Sunday, December 12, 2010

Driving a Nitroglycerine Truck Can Help You Write That Novel!

A few days ago, I visited one of my favorite sites, Poets & Writers. One discussion forum talked about good jobs for writers. I chimed in since I’m a little opinionated, and as I wrote my reply twice (the first reply disappeared into the ether), I thought I’d shared what I thought at Writing in my Car.

In my day-time life, I am a proposal writer at City of Hope, a national leader in cancer research and treatment. Doing this helps with writing fiction -- I take difficult, science-y stuff and make it into plain English for regular people so that they donate money to advance cancer research. Writing proposals and reports have helped me slow down in my writing, break language down into its simplest, be compelling while still sticking to the point, and not assume that the reader knows what I'm talking about.

Stephen King taught high school history.
Jack London was an oyster pirate.
Langston Hughes worked as a busboy at a hotel in D.C.
Dan Brown taught high school English.
J.K. Rowling taught English as a Second Language, and was on welfare when she wrote the first Harry Potter novel.
And Harlan Ellison was a short-order cook and a nitroglycerin truck driver.

I always fantasize about writing novels full-time. But working a day job, and being away from my personal writing, is truly a blessing and an inspiration.

What type of crack am I smoking, you ask? Have I gone around the bend and off the cliff? Drank the Kool-Aid about how awesome work is? (And FYI, they drank grape Flavor-Aid on that unfortunate day.)

Think about it.

Does your house feature as many 'characters' at the Widget Factory?

And are they as interesting as your widget-making colleagues -- the ones who look like they may be the shooter if lay-offs ever happened? The ones who use up all your coffee creamer and never say thanks? That woman who refuses to learn how to use the copier and so she comes to your office and asks for your help and you glare at her because you just helped her two days ago but she apologizes and says she just doesn't understand cuz there are just so many buttons?

And at home, you don't have stupid rules like 'No heating fish in the microwave' or require signs that say ‘Please wash your hands after using the toilet.’ If you ever become bug-eyed and shake your head and mutter, who are these people, that means you have great material for your book.

At one of my jobs, there had been a never-ending e-mail string about how to kill the mice in the building -- traps, bring in a cat, let them be? Attorneys, paralegals, fundraisers, support staff going on and on and on and on and on and on about killing mice.

Dude, you can't make this stuff up.

And really: why should you? It's RIGHT THERE, in that memo, in that boss, in the way you never hold the elevator for that creepy guy from Accounting cuz what's his deal and why does he look at you like that and you heard things about him and his wife but that couldn't have really happened, could it, OMG here he comes?

A writer needs all of these crazy and needlessly dramatic shenanigans to populate a story's world. So, pay attention and start carrying your moleskin and quill pen! Start looking around -- the break room, the bathroom, staff meetings, the elevator, the computer where crazy comes in emails about how many Christmas decorations you can have in your cubicle.

In the end, I'd say any job is a good job for a writer. Your character, your chapter, your plot twist may present itself between the business hours of nine and five.


  1. Nice post and I think as a writer, I am always analyzing people, places, and things. It is amazing how much material is out there if you are looking for it.

  2. At least you have office people. Imagine having to trust that creepy co-worker with your life as you both try to contain the WOLF someone dragged out of the forest to get it's nails clipped and filed?

  3. Oh, lordy, A.M., where are you and what do you do for a living? And that's kinda awesome --- from afar and in the safety of my home. But now, that nugget is stored in my brain and if I ever need something random about a wolf getting a mani-pedi while I give the side-eye to a co-worker, guess what I'm thinking of?! Thanks for sharing!

  4. And yeah, Sean, it's a wonderful world for observation. I'm in Los Angeles and there are all kinds of everything here. You just shake your head and smile. Not enough notebooks in the world...

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