Have you ever read the bios that writers publish in their work? Granted you don’t usually get to see the early job histories of your lawyer, your massage therapist or your English teacher, but it seems that writers take on some wacky jobs before they finally get published. I don’t necessarily mean jobs that seem like they belong n a book – sometimes it’s just jobs that sound so far removed from a writing career that one has to wonder what drove the writer to even take it in the first place. I’ve dipped ice cream, waited tables in a deli, taught math to migrant children who spoke mostly Haitian French, run a video store that we all believed was a front for money laundering, and waited tables in a Mexican restaurant that specialized in drenching everything with nacho-flavored Velveeta and paid me under the table. I cold-called businesses to try and convince them they needed more equipment and they should lease it through our company (by far, the worst job.) I spent a year manning the Service Desk in a mall bookstore, where I had to assist people who wanted me to tell them where “that blue book I saw on the Today Show back in the winter” might be, then moved to a college bookstore, where I had to assist professors who wanted “that blue book we saw at a conference last summer.” I taught three-year-olds for over a decade, and finally landed in the middle school library (where the children are almost exactly the same, except for being taller.)
In every job, I was able to observe people doing all the weird, kind, tragic, hopeful, selfish, silly, bizarre things they do. All those idiosyncrasies come from the real-time research of people-watching, and I can now use them all when creating characters in my work. Writing is a solitary life, so having the chance to see real people behaving in all the irrational ways they do can only imbue my fiction with a reality I wouldn’t have otherwise. As hard as some of those jobs made me work, I wouldn’t change a thing.
But I tell you, if I can go the rest of my life without smelling cheap nacho Velveeta again, that’d be just dandy.