Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Clean Windows and Red Wheelbarrows

Recently I was asked about making the transition from reporter to fiction writer. And I thought it was kind of funny. Changing careers from anything to novelist is pretty much how it goes. It’s only been recently with the advent of the MFA program that writing fiction has been professionalized. Prior to that, writing was respected (or disrespected) as a trade, and when it was done well, considered an art.

Writers have generally taken any number of shitty, easily replaceable jobs that let them write while getting paid, meet ‘characters,’ and never have to take work home. This pattern has become cliché enough to appear regularly in author bios as some kind of literary version of street-cred; i.e.: “He worked as a human guinea pig, a sock darner, a construction worker, and (without fail) a bartender…”

The realities of these kinds of jobs are things we don’t like to discuss until someone has broken free from the constraints of poverty and “made it.” The stereotype of the writer who is broke and struggling may seem interesting from the outside, but it’s not when you’re living it.

I was discussing this recently with my friend Charles Hale, who works as a window cleaner in Oxford, Mississippi and is writing a novel. He also wrote a completely surreal fictional column for Oxford’s “Local Voice” called What the Faulkner?

Despite getting him right after work when he was tired and cold he had a lot to say on the subject of the trades.

“I took this job exactly five years ago,” he told me. “I was running a restaurant that had already chewed me up and was in the process of spitting me out. I thought I would clean windows until I found another restaurant job, but I could tell immediately that it was a better gig. I kept it because it gave me the mental space to write. And the days that I write are better than the days that I don’t write.”

It’s safe to say Charles’ fiction is exclusively about working people. And it’s often hilarious, reminiscent of George Singleton’s writing and other novels in which people drive trucks. But he’s careful not to glorify his subjects.

“All the clichés about blue collar folks being more honest and salt of the earth are B.S.” he said. “But it’s important their stories are out in the world. I write about working people because that’s most of us. Why wouldn’t I write about them? We’re living in a time when there’s decreased value of labor. People are treated poorly, refused a living wage, their workload is increased. People are forced to stay in shitty situations for fear that the next thing, if available, might not work out. One of the characters in my novel faces this decision. He’s unable to make a living wage at his job, and because of a desire to do better for himself, leaves for one that’s gone within nine months. The shitty but steady job he’d had isn’t available anymore and neither is anything else. He is screwed either way.”

“I was in a customer’s house in the last year or two,” he told me. “It was during the recession and the price of oil was steadily increasing. She explained that oil was used in making trash bags and that in five years they would be two or three times more expensive than they are now. Her strategy for dealing with the recession, her one piece of advice, was to buy more trash bags and stockpile them. She was convinced that this was the kind of step that people needed to take.

“Come on,” I wanted to say, apart from the other reasons this is dumb “living paycheck to paycheck is real, and I don’t have the money to buy five boxes of trash bags each time I walk into Wal-Mart.” The disconnect between people who are affected day to day by the economy and those that aren’t is one of the reasons that I believe it’s important to write about working class characters.”

“I’m reminded of the William Carlos Williams poem So Much Depends,” he said. “It’s about twenty words long and anyone who reads it can visualize the poem. So it’s accessible but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. There are three concrete images in that poem, white chickens, rainwater, and a red wheelbarrow. The way I read it, the white chickens represent plant and animal life, the rainwater represents heavenly or spiritual elements, and the wheelbarrow represents human kind. And so much depends on those three groups functioning together. The wheelbarrow is an interesting choice for humans and I think William Carlos William used it because it’s a symbol of work. That for humans so much of our lives depends on how hard we work. That’s me in a nutshell. The only things that are important in my life are the things I’ve had to work for. Once you understand that, it makes you appreciate help. And it makes you more likely to help others.”

Charles Hale is working on a second draft of his novel, and on a “fictional memoir” about work. “I exaggerate,” he said of his memoir. “But I’m not the James Frey of window cleaners.” His fiction appears on the web at places like “Smokelong Quarterly” and “Fried Chicken & Coffee."

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