So this is the end of my three-part series spelling out my entire work history. In Part 1 I covered my early years learning about work, and in Part 2 I moved on to post-college struggles to both scrounge up some money and get out of New Hampshire.
Goat and Horse Farm Worker
Pay: $20/feeding (about 1-1.5 hours)
I got back from Japan with a bank account full of money (since the Japanese yen got really strong around the time I sent my final paycheck home!), an idea for a novel about the Japanese world of English teaching, and a resume that squarely pegged me as an ESL teacher with no accreditation. I knew I wanted to finish the novel and was thinking about grad school even then, but I also needed some kind of revenue stream to keep me afloat and help me move back out of my parents’ place, so I set about finding full-time work as soon as I’d made my decision.
Unfortunately the job market still hadn’t recovered from the 2008 crash and I was back to living in rural New Hampshire, so I was having a lot of trouble convincing interviewers I could adapt to whatever they needed me to do. While I faced the interminable slog of job postings, unanswered e-mails, and dead-end interviews, I went back to Craigslist and got hired to feed the animals on a goat and horse farm for three days during the weekend.
I’d never worked with any kind of animal before, and horses are WAY bigger and eat WAY more food than they show you in the movies. The goats were chill and easy to feed, but I also had to deal with a nasty rooster who guarded the farm from intruders by madly pecking at my ankles—which meant I had to guard my shins with an old trashcan lid while maneuvering bales of hay out of the barn. When Hurricane Irene hit that year (not something we’re used to in the northeast!), the farm owner and I spent the morning tying down all the barn doors and wrangling the horses inside while the rain pelted down.
Effect on Creative Work: Since I only spent about 4 hours per week on the farm, plus commuting, I had plenty of time left for writing and job hunting, and still stayed productive.
Bottled Lotion Salesman
Pay: $11/hour, plus sales incentives
My job search was getting desperate—I’d started calling temp agencies to follow up on jobs I’d applied for, essentially begging them to give my non-traditional resume a second look. Most of them never called me back, but one temp agency actually did once they realized my work experience didn’t fit the standard bill. The woman who owned the agency was awesome and showed me how to organize a functional resume that placed my most valuable skills on top rather than hiding them in a chronological list, and in addition to some more promising interviews, she got me a two-week gig selling bottled lotion at a Costco.
I was about as familiar with scented hand lotion as I was with horses, so my shifts consisted of me giving out samples and showing people the flavors in an extremely low-pressure way. Fortunately, lotion people LOVE lotion and the stuff basically sold itself (so much so that I even got bonuses for making the sales goal on two of the days!), and when it wasn’t busy I could talk to the people in the free sample booths across the aisle.
Effect on Creative Work: The lotion-selling gig was pretty far away, so I stayed with my aunt and uncle who lived closer to the Costco. I was also still driving to the farm job three days a week, so I didn’t have time for much else.
School Office Admin
Pay: $24,000/year, plus vacation time
After months of searching I finally found the full-time job I needed: a small Catholic elementary school needed a young person willing to work for little money who’d also be able to lead a recruiting trip to China. Though the China trip never materialized, my experience abroad got me in the door and I nailed the interview. I didn’t care about the low salary or the HUGE amount of responsibility I’d been given—I just needed to go back to work and get away from that rooster.
It was here that I found out that small Catholic elementary schools are busy ALL THE TIME with parents calling and kids throwing up on rugs and fundraisers needing to be set up, so I spent every day dashing around the school juggling a near-infinite number of tasks and staying overtime most nights just to get caught up. My first boss was unsympathetic to my plight and had a penchant for forgetting my basic biographical details (“What town did you say you lived in again?”), and for my first year I felt trapped in an endless spiral of doing more and more work without hope of overtime pay because I was salaried (and you know how much I hate unpaid overtime). I also got sick a lot, since elementary and preschools are a haven for every cold, flu, and viral malady known to man.
I struggled through the first year as best I could until I got the hang of the job and started leaving on time more often. Things also got exponentially better the second year when I got a more understanding boss and we hired on some new staff. In some ways it was worth suffering through the craziness to get to a place where things were easier, but I’m not sure I’d do it again if I had the choice.
Effect on Creative Work: Despite the hectic schedule I managed to still work on my novel a few nights a week and finish a rough draft my first year, though this wasn’t easy: most days I’d come home around dinnertime and collapse on my bed too tired to do anything. My second year I focused on revising the novel and applying to grad school, which the consistent work schedule and vacation time made a lot easier.
Literary Journal Publicity Associate (Grad School Research Assistant)
Pay: $11,600/year stipend
Twelve applications and a lot of tense waiting later, I made it into grad school and moved across the country to a two-room apartment in Nebraska, since with the deal I’d gotten I was being paid to go to school instead of the other way around. In exchange for free tuition and a stipend, for the first year of my master’s I had to work a Research Assistantship with the university’s literary journal writing press releases and talking to media outlets. It was solid experience since I was being paid to learn useful skills and take grad school classes, and it solidified my belief that these kinds of paid opportunities are essential for helping younger generations get ahead, even if the pay is low.
Effect on Creative Work: Working 10 hours a week for the journal on a flexible schedule left me with plenty of time to handle classwork and work on my novel, so this was completely, 100% an amazing deal.
An email ad on the English department listserv led me to a job editing scientific papers for an agricultural research team of students from India. Again, I knew absolutely nothing about herbicides or patterns of weed growth, but since I’d gotten good enough at grammar and writing clear sentences I figured out the technical aspects as I went. The terms were simple: when the team needed a paper edited (usually twice a month), they’d send it to me and I’d have two days to edit and send it back. The extra few bucks a month REALLY helped boost my minimal grad student stipend and was one of the best networking opportunities I ever got, since the initial experience led me to expand my editing work with all kinds of different jobs.
Effect on Creative Work: Basically none—a few hours a month doesn’t interfere with much.
Pay: $10-$25/hour, plus occasional gas money and lunches
A chance meeting with another grad student who’d been doing landscape work in Omaha led me to ask around for more—and to get it. For two summers during grad school I gave my income a second boost by driving an hour two or three times a week to weed flower beds, mulch gardens, pick up brush, and rake leaves. Everybody knew somebody who needed yardwork done, so word spread fast and I found myself making decent money while still having a few days free to work on my novel and do my summer work for the journal. It was also nice to be outside again—though the hot midwestern sun is a killer, and I went through a lot of Gatorade.
Effect on Creative Work: Because I only worked three days a week max, I saved two days and my weekends for creative work, which helped me to focus on days I needed to focus while still getting out of my apartment. To save even more time commuting, some evenings I’d work late so I wouldn’t have to work half days later—which also meant a relief from the scorching sun.
Freshman Comp Teacher (Grad School Teaching Assistantship)
Pay: $16,000/year stipend
My second year of grad school came with a big pay boost, but also more work: I had two classes of 22 freshmen to teach, and also had to plan my lessons from scratch. Fortunately the university offered plenty of help, plus a sample assignment to get us started. My job in Japan had taught me to work under pressure as a teacher, but having forty-four students’ worth of essays meant a LOT of grading, which took up a lot of my time.
Effect on Creative Work: A fair amount. I can’t stress enough HOW INCREDIBLY LONG it takes to read and thoughtfully comment on two classes worth of essays, so the pay structure for anyone teaching any kind of comp class should definitely reflect this. Fortunately, I was also taking fewer classes my second year of grad school, which made it way easier to juggle everything I had going on.
My upcoming graduation left me in the same predicament I’d been in after finishing my undergrad: What do I do now? Fortunately my boss in the university agriculture department sympathized and also needed an extra hand to work in the greenhouses, so of course I said yes.
The greenhouse job came with a TON of new things to learn, though most of these things were simple: fill pots with dirt, plant seeds, water the plants, count the plants, empty the pots, repeat. Some days we also drove ninety minutes to the university research farm (and got paid for the drive!) to work in the fields measuring plots or spraying herbicides, in addition to counting more plants. My coworkers were all cool and we’d spend our days making jokes and talking Indian politics, which provided good mental stimulation and helped me avoid social isolation. The days in the field were by far the hottest I’ve ever worked, but once I’d outfitted myself with sunglasses, a thick hat, and plenty of water, I found that I liked the varying schedule and the simple physical work, which left me in good shape for writing after all but the longest days in the field.
Effect on Creative Work: Also one of the best jobs I’ve had for doing creative work, since the physical tasks left my mind clear and several shorter days per week left me with afternoons free. I finished my first novel and wrote most of my second while I was working here, and also got the idea for this blog that you’re reading right now, so I must have been doing something right ;-)
Secret Work from Home Day Job
Pay: $13-17.25/hour, plus overtime, bonuses, and training wages
I can’t tell you what my Secret Work From Home Day Job is because I signed an agreement promising I wouldn’t talk about it (and blogs leave paper trails!), but I can tell you it’s something where I can use my English skills and work remotely on a flexible schedule. I got the initial lead through a friend in grad school, which then led to more and more work until I was able to scrape together a decent wage. Again, I can’t talk too much about it here, but the simple version is that while I needed my English skills to get it, it’s still very much a Day Job since it doesn’t satisfy any sort of passion and I’m only doing it for the money (hence the title of this blog).
Effect on Creative Work: Though my Secret Work From Home Day Job has flexible hours, I still have to be at my computer at certain times of the day, so I tend to plan my week around my shifts. More often than not the long shifts also leave me feeling burned out and ready to do something mindless, so these evenings I don’t get much of anything done. There’s a real trade-off here that I’m not 100% on board with, so I’m really just keeping it up until I can find something better ;-)
Whew—that’s all of them! I definitely didn’t expect this to take that long, but I wanted to organize the list into some kind of arc so you could see how I got from A to B to a sometimes very odd C and D.
The biggest thing I’ve learned in the past few years is that I work best when I either have my mornings free to write (which is when I’m writing this) or when I’m working a low-stress, not-too intense physical job where I can write in the evenings, and I really want to stick to that. I’ve also gotten way better at saving money in large chunks so I don’t have to work as much later on, as I learned from working both my greenhouse job and my Secret Work From Home Day Job at once. Once you start viewing time and money as resources you can play around with, you start seeing how everything you do is connected, and that’s helped me visualize creative challenges a lot better.
Here’s hoping my next eighteen years of working don’t look as crazy as these, but if they do, you know I’ll definitely be ready.