A Bartender and Social Worker Talk About Their Day Jobs and Writing

From a post on lithub.com by Emily Alexander headlined “From Construction to Teaching: Seven Writers On Their Day Jobs”:

In a diary entry dated 1911, Kafka writes that having a day job “is a horrible double life from which there is probably no escape but insanity.” Academia and publishing offer literature-adjacent careers to a small number of writers (who must find time for their own work even within these literary industries), and the rest of us are left to eke out our livelihoods in nontraditional ways, balancing odd hours and demanding labor with creative work. I asked seven writers about their day jobs and how they manage to produce work in their off hours without losing their minds.

Emily O’Neill, Server/Bartender
Cambridge, Massachusetts

I work at a small independently owned bistro in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a bartender and server. A typical shift starts around four in the afternoon and runs until 11 pm or midnight, depending on how busy we get. At the beginning of a shift, we go over any menu changes, decide on language for selling any specials, and delegate any tasks that need doing. I’m the only full-time bartender, so I’m usually responsible for coming up with the cocktail of the day or week and I take a larger role in brainstorming cocktail menu changes.

Any job in sales involves storytelling, so working in restaurants for 17 years feels like a natural extension of my writing life. People love hearing special details about a winemaker, or who originated a recipe, or where I go to eat and drink when I’m not serving them, so a lot of my time at work is spent actively telling stories. I’ve only had one office job in my life, in my early twenties, and I absolutely hated how trapped it made me feel. The money I make at my current job is the most I’ve ever made and I’m able to live comfortably despite Boston being one of the most expensive cities in the US. If money was no object, I’d probably still want to tend bar a couple nights a week, just because of how it helps me organize my thoughts, burn off extra social energy, and feel like a participating member of my community. I live and work in the same neighborhood, which feels exceedingly rare, and that’s something I value more than I can say.

I tend to write in the mornings before work or on my days off (I have three in a row, a definite benefit of my chosen field). Working a job that asks me to pay very close attention to sensory details, body language, and the timing of everything within my control has absolutely made me a better, more thoughtful artist. My second collection of poetry, A Falling Knife Has No Handle, is all about the way experiences in bars and restaurants are perfect metaphors for the connections we crave. Hunger is so basic—everyone is hungry for something, and restaurant work makes you notice that and chase after it.

Sometimes the physical exhaustion of working full-time on my feet makes it harder to get to my desk as much as I’d like, but the flip side of that is I have a lot of downtime on shift to think through a poem or story. Often, by the time I have the energy for a dedicated writing session, the thing I want to say is already half-polished and ready to really be played with as a result. And restaurant work is the kind of thing where there’s always room for improvement, so the mindset I have, whether working or writing, is that my best effort is a foundation I can build something on over time. I didn’t get good at describing my favorite wine to people overnight, but I do get better at it every time I attempt it. In that way, it’s very much the same thing as how and why I write.

Devin Kelly, High School Teacher
New York, New York

I’m an 11th grade English teacher at a small charter school named Comp Sci High in the South Bronx. I have a lot of criticisms with charter school culture: there’s a pervasive urgency that feels neoliberal at its core. You hear lots of words like flexibility and adaptability and such. But that’s more of a systemic critique. I love our school’s community, and I love the work we are trying to do. That being said, it’s difficult work. I don’t just teach. We have an advising model, so I have a caseload of students who I communicate with constantly. I’m each of their family’s main point of contact. I do small group work, social and emotional skill-building. All of that. It’s purposeful, caring work. And it was that work that held and still holds our school community together during the ongoingness of COVID. We always ask ourselves: does each student have at least one adult in the building that they can trust, that they are happy to see each day? I feel really confident that the answer to that question is yes.

I also teach over 100 students: three classes of Regents-aligned English and one class of AP Language and Composition. What that means is that from the moment I get to school at around 8 am until I leave around 5 pm, I am on. It makes writing hard. I have to make time for it. I wake up at 5 am everyday to read. I read on the subway. I spent three years teaching as an adjunct for CUNY and left that job four years ago. I had more time to write as an adjunct, but had no stability (sending love and solidarity to all adjuncts). Now, I have some stability but have to scratch and claw for time to write. It’s difficult. I come home and feel like my skin has been vacuum-sealed to my cheekbones from the inside. There’s love for the work. So much love, truly. But work is work. Collectively, we don’t speak about that enough. It feels like we can’t love our jobs and critique them at the same time. But we must. Our society is hollowing each of us out, one by one.

I don’t know how much of my work informs my writing. I actually feel a little uneasy when I read essays or poems that begin with some moment in the classroom. I am guilty of this. But this is because I have grown to believe there is something sacred about the classroom. So much of the world stifles imagination. I remember when teachers were allowed to carry guns in Florida. I wasn’t expecting to get so emotional. But I was angry, so angry. Allowing teachers to carry guns meant that the world had forced its way into the classroom’s sacred space. The beauty of the classroom is that it can be a space of true imagination. It can be a space to dictate the way in which, collectively, you would like to re-imagine the world before you leave the classroom and enter the world again. But the more the world enters the classroom without asking—whether through arming teachers or pushing for more standardization or enacting the myriad school shooting drills we go through each year—the less permission we have, collectively, to imagine. The more imagination feels blunted by the world.

All that to say: I don’t think about writing often at my day job. But I think the same things that influence my writing—permission, wonder, astonishment—influence my pedagogy. I love teaching at the high school level because I love how often I am surprised by my students. And I love being a kid. Adulthood is a mess. It’s a mess of paperwork and drudgery and bills and so much else. I spend most of my day at work trying really hard to be as much of a kid as I can be. Which means I try to be patient, perpetually astonished, forever open to surprise. It doesn’t make the work any less hard, but it makes it more meaningful to me, and, I hope, to those I work among. It reminds me that there is something worth living for, some kind of light within each of us that is often dimmed by the world but maybe can be turned on again.

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