Why You Should Write About Your Characters at Work
Jason Allen Explains How His Worst Jobs Shaped Him as a Writer
When I was a 29-year-old freshman at Portland State, I was lucky enough to work with Pulitzer Prize-finalist Craig Lesley. He gave me some advice that has always stuck with me: write about work. Or more specifically: figure out what your characters do for work and show them working.
Work was something I knew a lot about. I’d shown up in his classroom after spending years working blue collar jobs, with no real idea of how to apply my compulsion to write a novel. Craig had emphasized that the work a character does reveals who they are more effectively than telling the reader who they are, and that made sense to me. If we see a farmer farming, we might see that he walks with a limp, or see a scar, or a missing finger, or the dirt-stained calluses on his hands. We might see that the farmer is a woman, and that she has the callused hands. We would also see the farm, and the isolated farmhouse, and maybe some physical details that signify the time period. We might see the farmer’s six kids also working the fields, and a speck-size church steeple far in the distance, piercing the horizon. You get the picture, and that’s the point—when we see the character in scene, at work, it opens the door to the details of a much larger picture.As a writer, some of the shittiest jobs I’d had turned out to be the greatest gifts.
Those fiction classes and conversations with Craig about the value of putting characters to work prompted me to make a list of all the jobs I’d had by that point—a list that grew in the years to follow. In my twenties I cleaned swimming pools in the Hamptons; I worked for a carpenter who’d been prescribed anti-psychotic meds for his rage; I cut tile with a wet saw in freezing cold wind; I stayed awake all night at a guard shack at a microchip factory; I shot nails into roofing shingles in hundred-degree heat. Into my thirties, while battling back intense bouts of imposture syndrome and earning my undergrad degree, an MFA, and then finally a PhD, I still typically worked at least one blue-collar job, sometimes two. Looking back on all those jobs that seemed to eat away at me a day at a time, I realize there’s one huge upside— the most difficult or draining days I’ve spent at work are prime material to work from.
Whether I realize it or not, as I’m writing the early drafts of novel or story pages, I’m pouring some of my lived experience into each character I create. When I first read Denis Johnson’s story “Work,” from his collection Jesus’ Son, his alternative take on a workday struck me both as familiar and as a revelation. Johnson’s main character, FH, finds himself ripping copper wiring from the walls of an abandoned building with a fellow dive bar regular, working for the day’s drinking money.
I realized that I’d spent odd days in my twenties working for cash with similarly shady characters, with my sole motivation to earn just enough to get drunk that night; I realized that those of us who’ve lived in the undertow of alcoholism and addiction are perpetually working to support our habits and to scrape by. I also realized the value of keeping characters in motion—the physical occupation dictates that they do something, some task or performance that we can vicariously participate in, which is guaranteed to be more engaging for the reader than simply plopping the protagonist down in a chair for us to listen to them contemplate their life.
In my debut novel The East End, I revisited a job I had one summer when I worked with my mother at a multi-millionaire’s summer estate in Southampton, where she was the housekeeper and general caretaker, and funneled some of that experience into two of the point-of-view characters, a teenager named Corey, and his mother, Gina. At the Sheffield estate, Corey mainly acts as a gopher and laborer, and I found that his character was revealed most vividly during specific tasks—as he scrubs traces of mildew from outdoor furniture, as he carries bags for guests and stakes down tiki torches, as he mops the long porch and dries it with towels while on his hands and knees. Just as I had felt while working many jobs in the Hamptons, Corey resents having to stoop and pose in positions of servitude, and even more so, he cannot reckon with the sense of invisibility, the perception that the homeowners and their guests do not see him as a person but rather a faint presence in their vacation landscape. It wasn’t until I put Corey to work that I understood his deepest conflicts.The work a character does reveals who they are more effectively than telling the reader who they are.
Similarly, I had to witness Gina’s marathon workday at the onset of Memorial Day weekend, moment by moment, through her eyes, in order to internalize her struggles as an addict and a single-mother. She needs this job, but the job is killing her. For over a decade, trading almost every waking hour to take care of entitled people at their private playground has worn her down to the point that drugs and alcohol have become her lifeline, even as they are pulling her into a different type of purgatory. From early in the morning until late at night, she pivots from one role to another at the billionaire family’s estate, hurrying from one room to another, responding to tedious requests, frantically cleaning, serving multiple courses and pouring wine at dinner parties, overseeing other employees, and all of this self-sacrifice for the sake of an underwhelming paycheck. In this novel, I wanted to bring the working-class people I knew in that land of extreme income disparity to life, just as Craig had told me he’d aspired to do with the hardscrabble people he’d known in central Oregon, and the best way to do so, for us both, was to show these fictional versions of those we’d cared about during a shift at work.
I’ve wondered what sort of novel I would have written had I not had Craig’s words of wisdom guiding me early on in my writing career. Way back when I was a freshman in his fiction workshop, I remember reading his short story “Mint,” which features characters on a mint farm, a setting where Craig had not only worked but suffered through a terrible accident in his teens. He illuminated the day-to-day toil workers endure while harvesting mint, the physical work, the noise and danger of the machinery, the meager sack lunches, eaten in whatever shady spot they could find, and the fact that everything tasted like the crop, the air itself tainted by mint. Although the jobs I’d had differed from this sort of farm labor, I identified with the physical pain and exhaustion his characters feel, the punishing sounds and vibrations they endure, and the daydreams of taking what little money they’ve earned to the bar. This story, along with Denis Johnson’s story, inspired me to write about the working-class people from my life, to work from memory to create characters whose struggles matter to me.
Craig’s advice to draw from my own work experience and to feature my characters at their workplaces has shaped my writing for the better, as it serves as a reminder to focus on sensory details and, as often as possible, to adhere to the show vs. tell adage. When characters are at work, they’re doing something, speaking to a coworker or boss, they’re often in motion, performing yet another menial task, and this creates the opportunity for conflict, complexity, and scenic tension. Within these work scenes, I inevitably write through most—if not all—of the five senses, but most importantly I see the world my characters inhabit for so many hours each day, each week, each year. Once I understand their work lives, I begin to relate to them as real people rather than characters. I have a deeper understanding of their daily routines, their frustrations, and their core desires. I respect them for their perseverance. I empathize with them. I cheer them on when they say: Enough.
Like it or not, I am every job I’ve ever worked. Like it or not, once I’ve worked any job long enough, it has influenced my worldview, altered my identity, and yet some of the most negative experiences may also have propelled me to pursue this new career as a storyteller, this work that I truly love. In hindsight, none of my least favorite work hours had been a waste of time. In fact, as a writer, some of the shittiest jobs I’d had turned out to be the greatest gifts.
Jason Allen’s The East End is now out from Park Row Books.