the Sous Chef, one with the door guy, and one with Adam, the front bartender. It’s a slow night, but there are just enough tables sat to entertain me. They ask where I am from, about my accent, and I tell them the same story I have rehearsed with every other table on every other night like this: I’m a graduate student from California, and then they ask, Where? lights in their eyes to show interest. I tell them about all the years, the many restaurant jobs, the lack of sleep, the lettuce I ate and called salad. I say, I was accepted here—full ride. I say, I didn’t even know where Lubbock was on a map, I couldn’t even point it out. I say, I filled my car with everything I could and cried when I saw “Downtown.” These are the stories my tables like to hear on a Wednesday night, somewhere between the first course and the second. This narrative makes me different, I’m quirky and smart here, more than the hand that feeds and refills. These women don’t want to know that I’m fucking the bartender with a warrant who pours the wine, that he’s texting the new hire Natalie, a nineteen-year-old hostess with tanning-bed skin, when I’m not looking. They’re not interested in what I actually did back in California, the nights and drinks that looked the same as they do here, even without the water or the bay or the boats. Now it’s fast cars and desert and cotton fields that muddy car tires instead of sand. They don’t care that the commotion from the back of the house is the Chef, angry because his dealer hasn’t arrived, and he has to plate the food for the fifteen top on his own without any help or cocaine. My coworkers now look different and have different names, but they are all the same. We are all the same. We all want to disappear. Instead, the white-haired ladies ask about the specials, palms clasped and fingers tapping together like that childhood game where hands become a kind of church. It’s all special tonight, I say, smiling. I point my index to the seared chili quail, a small game bird layered and stuffed with herbs and spices. I describe it, and it sounds exotic, foreign, like me. I say, This is my favorite. I’d tell them the same if they ordered salmon.
Katrina Prow lives and writes in Long Beach, California. Her writing has recently appeared in The Journal, Pithead Chapel, Redivider, Passages North, Nano Fiction, WhiskeyPaper, Juked, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in creative writing (fiction) from Texas Tech University and teaches creative writing courses at Chapman University. Outside of academia, she still finds freedom waiting tables and is working on a novel about the restaurant industry after many years in the biz. You can find her discussing pop culture (frequently) and literature (sometimes) on Twitter: @katprow.