Writing Wednesday: Retail and Writing

It’s that season again. I won’t say the C-word, because I’m not a big C-word fan. But it’s that time of year.

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You know, the time of peace and love and brotherhood. And rampant consumerism.

I work a day job that combines retail and shop work, and this means I’ve got to make sales and do the work for them later. I mention this because it totally wipes me out from December 1st to December 24th. It’s a lot of work. A lot. And do I like it? No. I barely get time to see my family and friends.

But here are three big reasons all this mess helps me with my writing. And, as a lot of you probably work jobs also affected by a C-word rush, I figured it might give you something to think about, too.

1) EMPATHY

Whether or not Aunt Tillie gets the red blender or the blue blender for Christmas might not be a big deal to you, but to somebody else, it’s worth screaming about. Should this person perhaps not have waited until December 23rd to purchase said blender? Indupitably so, Watson. Should they have taken a moment, reflected on the nature of the season, and kindly said hey, it’s okay, I can still rush-order it online? Si. Your mother has no part in this, aside from birthing you however many years ago, and probably shouldn’t have been mentioned in a blendiferous context. We know.

However, people behave as they’re going to behave. Sometimes it’s the wrong way, sometimes it’s the right way. And, when you’re wearing that name tag/apron/polo/whatever it is, you aren’t in any position to tell them how to behave. So what do you do? You deal with it, understand it’s nothing personal. If it’s still tooth-grittingly difficult, try and put yourself in their shoes. Maybe Aunt Tillie has terminal cancer. Maybe this is the last Christmas she’s spending on Earth, and all she wants, for some reason, is a chocolate milkshake made in a blue blender. Maybe our poor invalid Aunt Tillie only said this last night.

If all else fails, go to the back room and bitch about it for a while.

I mention this because empathy is an important quality for a writer to possess. Not only do you need to understand why your characters are doing things, you need to sympathize with them. Even the villians. Everyone’s story, up close, is relatable. And guess what? To themselves, everyone’s a hero in it.

2) PATIENCE

Yes, Mrs. Nozzlebuff. We think the off-cream is a much better shade for your walls than the off-white. No, we don’t think the off-white is ‘too mauve’. It’s off-white. Yes. We’re fairly certain it will go with anything. Except maybe more off-white. Oh, damn. We shouldn’t have said that. Now you’re thinking of the taupe? Well, it’s nice and neutral, taupe. Yes, we’re fairly certain it will go with anything. Brushed aluminum fixtures? Really? Well, we repeat. It’ll go with anything.

We’ve all had that customer who takes forever. Maybe they’re holding up your line at a cash register, maybe they’re keeping you from important work in the back room, maybe your eyes are crossing from looking at the same two paint samples for an hour and a half.

Here’s the thing: you’re getting paid to stand there, just the same as you are to do anything else.

This is one of the hardest lessons in a combined retail/shop sort of job. Though helping Mrs. Nozzlebuff make her paint selection might seem like a pain in the ass, you’re still doing your job. You’re still getting work done. Maybe not as much work as you could get done otherwise, but you can’t rush some people.

Here’s using lesson number one for lesson number two: put yourself in her shoes. I know I for one hate to be rushed. Rushing will make me, purposefully and angrily, take longer to do something, out of sheer bitchy pique. If someone takes two hours, let ’em take two hours. I mean, try and make it a little quicker, by all means. But don’t force a decision on somebody when they aren’t ready to make it.

People who’re slow making these sorts of decisions will be grateful to you for your patience. Most people won’t have had it with them. You might make a customer for life, or a new friend.

And writing is the same way. Write your first draft, second draft, third draft, fiftieth draft. Write as many drafts as it takes for you to be satisfied. If a scene isn’t right, don’t rush it along–slam out a working draft of it and ponder it in the dark watches of the night. The answer will come to you eventually, don’t worry. Don’t throw down your pen because everything isn’t perfect right away. If you do, you’ll sure as hell never finish the story.

Which brings us to:

3) KNOW YOUR STOCK.

This one doesn’t get mentioned enough in either context. Knowing your stock–whatever it may be–like the back of your hand gives you the chance to know exactly what works for exactly what person. More options give you an increased range of flexibility in sales and keeps a customer from walking out the door.

In writing, knowing your stock is knowing your options. You should have plans, not only for what your characters say and do, but also for what they didn’t say or do. Each combination of elements creates a different outcome, a different emotional background, a different chain of events. Don’t say some character must do something–say that a character must do something in this set of circumstances. Understand that, if circumstances change, so does that must. If, in a story, your climactic moment involves a character killing his mother, use your writerly inventory to create a chain of events that leads up to it, and not the other way around.

And, bonus number four:

4) BITCH IN THE BACK ROOM.

Sometimes, you have to bitch. You’re not supposed to, but you have to.  The key is, make damn sure customers can’t hear you. And make damn sure, DAMN sure, they can’t see it on your face. And go back there, light a cigarette or grab a coffee, and let fly. Your coworkers understand. Hell, they’re probably doing the same thing.

When writing, don’t let the emotions of the day color the emotions of your story. Save the complaints about your boyfriend for your mother, the complaints about your mother for your boyfriend, and the complaints about work for the goddamn stockroom. When you write, you’re creating an artificial environment of sorts. It may be an environment based on your day to day life, but it’s not so based on it that you need to change emotional charge from paragraph to paragraph, depending on how work is going. If you’re in the middle of a happy crowning scene when your grandfather dies, maybe you need to set that scene aside for a while. Or: plaster the mental retail smile on and plough through it. It won’t be as good if you do this–hell, everybody knows the Retail Smile is more like a grimace frozen in time–but it’ll serve you until you listen to item number two and rewrite it later, when you’re in a better mood.

There you go. Hope this helps somebody else who writes while bearing the incredible cross of working straight through this hopped-up overly consumer driven holiday season. You’re probably not getting much writing done right now–I’m not, I’m honestly kind of amazed I had the time to post this in the first place–but it’s something to think about.

Happy holidays, guys. And a note: if you’re the lady screaming about the blue blender somewhere deep in the bowels of a Bed, Bath and Beyond, take a moment, think about item number one, and stop. You’re not making anyone’s season better, including your own, by throwing a tantrum in front of a salesperson.

Now get yourself together and, red blender or blue blender, try to spare some of that peace and love you’ve been vaunting in your Christmas cards.

Love,
E

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5 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday: Retail and Writing

  1. Great post. Anyone who’s worked retail can relate. I think #4 also applies to our behavior in social media, as we’re trying to promote ourselves and our books. It’s the internet edition of “make damn sure they can’t see it on your face!”

    1. Yup. Both public interactions involve a glued-to-your-teeth, too-permanent-to-remove death’s head grin. ‘Look at me. I am a professional. I am SOOOO professional. I am so professional, I’m about to go professionally crazy. But you don’t know this. because I’m PROFESSIONAL.’ 😛

  2. Awesome post, especially #2. I think a lot of writers tend to want to rush through their books just for the glory of getting them into the world. But what too many of us forget is that once it’s out there, it’s out there forever. Better to have patience and make sure you write the best book you can rather than sticking it in public and crossing your fingers it’s good enough, yes?

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