Sunday, November 14, 2010

Temping

Rhian and I got talking last night about all our temp jobs.  At the time, this work--reception work, phone answering, bank tellering, low-grade editing--seemed pretty empty and dull.  Now, it seems somehow important.  We got a lot of work done at our temp jobs--literary work, that is--and learned something about the era when we came of age.

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.

16 comments:

christianbauman said...

Ah, fantastic. Maybe our generation will come to be known as the Temp Writers. Most of the songwriters I knew in NYC in the 1990s all made their bread by temping, usually answering phones. Me, I wrote all of the short stories that would eventually be smooshed into my first novel The Ice Beneath You while temping for almost 2 years at the headquarters of Merck in Whitehouse Station, NJ. I was recently out of the army, taking an editorial course at NYU, playing guitar nights and weekends. During the day I had on my Dockers and a tie and made travel plans for exectuives and filed their expense reports and such. There was an absolute fresh promise to every new day, literally feeling the well of words inside me in the same way you can feel tears in the moments before you start crying. What a great feeling.

george said...

The flip-side to temping seems to be the service industry. Many of the stories and poems I've published have come from notebooks I've kepte for years working as a dishwasher. In fact, even though I'm a teacher now and make a middle class living, I still pull a couple of shifts a week in the summer(in a small town in southern Montana) scrubbing pots and making notes.

margosita said...

Ahh. Just when I have started to feel like a professional temp (first in San Francisco, now in Ithaca) this post comes along.

Thank you.

I could, and I think I will, write a post or essay on what it's like to be a temp. The experience of temping in a recession feels a bit like how you describe the nineties, only darker, a bit more desperate. Businesses seem to be bringing on temps because they probably can't afford full-time-plus-benefits employees, because it's cheaper to pay a staffing agency than have their own devoted HR department. Things like that.

Love the post, truly.

Sung said...

I did my temp stint right after college, in that vulnerable space between graduation and finding my first job. I actually wrote a short story about that time, and it's still around!

http://www.intertext.com/magazine/v5n2/nothing.html

It was in the March-April 1995 issue, which makes sense. My temping time was September-December 1994, so I guess I had a few months to mull things over.

I don't think I had any time to do anything other than work in these jobs. I remember working for a financial planner in Red Bank, and that guy made me type up EVERYTHING. Another week or so, I probably would've gotten carpel tunnel.

- Sung

jrlennon said...

George, I am surprised Rhian hasn't happened by to tell about her dishwashing days. I think there's a part of her that still considers it the best job she ever had.

Hope said...

In 1987 I had a temp job just outside Boston, at an electronics components firm. I was hired to file invoices, which took less than an hour per day. I should have used the rest of the time to write and goof off, but instead, I was given the sales territory nobody wanted -- the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana. So I spent the rest of my time on the phone with guys from Missoula trying to make sure we had the right capacitors. I left to have my first child but did such a good job they asked me to come back as a full-fledged salesperson. They printed business cards for me! But while I was on maternity leave I landed a job as a reporter for a small weekly, and my career was launched.
Hmm. What would have happened if I'd stayed in the lucrative field of electronic sales instead of jumping into journalism?

5 Red Pandas said...

I started temping after college in '99-2000. It was both mundane and bizarre. At one job a guy called the NYC office from the Florida office to ask me to fax him something. Then he called me back and proceeded to talk to me for a couple hours. He said he was going to take me to Vegas to "see the shows". I didn't even realize how inappropriate all of this was until the end of the day. He also told me he was a poet- he'd fallen for that anthology scam and paid to have his poem published.

I had one long term temp job where I wrote most of the day. The writing wasn't great, but it was good practice.

I really do have tons of temping stories. There should be a blog to submit these stories. It'd make entertaining reading.

Rachel Dickinson said...

I loved temping -- something about having to size up the situation quickly and jumping in then just leaving at the end of the day and leaving all that info behind. Great gig if you want to think about, and work out, other things.

Pale Ramón said...

What I appreciated most about temping was that the assignments I undertook gave me access to worlds--and language--I would otherwise have never known. For example, working at the IMF, I was exposed to language associated with the making of economic policy, as used by everyone from desk economists to the press office to the speechwriter for the IMF's president. Same thing at Ernst and Young in Atlanta, but with a focus on improving business strategies in the private sector. Reading customer comment cards and filing them at the Huddle House corporate headquarters was a true delight. Different language for different jobs.

But what really gets me is how easily people in authority will trust a temp with important documents--real Top Secret stuff--without so much as a second thought. In that regard, a temp would make an ideal protagonist, in that he or she, like a police detective (or an orphan in a YA novel), is granted a wide range of access and movement. Because everyone is so preoccupied with getting their work done, and because the nature of the work being done (including that of the person the temp has replaced) is specialized (e.g., administrative assistant to the Director of Regional Development in Central America, who just happens to be in the field at the moment), people tend to leave you alone. The temp becomes invisible.

I got some writing done, but most of it was done by hand, as I soon learned to stay off the network if I didn't want to get caught, unless, of course, I thought to bury a paragraph between some charts or tables I was working on, but even then I didn't feel safe.

Dave said...

I know all about dodging the system. I held this administrative job a couple of years ago and quickly realized that I had to find my ways around the tech support guys. Writing furtive paragraphs into an email draft that I printed out at the end of every day. At night, before each new day of work, emailing myself inconspicuous emails of text: whatever New Yorker stories I could get in full off their website. That was, looking back, the best job I ever had. I got reading done, drafted four or five stories over a few months time, and when I couldn't sneak reading in for fear of being spied on from behind, I'd discreetly listen to audiobooks. And at the end of it all they bought me a cake because I had somehow managed to do my job exceptionally.

jrlennon said...

Great stories...have there been any good temp novels?

zoe said...

Rachel Cusk - The Temporary

rmellis said...

Of course -- Rachel Cusk writes all the books I want to write, so I don't have to.

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