Tag Archives: writing about work

How to Give a Character a Job

8 Dec
Chaitali Sen's The Pathless Sky updates the star-crossed lovers tale with a novel set amid political turmoil and the possibility that geography and politics might still be overcome.

Chaitali Sen’s The Pathless Sky updates the star-crossed lovers tale, in a novel set amid political turmoil and the possibility that geography and politics might still be overcome.

Just as oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface, so do jobs occupy the vast majority of our waking hours. Yet in novels and stories, we tend to write about only the dry land—the family members, relationships, and conflicts that we often view as separate from work. Some critics claim this is due to the novel’s bourgeois roots. In this view, writers (for instance, Henry James) have often been people with wealth, who never had to get a “real job,” and so their novels reflect their lives of leisure. The opposite approach is to give characters low-paid, backbreaking jobs that reveal the oppression of society, as in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

It’s true that jobs carry social connotations and political implications (today as ever), but this is not the only way to view work. What if the character likes the job? Or, what if a job is neither terrible nor great but, simply, part of the fabric of the character’s life? To write about work in this context, we need a different approach than ignoring labor altogether or using it as a metaphor for society.

Chaitali Sen demonstrates how this approach might work in her novel The Pathless Sky. You can read an excerpt from it here.

How the Novel Works

The Pathless Sky is set in an invented country, a purposeful and careful choice made by Sen (which she wrote about here). In her essay, “Why I Set My Novel in an Unnamed Country,” Sen writes, “My fictional setting was some sort of strange hybrid that probably revealed more about my own psychology than a singular geopolitical entity.” As with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Before I Was a Gazan,” which I wrote about last week, the goal is to view a character not as a political entity but as a unique individual. The politics don’t disappear, but they are no longer foregrounded. As American readers, we tend to view characters from non-Western countries as representatives of an entire group of people, just as we tend to view characters who are restaurant servers and cooks, farm workers, and bankers as representatives of their work groups. The challenge is to allow readers to see character first and then the character’s job.

Watch how Sen does this:

Dr. Malick of the University of Sulat Province was a spry, wiry man in his fifties, with thin strands of hair that seemed drawn to some heavenly body wanting to lift him upwards. His papers were mostly technical, minor in scope. He seemed to relish the practice of geography, the tools, the products, the meditative fieldwork, the craft rather than the theory, as if he wanted to know only what was there and capture it with an artist’s hand, with little interest in the forces that created it. His talks were so tightly focused, so fixed on one object, in this case a single, intensely detailed map of English Canal illustrating the difficulties of mapping around an urban center where the geology is often obscured, that he often left his listeners wondering if he’d been speaking in a long, extended metaphor and they’d failed to grasp it.

The passage begins with details that have nothing to do with the character’s work as a geology professor. Instead, they’re focused on his appearance and what it reveals about his personality (spry, wiry, attracted to heavenly bodies). These traits are immediately juxtaposed with the nature of his work (technical, minor). It’s an unlikely pairing that leads to unexpected phrases (“relish the practice of geography”) and the terrific image of his students “wondering if he’d been speaking in a long, extended metaphor and they’d failed to grasp it.”

Sen has given her novel room to create character and a job for that character. Neither is a manifestation of the other. Each has the integrity of its own existence, and when they’re brought together, tension is created.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s give a character a job, using The Pathless Sky by Chaitali Sen as a model:

  1. Describe some aspect of the character’s physical existence. This could mean appearance: how he looks or how she carries herself. It could also be a reflection of the character’s interior life. For example, how often have you read a book with a dreamy character who sits and reads in the midst of some social gathering? You can do better. In the film Breach, Chris Cooper plays a FBI agent who sold secrets to the Russians, and when he walks down the hall with a coworker, he leans into the other man, continually pushing him into the wall. The character’s internal life is given external force. This is what Sen does with Dr. Malick’s hair. The force of his personality becomes externally animated: his hair seems to attempt to leave the Earth’s orbit. So, try to see your character as active, rather than passive (or with passivity that is consciously chosen). What details would the character’s acquaintances notice? How would they finish this sentence: Whenever we ___, she always ____?
  2. Attach adjectives to the character. I know that Ye Olde Workshop Rules ban adjectives, but that’s a bit like banning salt from food. Over-seasoning can ruin the product, of course, but a little bit can accentuate the natural flavors. In Sen’s passage, spry and wiry highlight the description of hair that follows. Without the adjectives, the image might pack less punch. So, try making a list of adjectives that might match the trait or description you’ve just written. How can you add one or two of these words to a sentence about the character?
  3. Introduce the job. Keep in mind that the job is not entering a neutral space. You’ve given it a charge with the description of the character. How does the job react? Is it charged a similar way? Does it carry an opposite charge? We think in similar terms in real life. When we learn someone’s job, we think, “Yeah, that makes sense,” or we’re befuddled. It doesn’t really make a difference which option you choose. What matters is that you’re conscious of the choice. Whether the job is a neat fit or an unlikely one, make the nature of the pairing clear to the reader.
  4. Develop the relationship between character and job. If the job is a neat fit for the character, describe the ease with which the character goes about her work. Or, describe how the meets the characters needs, whatever they are or how the character excels at the job. If the job is an unlikely pairing, describe, as Sen does, how the character surprises people in that workplace with how he carries out his duties. Or, how do the character’s traits make him unexpectedly good at his job?

The goal is to give a story space to create both character and a job, opening up more possibilities for tension and conflict.

Good luck.

An Interview with Jess Stoner

9 Oct
Jess Stoner's essay, "Blues on Wheels," about illegal labor practices at the US Post Office has inspired hundreds of postal workers to write her with their stories.

Jess Stoner’s essay, “Blues on Wheels,” about illegal labor practices at the US Post Office has inspired many postal workers to write her with their stories.

Jess Stoner is the author of the novel I Have Blinded Myself Writing This. Her work has been published in The Morning News, The Rumpus, Burnt Orange Report, and Caketrain, among others. She lives in Colorado and previously lived in Austin, where she worked for the United States Postal Service. Stoner wrote about the illegal and abusive labor practices that she experienced as a postal carrier in the essay “Blues on Wheels.”

To read “Blues on Wheels” and an exercise on writing for a hostile audience, click here.

Michael Noll

The essay contains so many stories of abuse and working conditions that are not only unsafe but illegal. How did you know where to begin telling them? When there is so much to tell, how do you figure out what to put in the essay, what to leave out, and how to organize the stories and details that you choose to include?

Jess Stoner

The most important thing I did, for myself, was wait a few months after I quit to even think about putting anything coherent together. I needed some emotional distance, because I knew it had to be bigger than just “The Post Office is the worst! Feel bad for me!”

Once we moved from Texas to Colorado, I had even more breathing room, and I started researching the history of the USPS.  It wasn’t until after I had read hundreds of posts on postal worker forums and a few books, including Mailman, USA, written by a former president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, that I started to truly understand my experience as a part of a larger narrative.

One thing I knew for certain was that no one outside the USPS understands what the job is like—that’s such a lonely space to inhabit seven days a week. In addition, a fantastic editor I worked with at The Morning News, Rosecrans Baldwin, encouraged me to include not just the micro details (like what a typical morning looks like) but the macro (the historical and political) as well.

I was finally ready to finish the essay after telling a friend about the 40,000 words I had written. His response was: “That’s not an essay, that’s a book.” And that simple answer was so freeing. So maybe I wouldn’t talk about how letter carriers see and feel a city changing in unique ways (a house is torn down and three duplexes are built in its space—multiplying by six the amount of mail and packages you have to deliver); but it could still be a chapter in the book.

Michael Noll

The Dallas Morning News reported that "one in three construction workers in Dallas doesn’t get a break during the work day, no matter the time of day or temperature."

The Dallas Morning News reported that “one in three construction workers in Dallas doesn’t get a break during the work day, no matter the time of day or temperature.”

You mention that Texas, where you worked, is a right-to-work state, which means the power of unions is severely limited. Texas is not alone; it’s one of 24 states with right-to-work laws, which is not surprising. Generally speaking, Americans are not particularly sympathetic to issues of worker safety or abuse. Perhaps it’s due to that old Protestant work ethic: work hard, don’t complain. Or perhaps it’s a result of the poor economy; when so many people are out of work or underemployed, they may have little interest in hearing complains from people with jobs. It seemed that you had these attitudes in mind as you wrote. For instance, you mention your work ethic, which was instilled by your lower middle class background. You remind readers that you could have quit if you wanted to; the job wasn’t a matter of avoiding destitution. I’m curious when these passages entered the essay. Where they always present? Did you have the readers’ skepticism in mind from the beginning? Or did you add them later after getting some initial feedback?

Jess Stoner

It wasn’t just the reader’s skepticism I was worried about; I was worried the entire time I worked at the Post Office that my colleagues would think I wasn’t cut out for the job. It meant everything to me to work hard and earn their respect.

And I was even more worried, from the very first day of training, that if my colleagues knew my background, they would think I accepted the position as an experiment, as fodder for something I’d write about later. In reality, I was proud to deliver the mail, and for the first two months or so, I naively hoped that it would be the last job I ever had.

You know, we hear a lot about the dignity of work. Politicians from the left and right, including President Obama, talk about how a job gives you dignity. I call bullshit. The people I worked with at the Post Office were good parents and grandparents; they were veterans; some of them talked about their strong faith—they all have an innate dignity that has nothing to do with how they earn a paycheck. From them, from my own experiences, and from the experiences of my friends who work at chain restaurants or are sales clerks at big box retailers, I have learned an incredibly important lesson: Work is just what millions of Americans do, despite the indignity.

The Texas Tribune's series "Hurting for Work" reveals the injuries and deaths to Texas workers in the midst of the economic growth nicknamed "The Texas Miracle."

The Texas Tribune’s series “Hurting for Work” reveals the injuries and deaths to Texas workers in the midst of the economic growth nicknamed “The Texas Miracle.”

I mean, for Christ’s sake, the Austin City Council had to pass an ordinance requiring employers to give construction workers rest breaks. According to The Dallas Morning News, one out of every three construction workers in Dallas isn’t allowed to take a water break—even when it’s 110 degrees outside. The Texas Tribune did an excellent, and, I think, award-deserving series called “Hurting for Work,” that details the terrible conditions workers face throughout the state. That more people aren’t horrified and publicly demanding change makes me wonder what the hell is wrong with our country.

Michael Noll

At one point, you describe getting bit by a dog (unleashed, unfenced), and your supervisor’s reaction was, “You’re probably going to get fired.” I can only imagine how incensed and upset you must have been at this. How were you able to control those emotions to write about the incident? Was it a matter of letting some time pass? Or did you use some other strategy to direct your anger?

Jess Stoner

In the moment I was blown away—my vision and mind went white—I felt like I had Saramago’s blindness. I had known, mostly only theoretically, of workman’s comp laws, of OSHA rules—they don’t exactly come up in faculty meetings and I hadn’t worked outside of a university, the state government, or a non-profit in years. I assumed that these laws existed and they were respected. Beyond my initial bewilderment and subsequent anger, I felt, more than anything, beaten down and depressed.

For weeks and months after I quit, I felt a strangling guilt over the fact that I had given up, that I could give up, that I abandoned the carriers and CCAs I worked with who had been so kind and supportive. I had to shake that off though. I had the privilege of walking away. Now what was I going to do with it?

Michael Noll

This essay falls into the long tradition of muckraker journalism: from Upton Sinclair’s expose of the meat packing industry to Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, about the conditions faced by the working poor. As such, it’s making highly critical claims about not only the USPS as a whole but also individual employees who behaved badly. Did you have concerns about legal repercussions of publishing the essay—libel, for instance? I know that you changed the names of the people involved, but I’m curious what other steps you may have taken to protect yourself from lawsuits or other legal retribution.

Jess Stoner

I’m beyond flattered that you consider my essay in concert with Ehrenreich—whose book I, coincidentally, re-read when I was writing the essay—the margins are full of my notes (like that part about why many low-paid workers get real pleasure from their short cigarette breaks: “Work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself.”). Nickle and Dimed, in so many ways, is even more depressing to read now; since its publication in 2001, workers are barely making more per hour, and, as we approach a divisive midterm election and are heading into 2016, so few are talking about the burden of affordable housing—which is a huge part of the book.

I have heard from a number of supervisors since the essay was published, and I realize that in my book, I need to include their experiences—because they’re under terrible pressure as well. One thing I regret is cutting a few lines about my supervisor. While I couldn’t predict when the day would go bad, we started each day off with a hospitable “Good Morning,” and no matter what happened afterward, I appreciated that. On my last day, when I had to come back early from a route because my back was so messed up I couldn’t breathe, she happened to be in the office, visiting from her new station, and she was phenomenal—didn’t yell at me, recognized that I needed immediate medical attention. I was so grateful she was there and not the district supervisor.

As for libel, while I’m not thinking, “Come at me bro,” everything I wrote was true, and if I were threatened with legal action, I think the USPS might have to deal with the Streisand Effect. Since the article was published, I’ve received hundreds of emails, tweets, and Facebook messages from carriers, clerks, maintenance workers, and even people who work in upper management, who wrote to thank me for sharing my story, because theirs are all too similar. Many have signed their emails, “Too afraid to give my name,” and while I understand why they would do so, it both breaks my heart and encourages me to continue my work.

October 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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