Get to Work: The Value of Jobs in Narratives

Yesterday in my fiction workshop, I was talking about the value of having something for the main characters of a story to do. I’ve always thought that jobs were useful in this regard. A character in a story can engage in all sorts of interesting activities on the basis of his or her job alone. This can also be true in creative nonfiction. Jobs require action, and action reveals character while also constructing a narrative.

Some years back, a friend sent me a letter. Yes, it was that long ago. A time before the time when we had e-mail. A time when people still wrote letters. Anyway, my friend worked for a realtor, and she was telling me in this letter that the man who owned her agency had a number of duplexes that he rented to folks. Recently, a murder/suicide had taken place in one of his duplexes, and after the police released the crime scene, the landlord had to call in a man to clean the house, a man who specialized in such cleaning. “I thought this sounded like your kind of story,” my friend wrote to me. She was absolutely right, no matter what admitting that might say about me.

I wasn’t so much interested in the gruesome details of the job as I was in how different it seemed. It wasn’t what I considered an ordinary job, but it was a job nonetheless, one someone had to do, and I thought it would be interesting to write a story about such a man to see how I could use the facts of his job to explore whatever was going on inside his own house.

When I write a story, it’s usually premise that interests me first. I’m willing to let the more abstract concerns of the story surface through my attention to characters involved in a chain of “and then, and then, and then.” So I wrote the first line of this story: “When I was a boy, my father cleaned up crime scenes.” Okay. Got that ball up into the air. Now, what else to go with it?

Well, if there’s a son, there’s probably a mother. Hmm. . .wonder what she does for a living? “This was the year she wrote travel¬† guides to countries she had never seen. . . .She spent her days in the reference room of the public library [using encyclopedias, almanacs, and hotel registries to gather information about various sites].”

Hmmm. . .a library. Bet there’s a research librarian there. What if the librarian is a man, and what if the mother is smitten with him, and what if the son comes home from school one day and finds his mother and the librarian sitting on the sofa in the living room? What if the boy’s father unexpectedly comes home from work early? What if he’s got a story to tell about something that happened while he was on the job? What if the librarian, a know-it-all, is unsettled by this story? What if the father doesn’t particularly cotton to this man being in his house? What if the librarian says he has something the father should know, and what if the son realizes the family is on the brink of coming apart: “I sensed, even then, that a decision was about to be made, but that no one had the courage to make it. It would be years before I would understand that it had something to do with the violence we can do to love, and the will it takes to mend it.”

There I am at the climatic moment of the story, or am I? In a story that starts in the particulars of jobs and becomes a story about how much we can stand to know about ourselves and the people we say we love, perhaps there’s one more thing to be revealed.

“But that’s not the story I need to tell,” the narrator says, “at least not all of it.” Then he confesses his shame over rebuffing an unpopular girl at school who one day laid a love note on his desk. A few days later, she committed suicide, and it was that scene that the father was referring to when he told the librarian his story.

So much surfacing through the details of the characters’ work. So much arrived at because I got curious about what people did for their livings. The story ends with the father’s mental breakdown and eventual recovery. The son longs for him to come home from the hospital and for life to start for them again. The story ends with this passage:

The best part of his job, he always said, was leaving a house after everything was clean: “What keeps me going is thinking about years later, when it no longer matters who we were or what we did while we were alive. Someone else will live in that house, and if they’re lucky, they’ll never hear about the horrible thing that happened there.”
That was the blessing he left them, he said, the one they would never know.

My apologies for writing at such length about my own story, “The Least You Need to Know,” but I wanted to illustrate how much mileage a writer can get from giving characters jobs. Those jobs, whether in fiction or nonfiction, can become metaphors for the larger concerns of the material. Jobs can also lay out a series of events in the narrative because jobs require action and can include complications. Finally, jobs and the actions they require can reveal the layers that make up characters. I’ve used my father’s job of farming in a number of essays and in my full-length memoir, From Our House. Real people have jobs, too (well, if they’re lucky these days), and those jobs can do the same things in nonfiction as they do in fiction.

I guess there’s nothing left for us now but to get to work.


  1. Amy Monticello on April 26, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    I love when you tell us about your process through your own stories, Lee. Especially because those stories so often arise from someone else’s curious existence and your compassion for all lives lived. Even when you’re telling us about you, you’re telling us about them and about us, too.

    So, I know what question to ask of my manuscript tomorrow: What do a bartender and a secretary have to say to each other after a day of listening to other people talk?

    Thanks for posting!

    • Lee Martin on April 26, 2011 at 9:19 pm

      Thanks, Amy! I hear your manuscript is coming along nicely. Good deal!

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