Reading this book was a great pleasure. Sonny Brewer has somehow convinced twenty-three hard-working, busy, professional writers to pause and remember when they weren’t writing full-time, but earning a living at some job, dirty or clean, poorly paid or lucrative, dangerous or only mortally boring, that they quit in order to devote themselves to their craft. The premise of each of these essays is the same: describe what job you were working at when you decided to try your hand at earning a living writing. The assumption is that the job the writer left would be pretty terrible, in some way or other, and they mostly were. But each of these writers, man or woman, young or old, rural or urban, blue collar or white, has a distinct personal voice.
Silas House probably hewed the closest to the template. House was a career rural mail carrier in eastern Kentucky for seven years and quit that job to write full-time. He didn’t hate the work and acknowledges that the hours alone in the car gave him time to think about his fiction, observe the natural world, daily, as it goes through its seasonal changes, and most importantly, get to know a great many people and learn their stories. He concludes that “people are wonderful, people are terrible.” He misses them and their stories, but he has a lifetime supply.
The importance of having found, on the job, useful material for writing comes up in many of these essays.
John Grisham, as all America knows, left a law practice to write full-time, and he assures us that: 1) lawyers learn about human “misery and conflict on a grand scale” and 2) lawyers, in court and out, love to embellish the truth. What better describes the fiction-writing life?
Learning people’s stories was mentioned in many of the essays.
Suzanne Hudson, still a middle-school counselor who hasn’t quit yet, is immersed in the world and, therefore, the stories of the young. Middle school is a world of “double-dealing and plotting and subterfuge and intrigue…posturing and preening,” she writes. What writer could ask for more?
Winston Groom writes of serving in Vietnam and then as a reporter in the ’60s in Washington, D.C. Groom quit reporting to write fiction, but learned from each of his jobs and advises “if you expect to be a writer, you’d best be able to draw on what you know from what you’ve done pretty heavily. Good luck.”
A couple of these essays stray pretty far from the assignment, but as all teachers of writing know, sometimes that produces remarkable results. Pat Conroy writes of a summer volunteering for a Catholic church in Omaha, assessing the parish’s needs. The neighborhood was rough and dangerous, and he was an innocent. Conroy tells a wonderful story of trying to get census information—address, occupation, etc.—from a pimp, although of course Conroy didn’t know the occupation of the fellow is was talking to. “‘These threads don’t give you no clue, white boy?’ he asked. ‘You own a clothing store?’ I guessed, and he howled with laughter.” The experience cemented in Conroy a passion for social justice that has never left him.
As we all know, after graduation from the Citadel, Conroy served as a teacher on little Yamacraw Island, the experience written up as The Water Is Wide and filmed as Conrack.
Howard Bahr took the opportunity to write a thirty-three-page memoir, the longest piece in the book, treating his experiences in the Navy in Vietnam and years of working on various railroads. It is digressive and eccentric and finally fascinating and worth every minute.
William Gay writes of factory labor, dipping canoe paddles in a vat of toxic heated lacquer, breathing in the fumes until he had a perpetual vicious headache and was endlessly high on the fumes. When he complained and asked for some kind of breathing mask, the boss said: “You’ll notice on your pay stub you’re not getting charged for these drugs…. Drug addicts would tramp each other to death trying to get this job.”
Gay’s experiences notwithstanding, Rick Bragg’s essay is still the sweatiest, a story titled “Real Work.” Bragg recalls working for his Uncle Ed, with pick and shovel and chainsaw, clearing land, trimming and loading pulpwood, and fighting off rattlesnakes.
Another sentiment many of these writers seem to have in common was made explicit in Daniel Wallace’s essay. Wallace worked at a vet’s, cleaning filthy cages and expressing dogs’ anal glands. Horrible work, but as his father reminded him, “The first job you get should be the worst job you get; it’s what you do to learn what it is you never want to do again.” May 2011
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show Bookmark and the editor of A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama. This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.