by Bonnie ZoBell
Explaining to a writing student who’s just said she’s going to be on the bestseller list next year that it’s a little tougher than that isn’t one of my favorite jobs. Do I tell her that, no matter how well-known she becomes, she will inevitably have many more jobs in her life, and that this isn’t a bad thing? That the internet quotes anywhere from 300 to 2,500 people who actually make a living at writing in the U.S.? Probably one of the most important points I could make is that the jobs writers have along the way are actually a goldmine of writing material.
Even babysitting has its perks. Let us not forget Robert Coover’s exquisitely creepy “The Babysitter,” one of his most memorable stories. I was quite the voyeur as a babysitter. Even then, I wanted to know what made people tick. I looked through closets, under beds, trying to discover folks’ secrets, who they really were. Were other families more normal than mine? I was absolutely stunned the summer I lived with my middle school math teacher and took care of her children. My parents were splitting up, and my mom had already sold our house, but our new one wasn’t ready yet, so she planned to camp with us kids all summer. I wasn’t handling it well. Imagine my surprise when, looking through my teacher’s dresser, I found some sheer pink panties with a hole in them right there and colorful embroidered letters alongside: “19th Hole!” My math teacher had sex? She enjoyed it?
In high school, after years of sneaking into the Del Mar Fair, one summer I actually got a job there at the hot dog/hamburger booth outside the rodeo. My boss, a massive man, called me Shortie. At first it was exciting to be able to eat a burger any time I wanted to, until all the grease and oil congealed and nauseated me. I learned there was a whole subset of people called Cowboys and that they’d been existing in a parallel life the whole time I’d been alive without my knowing it—not unlike the art dealers and drug addicts in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or the surfers in Tom Wolfe’s The Pump House Gang. How many other groups were out there? What made them so obsessive?
I got a job as a motel maid. I lived in Del Mar, California, where there weren’t many jobs for young folk. Or was it that I had no self-confidence? Why didn’t I have any? It took me a while to figure out why anybody would want to rent a room for only an hour. As long as they were paying, wouldn’t they prefer to stay overnight, go for a swim in the ocean, shop the boutiques? The job gave me a deeper understanding of Cosby’s Hotel and Resort in Toni Morrison’s Love.
I moved up in the world and became a maid at a big resort hotel and spa in San Diego that was rumored to be run by the mafia. People paid exorbitant amounts for these rooms, especially during the racetrack season when a unit cost three times per night what I paid in monthly rent. Who were these people? My mother was having trouble managing money after my father left because she’d never done it before. We ate well at the beginning of the month, scrounged toward the end. One of the millionaires at the spa accused me of stealing her jewelry. I didn’t even wear jewelry. I took a lie detector test at the police station. When they said I’d passed and they could see I hadn“t stolen, I said, “Thank god!” Perhaps thinking I was a little too relieved, they immediately added, “Or is there something you should tell us?” and accused me all over again. I got my first short story out of the hotel/motel biz only a couple of years ago—“Graveyard,” published by Wigleaf, and then a part of my fiction chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls.
I moved to Spokane, Washington, with my older boyfriend when I was seventeen. First I worked at Carlson’s Friendly Corner in a seedy part of downtown. Drunken panhandlers came in with all the change they’d collected for the day, spilled all their coins out of their pockets, and then I’d count it up and tell them what they could have for dinner. I was fired because I spilled a hot plate of food on a man’s lap. I got another job in Spokane at the lunch counter of the Bon Marché Department store. I was fired because customers wrote letters to my boss about how slow I was. My first taste of rejection to bolster me for the writing world? The beginning of my understanding that I was better at slow, detail-oriented, methodical jobs than fast-paced ones? In the story “You Are Not Langston Hughes,” from my fiction chapbook, a girl gets unstuck from Spokane and, with very little in the way of a support system, moves to New York City on her own.
There was the IBM receptionist/switchboard job in San Francisco when I was in college. Did I ever want a career like those mostly men and a few women had? An entire floor filled with desks back to back and florescent lights bearing down on them? This image has always stayed with me. Someday I’ll use it.
Helen Gurley Brown hired me at Cosmopolitan Magazine when I finished graduate school as an editorial assistant (read: glorified secretary). No, we didn’t lie around on our desks with all our buttons undone like photos in the magazine might lead you to believe. When my long-time boyfriend broke up with me and I came to work crying, luck would have it that Helen just happened to be walking down the hall by my desk and see me at this weak moment. She kindly asked me what was wrong, and I tried to explain amid staggering sobs that my boyfriend had left me. Bright as a Mouseburger, she lit right up and said, “Well, Miss Bonnie, I think you should give him another chance. We all make mistakes! You have to understand that.” I just nodded and thanked her. Why did I not have enough self-confidence to clarify what really happened? Read all my novellas and stories with insecure narrators, including those in my recent collection, What Happened Here: a novella & stories.
Most of us will need a job that pays the bills. And writers need a little life learning as well as being able to write well. Every single job you have along the way helps worlds in understanding people and yourself; accurate details and insights about the work place and relationships are what push your fiction to the next level. Take jobs as close to real human beings living real lives with real-life crises and moments of glory. Assist people with their taxes and see what their lives are really about, observe how customers and servers treat each other as a cashier at MacDonald’s, work as a caretaker and discover what it really means to be old. One of the best jobs a fiction student ever told me he had was as a window washer on high rises. Can you imagine?
Bonnie ZoBell’s linked collection, What Happened Here: a novella and stories, was published on May 3, 2014, her fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls in March 2013. She’s received an NEA fellowship, the Capricorn Novel Award, and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. She has an MFA from Columbia University, teaches at San Diego Mesa College, and is working on a novel. Visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.