Thursday, May 19, 2016

Take this job and...write about it by Liz Flaherty and Helen DePrima

by Liz Flaherty


I have my dream job now, there’s just no getting around it. Writing books and spending too much time on Facebook is the most fun I’ve ever had . But I’ve only been writing full time for five years. Before that, in addition to writing, I worked what we euphemistically call the day job. I say euphemistically both because I like the word and because for me the day job was important. It was more than just the money I made at it—although that certainly counted—but had a lot to do with who I was and who I am.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For a few years after high school, I worked in factories. I was terrible at that. Too slow. I was fired twice, which made me think I was probably never going to be good at anything. I mean, really, if I couldn’t even fit parts together, what could I do? Then I worked at a dry-cleaning store, which was both very hard work and a lot of fun. I spent six years or so working in an office, a job that took me from being a marginal typist to a mediocre one--something I was grateful for later on. I quit to spend a summer just being Mom—which is when I found out I was better at being working Mom; the kids couldn’t wait for me to get out of their hair in the morning—then sewed in a men’s clothing factory (Hart, Schaffner & Marks, anyone?) before getting a letter from the U. S. Postal Service inviting me to an interview. They interviewed six people for the position, so I went home knowing I wouldn’t get it—after all, if I couldn’t fit Part A into Part B even semi-well, how could I work with mail?

But I did get it, and for 30 years I made the 56-mile round trip to the post office. I carried mail and loved it, but ended up as a clerk and loved it, too. It was in this job that I think I learned who I was apart from the wife and mother segments. It was where I learned you can survive on five hours sleep a night, you can survive if a disgruntled customer calls you a b****, people did have to have their tax returns postmarked by April 15th (and if you refused to backdate them, sometimes they called you that b-word),  and that growing my own fingernails was overrated.

It was also where I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had. Customers and people I worked with and truck-drivers and mail carriers gave me pieces and parts that found their way into stories. A letter carrier I worked with, Austin Brown, wrote a book called Walking with the Mailman. We exchanged agent and publisher stories and, ultimately, finished products.

The post office is the best “day job” I ever had. One of the factory jobs, where women were treated poorly and encouraged to not support each other, was the worst. I can’t wait to see what Helen has to say about her jobs, and then we want to hear about yours. Best? Worst? Favorite?

by Helen DePrima


My grandmother taught me to read before I ever started school; my first employment was as a page at the Louisville Free Public Library after school and on Saturdays. The perfume of pages and the feel of bindings scarred me for life – I can’t see a book lying in the road without wanting to pick it up like a wounded bird.

I worked as an OR nurse fresh out of nursing school – satisfying because surgeons go in and fix things, most of the time. Lutheran Medical Center west of Denver got all the mishaps from the mountains, car crashes, ski and climbing accidents, broken bones from unbroken horses, but I never saw daylight while stuck in the operating room.

My next job suited me better, a Visiting Nurse in Larimer County covering fifty thousand square miles stretching north to the Wyoming border. I visited patients in Fort Collins and smaller towns, ranches and vacation homes and migrant camps. Although I covered a lot of miles, traffic hazards were confined to pronghorn antelope, free-range cattle, and sudden snowstorms in the high country.



After moving to New Hampshire, I worked part-time in nursing as well rehabbing wildlife in my husband’s vet practice. My kids grew up sharing their home with baby bats and beavers, opossums and ospreys, squirrels and snakes, phoebes and porcupines. The work was fascinating, demanding, mostly rewarding but often heartbreaking when euthanasia was the kindest treatment. 


After twenty-five years of crawling under buses and up trees to rescue misplaced critters, of easing skunks out of buildings without getting sprayed, of 2 AM feedings and popping formula into baby birds every twenty minutes, my husband’s retirement came as a distinct relief to me. I finally had time to follow my life-long dream to write, harking my first love, Colorado ranch life.  My dad took this photo in 1957 – that’s me on the bay.


46 comments:

  1. Working as a postal clerk was not my worst job, but definitely not my favorite. I much prefer filling in for the rural route carrier these days, because no one calls me the b-word any more, or argues with me about how they've been living here for 20 years, so I should recognize them and not ask for ID. My favorite job was actually being a nanny, but I think that had more to do with the wonderful family I worked for. It was like being paid to stay home, and all I had to do was supervise a couple of elementary school kids. Lots of time for reading, or writing, or just watching tv, while the kids did their thing.

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    1. Hi Heidi -- I worked a lot of other jobs here and there besides the ones I mentioned. I cleaned houses, did life insurance exams, and the worst: mothers' shift at MacDonald's. I worked there one whole school year at the mall and discovered that customers get much grumpier the closer it comes to Christmas. Ho ho ho!

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    2. Hi, Heidi. I was never a rural carrier. Different crafts, plus I wasn't even going to deliver mail in the snow! :-)

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    3. Yep, I also did housecleaning...while "my" kids were in school. I've also done fast food (in high school), paper route, cashier, bookkeeping, tax prep...my resume is all over the place, which doesn't help me get a "good" job. And I find the mere thought of looking for one stresses me out these days. Too much peopling. So I fill in for the rural route carrier out here (my favorite part, snow and all) and clean part time, so I can write, trying to convince myself that I am making progress.

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  2. I've worked as a retail manager, a bank teller... I sold furniture, too, for a little while. But when I decided that it was "write or bust," that's when it got really fun! Writing full time is the best job I've ever had, and I just *can't* go back to a "day job," even for the regular income.

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    1. Hi Patricia -- Like you, writing is my dream job, but I've discovered that, like sailing, the fun entails a lot of hard work. Fortunately for me, I love revising and do a lot of that both in the process and after I've written The End.

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    2. I like revising, too. I wouldn't want to go back to a day job, but I liked it when I was doing it.

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    4. I'm a little jealous. I don't like revising. I ought to love revising, but I don't. Yet. I'm working on it.

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  4. Wow, you've both had interesting jobs. Is that a hawk? I think I would have like rehabbing those animals minus the euthanasia part.
    My worst job was Burger King where I worked for 3 weeks while in H.S. I am NOT good at preparing fast food, and the smell of dirty grease was awful. My favorite job was working for a brokerage house in Manhattan. We worked down the hall from "the cage" where all that stock stuff was going on. They brought us exhorbitant amounts of paperwork to be keyed in. I had so much fun there working alongside other young people. I became extremely proficient at data entry. I was 17. By the time I became an admin. for an insurance brokerage I was hired because my typing test yielded 90 wpm with no errors. I loved working at The Hershey Company because of being around a lot of candy in the office. My best job was working for MasterCard International. I learned the most there, and the people were some of the brightest I'd ever met, from a business standpoint. I learned things there that still prove useful today.

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    1. Hi Laurie -- yes, a young red-tailed hawk that bounced off a windshield and needed a couple weeks cage-rest before he could be released. I'm in awe of your early experience on the stock exchange, so much responsibility at 17. I had a slightly similar job while in college: transcribing insurance records from an old company where all the data was in fine Spencerian longhand.

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    2. 90 WPM! That's 30 more than me on my best day, and I was never error-free. :-)

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  5. Liz and Helen - what wonderful experiences and you just sort of tuck the bad in there and use it, too. In high school I was a gofer in a garment factory for 4 summers, was a service rep for Pacific Telephone out of high school for four years where I learned the best customer service skills and, ultimately, getting-along-with-people skills. I was in the secretarial pool at the L.A. Times until I met Ron and we moved to Oregon. Have worked in three accounting offices, and - most fun job ever - managed a Hallmark shop/book store for five years. In quiet times when all the work was done, I could read. Aah. Sold my first book March 9, 1983, while working there.

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    1. Ohhh....I love Hallmark so much!! It's one of my favorite places to hang around in besides a bookstore.

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    2. Hi Muriel -- I love reading about everyone's early experiences, good and bad. I'm sure we all draw on them to create authentic details in our writing. I recently tripped over a tangle of garden hoses and face-planted on the brick patio. Now I can write with conviction about the aftermath and the healing process.

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    3. Helen! I know! Broke my leg a few years so and truly remember thinking as I'm lying there in pain and humiliation - "What strong emotions! I can use this!"

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    4. Sorry - it's always about me. Are you okay? Didn't break your nose, or anything?

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    5. It is not always about you, but you do tell the best stories. :-) I used to love the mall Hallmark shop.

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  6. Love this post, ladies! So fascinating to hear about all the different jobs out there. My worst job was the two weeks I spent as a telemarketer (high school summer job.) I was terrible at sales but great on the phone so my boss put me in the office to work as the receptionist. That was a lot of fun. In college I worked as a pizza delivery person. I enjoyed this although this was back in the days before GPS and Mapquest . It was often challenging (to say the least) to find my destination! But the tips were good. Writing is by far the best job I've ever had.

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    1. Hi Carol -- yes, telemarketing is the worst! I lasted two days at that, trying to sell magazine subscriptions. And like you, my job as a Visiting Nurse involved finding locations pre-GPS. Often the roads I didn't even have names; directions sometimes read like "if you see a black horse and a red barn, you've gone too far." Once I came down an unmarked mountain road in a snowstorm and later found out that route was closed until spring.

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    2. I delivered a lot of express mail w/o benefit of GPS. The county where I worked wasn't where I lived and I got lost a lot!

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  7. I started listing all my jobs and realized I’d end up with something the size of this blog. Here’s a list without the details: Envelope stuffer, babysitter, salesgirl, bank teller, librarian, lace designer, repeat and color artist for textiles, freelance designer (making garments for stores), plant transferor in a nursery (fired because I was too slow). It wasn’t until I became a stay-at-home mom that I found time to write – in-between Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the woman’s auxiliary in the volunteer fire department. In Arizona I’ve worked for a credit card company, a library and a community college. Whew! It’s been a wonderful, fulfilling life.

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    1. Gee, Marion, your list makes me feel like a slacker!

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    2. Me, too, Helen. Think I'll slink off now!

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  8. In high school I did night inventory at grocery stores until 1 am every 3 months for 2 weeks. It was great money but wore me out

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    1. Hi Melinda -- yes, night work is exhausting. I worked quite a few 11-7 shifts as a relief nurse. Weird stuff happens on the night shift, especially during the full moon. Don't tell me there's nothing to that -- just ask any cop.

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    2. I have NEVER wokred the 11-7 shift. I loved the 3-11 one, but I had no life, so was glad to see it end.

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  9. I loved reading about your backgrounds, ladies. Thank you for sharing!

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  10. Omigarsh, Liz, what a fascinating post! Loved learning more about you, so as Kate said, thanks for sharing! Wishing you a wonderful week's end and weekend!

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    1. Thanks, Loree. I think Helen was a lot more interesting...grumble, grumble!

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  11. I loved both stories!
    Liz, you were a mail carrier. How cool is that. I think you should write a mail carrier heroine.

    Helen, my sister is a nurse :)

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    1. Hi Pam -- I loved working as a Visiting Nurse, interacting with patients on their turf, understanding that I was a guest in their homes and subject to their rules. Plus I got to drive through some of the most beautiful landscapes in North America.

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  12. What a great post and fascinating. All the twists and turns of life make us the writers we were destined to become. Thanks for sharing!!

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    1. In writing about setting, I hark back to growing up rural. Seasons and weather are important factors in my stories. By the same token, I would have a hard time writing about city life. My favorite view of New York City is from the train, leaving.

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    2. Oh, me, too, but I love when someone can write a city setting that makes me feel its excitement.

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  13. I loved reading about your very interesting jobs. I think working with the public in any capacity honed us to be more insightful, better writers. And being called the "b" word, toughens us up for rejection of all kind. So glad you're both writing now.

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    1. You're right about the learning advantages of working with the public. Doing wildlife rehab, I often became frustrated at the harm caused by ignorance. After so many years of trying to fix what should never have been broken, I got very testy. Animals I can deal with -- people, not so much.

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    2. What I didn't say and should have was that I loved working with the public. Ninety-plus percent of them were great.

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  14. You've both had interesting jobs! I'm living my dream job now that I'm writing full time. Before that I worked in the schools talking to kids about healthy relationships and abstinence. And before that I walked in the woods and estimated how much lumber a scope of trees would cut out. But my worst job was working as a waitress when I was 14...almost dropped a plate loaded with food on someone.

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    1. Your lumbering job sounds fascinating. My kids' school had a program in the eighth grade that included that skill as well as stream flow calculations and survival training in the woods.

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  15. Great post. I love reading about other people's experiences. Before I became a work-at-home-mom in 2002, I worked in retail for 12 very long years. I've been a Piggly Wiggly cashier, a Fred's Dollar Store cashier and customer service clerk, a video rental store clerk, a secretary, and a furniture saleswoman. I really hope I never have to work in retail ever again. LOL. When I was laid off work in 2002, I opened a candle business, which I ran from my home, and I also started freelance writing. I didn't publish my first book until 2006.

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    1. Great that you persisted in your writing -- took me ten years to get my first book published. Writing takes dogged determination and a thick skin to handle criticism and rejections.

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    2. I think it took me about 10 years, too, but I freelanced a lot and wrote a newspaper column I loved.

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