Sunday, November 14, 2010
I took pretty much all my notes on The Funnies while working as a bank teller at about half a dozen banks in Missoula, Montana. This would have been around 1995. I stood there in the drive-up window in my knit tie, adding new note cards to my rubber-banded stack, and by the time I got a real job I was ready to start writing the thing. (Indeed, I drafted it, largely, at that real job, which was as a museum receptionist.) The two of us did so much temping that we became honorary staff at the Manpower office; often one or the other of us would man the front desk for Debbie, the sardonic, put-upon manager. It was here that I read Stephen Dixon's collected stories and wrote him a long letter telling him why the book had restored my faith in the form. We're still in touch. Rhian once won a camera by unscrambling a word in an AM radio contest, which she entered daily from her temp position at the Teamsters' Union; I later stole this and stuck it in Mailman.
Temping was a nineties rite of passage. It was the Clinton-era boom: everybody thought they needed to hire. But if you lived in a town without much going on, everybody was wrong. Temping, for us, was the experience of sitting idly by while other people failed to make money. The gears of life were turning, grinding around us. So much of lived life, it turned out, consisted of waiting to start living life. There was something depressing about the people who hired us, but also something inspiring. Human beings were awkward and inept and incapable of making good decisions. And yet they soldiered on. In this context, fiction writing seemed no more or less important than correcting scanned legal documents or administering parts-sorting aptitude tests; it seemed like something we might be able to actually do.
My relationship to my work has grown deeper and more complicated, of course, but sometimes it's possible to evoke those early days of newness and possibility--the sense that starting a new story was no big deal, that there were plenty more out there if this one failed. Temping prepared us well for fiction writing, really: it gave us a taste for work that is uncertain, not very lucrative, and different every day. There are worse ways to make a living, to be sure.
You'd be surprised at how long it took to find that old-school Manpower logo.
Posted by jrlennon at 7:40 AM