What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I’ve worked at a great many things during the course of my life so far; some of them have been great fun, but a lot have not. The first job I ever had (besides the usual suspects of household tasks and babysitting) was in a ladies’ fashion boutique, where I worked one summer at the age of fourteen or fifteen. My duties included cleaning (which I actually didn’t mind), as well as helping to serve customers. I was probably the least fashionable human being on earth at that point in my life, so I often wondered what the customers thought of me – a creature in Doc Marten boots and long flowery skirts – attempting to offer them advice on what to wear. I learned several valuable lessons in the course of this job, however, including how much I hated the lengths to which some retailers will go to try to sell things to people, and how much I hated being considered ‘just’ a person who worked in a shop.
I worked in a supermarket for years, too, through my secondary school life and well into my time at university. The work was hard, the hours were long, but I made friends in this job which I’ll keep forever. The camaraderie among the younger staff (I was young at the time, don’t forget) was always good, and we nearly always managed to find something to smile about in the course of our working day. One of the first things I was ‘headhunted’ to do during this time was work behind the supermarket’s fresh meat counter, to my horror; I was sixteen, going on seventeen (sorry if you’re now thinking of ‘The Sound of Music’), and a newly fledged vegetarian, but at least my stint as a ‘trainee butcher’ didn’t last very long. I remain, to this day, the only person I know who has ever started a conversation with the line: ‘I used to cut up hearts for a living’. I always hasten to reassure the listener that I’m talking about beef hearts, of course, but they’re often not reassured. There were many disgusting aspects of this job, but I don’t think I’ll ever top the experience of taking the blade of our huge band-saw off in order to clean it, and having it snap back and hit me in the face. If I was to pin-point the nadir of that job, I reckon that would be it. (It didn’t leave any lasting injuries, thankfully.)
I went on to work in several offices, a health centre, a printer’s, a tourist office (which was one of the biggest patience-testers I ever endured), and at a university for many years. The only thing all the jobs I’ve done have in common is that they all involved hard work, and that’s something I’m really glad of. Every first day was fraught with terror, every new thing I learned seemed unimaginably difficult until I’d got the hang of it, every new challenge gave me palpitations and sleepless nights. But – importantly – I met every challenge I faced, and I prevailed.
So, even though I’m not ’employed’ in the traditional sense at the moment, I have many years of work experience behind me, and every second I’ve ever spent in paid employment up to now has gifted me with knowledge, expertise and skills that I’ve found indispensable over the past number of months. Writing, as a career, is an extremely difficult and slow-moving thing, which calls for huge reserves of patience, resilience and self-discipline. The jobs I’ve done in my life so far have all brought something to my life – whether it’s the conviction that I never want to do anything like that particular role ever again, or simpler things like how to prioritise tasks and manage time effectively – and I’m grateful for them all. When a job is hard, or the work is heavy, or you’re not getting on as well as you could with your workmates, or you’re getting injured from flying blades (ouch), it can be hard to remember that there’s a point behind it all, and it can be tough to imagine that, one day, you’ll look back on it and realise you’re grateful for the experience.
I’ve often found myself, during the course of my working life, in the middle of experiences I never thought I’d have, wondering how I was going to get out of them. When I was thigh-deep in thirty years of correspondence, paperwork, and filth as I cleaned out a retired professor’s office, I asked myself what I thought I was doing. When I was waist-deep in student records, trying to alphabetise and file them in a room smaller than the average downstairs loo, I asked myself if I was crazy. As I dealt with the loudest, longest and least patient queue of customers I’d ever served in my first week of working in a university bookshop, I had to convince myself not to run out the door. And as I set foot into the biggest lecture theatre I’d ever seen, ready to deliver my first lecture (on the major historical events of the fourteenth century, and their likely effect on English literature of the period), I almost had myself convinced I couldn’t do it. But I did, and here I am – finally doing the one thing I want to do more than anything else.
These are the things I think about when I feel like what I’m doing right now is ‘too hard’, or ‘beyond my capabilities’, or ‘too much’. I remember that I’ve organised an international conference, I’ve delivered lectures, I’ve set exams, I’ve given expert advice on books, and I’ve dealt with busy-ness, deadlines and stress for the last twenty years. I also realise that I’ve done so many things which I’d really like not to have to do again, and how lucky I am to have the freedom, at the moment, to pursue what I’m doing. I know, too, that I have all the skills I need. Treating writing as a job, even if you’re not being remunerated at first, is vital to making a success of it, in my opinion, and I hope I’ll never be ‘changing career’ again. If this is true for me, it’s true for anyone who wants to write – every challenge you’ve faced makes you better able to write, and every working day you’ve had deepens and strengthens the skillset you need to be a writer.
In other news: I came second (or, in the friendlier American term ‘first runner up’) in this flash fiction competition at the weekend. Check out all the entries – they were amazing, and it was fantastic to see so many different takes on the prompt image. As well as the motivation and skills I’ve been talking about in today’s blog, and how they’re helpful in forging a writing career, little successes like this one are just as important. So – write! And enter competitions! And – most of all – believe you can do it, and keep going no matter what.
I worked for a company that makes mothballs for a week. The active ingredient in mothballs is para-dichlorobenzene, which is a serious eye-irritant. (Note–I worked there thirty years ago, today I am sure employees are fitted with full haz-mat suits.) Every day it took longer and longer for my eyes to stop burning when I got home from work, by Thursday night I didn’t detox at all and my eyes still hurt on Friday morning.
I didn’t go back on Monday. There have been damned few jobs in my life that I quit before I had another job lined up, that was one of them.
Oh, my God. I don’t blame you! That sounds terrible. I’ve never experienced anything as bad as that, though coming home smelling of animal blood (so much so that my mother forced me to get out of my work clothes in our back porch so that the stink of my work wouldn’t go all through the house) was pretty bad, too. 🙂 I hope you’ve had no long-term ill effects from your experience in that job. At least it makes for a good story now!