Writing About Work

by | Oct 22, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

A little over a decade ago, I had an inexplicable wrist problem for which I sought physical therapy. The therapist just did hands and wrists. She seemed to like her job, though it was, of course, fittingly or ironically depending on your outlook, very hard on her hands and wrists to massage hands and wrists all day. 

She told me that a client with a chronic problem said he needed to find a job where he didn’t have to use his hands so much. “Good luck!” she said sarcastically. And–yeah. There aren’t very many jobs that are hands free, unless you re-engineer how you do the work (voice to text perhaps)?

And yet we have this romantic idiom–people who “work with their hands.” Or something is “handmade.” When really almost everyone works with their hands. Any object we own has someone’s hands all over it.

The same goes for the converse, also romantic: “the life of the mind.” Recently, I listened to an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett in which she interviewed Mike Rose, the late, great education activist. His mother was a waitress, and he was put on the vocational track at school when he was young. He makes the point that waiting tables requires an exquisite degree of mental concentration and cognitive effort:

They know who gets the chef salad. They know who gets that omelet. So they’re remembering that stuff. They’re remembering things about what the regulars like or don’t like. So all the memory work, and then all of the play of attention and vigilance, the constant kind of scanning of the workspace — who needs what, what’s going on, somebody dropped a fork, somebody else is waving. Oops, the manager’s seating some new people over there. Oops, you know what? It’s taken too long for that shrimp plate to come out, I’d better check on that. So there’s all that kind of stuff going on.

When you watch a waitress at rush hour, they seem so economical. They’re zooming through the place, but they’re not missing a lick. What’s going on is that they’re prioritizing, on the fly, the different things they have to do. If you don’t cluster these tasks together, you’re going to run yourself ragged. And so there’s a real efficiency that emerges in the middle of the action, on the fly.

In the episode, Tippett and Rose also break down the way we talk about value and satisfaction in work. Like, if you are providing for your family, can’t that be satisfying, even if you don’t find tremendous meaning in the actual labor you do?

All this is to say that work is complicated. The relationship between money and how we spend the bulk of our time, how we find connection and purpose, what work requires of us (mentally, physically, emotionally), how we define ourselves or not by our job or career. Is it a calling or just a job? Is it exploitative, and who is doing the exploiting?

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel  is the foundational text for these questions. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a compendium of over 100 oral histories of workers of all stripes, from jockeys to dentists to housewives to tennis players. Reading it will dispel any romantic notions you may have about any job, but it will also give you more respect for that work. 

At this moment, we face an unprecedented labor shortage and supply chain breakdown. Unions are weaker all the time. Work, as a theme for writing, is more salient than ever.

Prompt

Write about work. You might start by thumbing (or scrolling) through Working by Studs Terkel. It is about work, but it is also about people. Though it was published in 1974, and there are plenty of charming colloquialisms in the interviews, so much still resonates on an almost elemental level. It does not offer an arc or a narrative, which makes it ideal as a kind of raw material for writing, a spur to inventing a character or grist for your own personal essay or poem about work you do, work you witness. 

Resist false binaries and cliches about how work works. Think of the worst job you ever had, the most tedious or the one with the boss who stole your tips, and consider the gifts the job gave you. Or think about the underrecognized skills that it takes to do a certain job. Like, when I worked at a cheese shop, I had to be very good at not rolling my eyes when a customer made an obvious “cut the cheese” fart joke that they thought was original. 

Or, if you’re like me, there’s someone in your life whose job you do not understand at all. Try to understand it. Ask questions. Get a sense of their day-to-day. Maybe you won’t give a character that exact job, but it might lead to some insight that will make it into your writing. 

Or turn your pen toward activism. Write an editorial in support of workers’ rights. Counter, in writing, this pernicious talking point of “people just don’t want to work nowadays.”

In your writing, don’t romanticize labor, but do lend dignity to the person doing that labor.