Like most writers, I’ve had a lot of rent jobs. When I was lucky, I worked in my chosen fields of editing and education. When I wasn’t so lucky, I worked in an institutional kitchen, as an ad mail deliverer for Canada Post, a banquet waiter, and a server on the 11 pm to 7 am shift at a 24-hour diner where we referred to the roaches as Rambo (collective noun). But even when I was working in my chosen fields, I was often working in non-profit social service agencies, which meant I was working on short-term contracts that were dependent on annual funding applications. That meant I worked somewhere for eight months or 12 months and then had to move on, even if the work was still needed and the people in charge wanted me to stay. It wasn’t so bad when I had grant money in the bank and needed time to write – but it did mean I was always the new person. I often felt like an imposter, because I couldn’t grow in my positions and really get good at what I did. I mourned lost opportunities and I thought I lacked expertise.
Ah, the follies of youth.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I’m actually really good at what I do – and it’s partly because I’ve had to learn to think independently, take responsibility for solving problems, and pivot when things weren’t working. Filling in as a contract worker for another employee’s short-term parental leave meant I had to watch closely, listen, ask questions, and decide when I would choose to do it differently. Training and orientation? Don’t make me laugh. I learned on the job and I learned how to experiment until I got it right.
Writers are pretty much always in the same situation. Does anyone really know how to write a novel or a book of creative non-fiction? Sorry, creative writing grads, but my answer is no. There is no formula and no theory that will guarantee a good result (or the result we want). We feel our way through, we try things out, and we make it work. We’re all learning on the job, and none of us are experts. But we are good at what we do.
And here’s the best thing: when we’re figuring out plot or making our characters into real people, it definitely helps to know a little bit about a lot of things. That’s where the rent jobs come in handy.
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I might never write about an ad mail delivery person, but some future plot point might make it useful to know about the master key that Canada Post uses to access the mailboxes in an apartment building. I might never write a book about the hotel banquet industry, but a character might someday need to sauce a dessert plate. (I’m partial to hearts over spiderwebs, by the way.) I may not have worked in most places for very long, but my rent work has created a special place in my brain for weird facts and insider knowledge.
If you’re a writer, embrace the short-term rent work and the gigs you hated but got paid for. Acknowledge the expertise you’ve gained by having to do a lot with a little – that will help with the art and with surviving life as a writer. Love the fact that you know how to count inventory at an automotive parts manufacturer. You’ll use that knowledge someday.
Photo by kate.sade on Unsplash
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Suzanne Methot is the author of Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing. She has worked in adult literacy and skills-training, as a museum educator, and as a teacher, creating a classroom program for Indigenous students experiencing intergenerational trauma. Born in Vancouver and raised in Peace River, Alberta, Suzanne is Nehiyaw of mixed Indigenous and European heritage. She lives on Gabriola Island, B.C., on the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw Nation.