What Working Minimum-Wage Jobs Taught Me About Writing Novels
Joanne McNeil on Patricia Highsmith, Classism, and Finding Raw Material in Staff Workrooms
Spring 2008: I thought I finally had my life figured out. For months, I had been looking for a job—any job—and then I got one. I was hired to bartend at an upmarket restaurant in Harvard Square.
The restaurant where I had worked before had slowly cut my shifts after the holidays until I wasn’t scheduled at all. But that place had been empty most of the time and I hadn’t been making all that much. It was close to where I lived with my parents, halfway between Boston and Providence, an area that I was desperate to escape from.
This other restaurant would be different, I thought. It was a happening place, expensive, the kind of spot where professors gathered for drinks and Harvard students took their parents when they visited. It was in the city.
I knew the commute would be a pain at first but it would only be two months. I’d save my money in the meantime and find an apartment in Cambridge at the best possible moment to look: grad season.
On my first day, the tip jar kept by the register indicated that this job would solve at least one of my problems. Moonlighting behind the bar meant I could hold on to my other job, my real job: “freelance writing” for $50 a piece or, often enough, nothing at all. I watched as the bartender training me crammed more cash into the pint glass and the money began to spill out.
Later in the evening, after several customers finished their meals and left, some of the waitstaff joined us at the bar. We started to talk. The manager joined us too.Moonlighting behind the bar meant I could hold on to my other job, my real job: “freelance writing” for $50 a piece or, often enough, nothing at all.
“We’ve got a lot of South Shore people here,” the bartender said. “Adam’s in Dorchester. Rachel’s in Quincy. Joanne’s in Brockton.”
“Brockton?” The manager said, shaking her head. “No, c’mon. That’s too far.”
“I’m looking for apartments now, around here,” I said, deciding that if I had to, I could move to the city more immediately than I had planned.
It didn’t matter. I was out. For months, I chased the paycheck for a total of six hours of training at minimum wage. The restaurant ignored my emails and calls until I mailed the manager a letter that I printed out, attempting my best to sound professional and official. Attached to my letter, with a paperclip, was a story I had cut from the Boston Globe on a new state law that enacted stricter penalties to employers found guilty of unpaid wages. A few weeks later, they sent me the check.
I hadn’t thought of this job—the swiftest I’d ever been fired—in years, until I came across a few lines three years back, while reading Patricia Highsmith’s 1966 creative writing guide, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. The reason I was reading that book was the same reason anyone turns to craft advice: to justify my procrastination. I was working on a manuscript and I was stuck.
“Writers should take every opportunity to learn about other people’s professions, what their workrooms look like, what they talk about,” Highsmith wrote.
Varying the professions of the story’s characters is one of the hardest things for a writer to do after three or four books, when he has used up the few he knows about. Not many writers have the chance to learn about new lines of work once they become full-time writers.
It hadn’t occurred to me before, but it struck me then, that my years of failed jobs and career dead ends were enormously useful to me in the present, as a writer of fiction. If anything, I’d kept private this past of mine, kept it vague and compartmentalized from my writing life.
There is after all, an unfortunate tendency among some critics and people who work in publishing to conflate upper middle-class affectations with writing that displays skill, intelligence, and direction. Writers of merit, it is believed, only know success. If a writer should have another job—other than the sort of job you get if you graduate from a school like Harvard—it tends to be frowned upon. I could see this stigma and see through it, but it’s not like I’ve ever really trumpeted my lack of achievements.
It makes sense that this advice would come from a genre writer like Highsmith. In the twentieth century, science fiction and crime novelists alike tended to depict characters for whom, like the genres, prestige was elusive.
Philip K. Dick has long been one of my favorite writers not only for his wild ideas and wacky humor, but the lowlifes and working stiffs that populate his science fiction stories. Among them there’s Joe Chip, the hapless technician in Ubik (1969), taunted by the computer voice of the rentier smart devices in his home. Hiding from creditors and “rent robots” in his apartment, Joe gets stuck inside when he doesn’t have five cents to pay his coin-operated front door.
When I first read the noir classic Mildred Pierce, I’d been working as a receptionist off and on for several years. “Do you know what a receptionist is?” Miss Turner, the proprietor of a staffing agency, asks Mildred in James M. Cain’s 1941 novel. Miss Turner answers the question for her. “A receptionist is a lazy dame that can’t do anything on earth, and wants to sit out front where everybody can watch her do it.” That description sounded about right to me.
I was thrilled by how the two women in Cain’s novel locked horns. Mildred, a “grass widow,” had to make money somehow without her husband to provide for her, but early in the novel she hasn’t yet come to grips with her descent from sheltered middle-class life. Miss Turner, sensing Mildred’s reluctance to take a job she believes is beneath her, drives the knife in, “[If] I have to choose between my belly and my pride, I’m telling right now, I’m picking my belly every time.”
Cain had a string of random jobs from insurance sales to construction, which informed the work environments depicted in his fiction. Dick tried to live off his writing alone for decades, which meant he had a great deal of personal experience in not having very much money.
These and other authors inspired me as I completed my novel. I changed some of the details of that failed opportunity at the restaurant in Harvard Square and gave it to Teresa, the protagonist in Wrong Way. In addition to the work environments I knew well, I brought to my characters the emotions and fears I have also felt, as someone who has often been on tenterhooks in an unstable economy.
From these experiences, I know I have at my disposal dozens and dozens of staff “workrooms” as raw material, and I know firsthand “what they talk about.” There’s more than enough there to last me beyond “three or four” novels.
Wrong Way by Joanne McNeil is available via MCD X FSG Original.