Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Writing about work

I just read Stephen King’s On Writing, not because I’m a huge fan of his writing, but because I needed some kind of kick in the ass because of this writer’s block, and usually looking at some other writer’s process gives me a bit of a boost. The book is about 70% good and 30% “no shit, sherlock”, so I liked it in general. One thing that stuck with me was that he said people like to read about other people’s work. I guess that’s true, since a lot of the stuff I read online involves police blogs and ancient tales of inventing old computers and airline pilots and the like.

My current career probably isn’t that interesting, though. A blog full of details on how I edit pages and check them in to CVS wouldn’t exactly blow your skirt up. But I do enjoy writing about old jobs. And I’m always surprised that most people have never worked in a factory. Maybe it’s because I’m in a blue state, but most people I know here can’t even fathom the idea of working on an assembly line. Yet I grew up in Elkhart, Indiana, where almost everybody works an industrial job. Four of my summers (well, 3.5, really) were spent inside prefab corrugated steel buildings with concrete floors and high ceilings, wearing eye and ear protection, and doing the same thing over and over for eight or ten hours. I couldn’t bear to do it forever, but it was better than working at Taco Bell, and paid two or three times as much.

There’s not much to say about the work. I spent a half-summer before college silver plating clarinet keys. The next two summers were at two different factories belonging to the same company, making and packing plumbing fittings and faucets and stuff. The next summer, I temped a few places (UPS warehouse, a place that painted the boards that go into prefab Target bookcases), and then got a gig working a punch press at an RV factory. Factory work is mundane, but it isn’t that hard. The worst part of it is most of these box-packing jobs are at rate, meaning somebody has measured exactly how long it takes to do each movement, from picking up the box to putting on the sticker, to picking up a part, to putting it in the box, to sealing the box, to putting it on a skid and getting a forklift to take the skid of 768 boxes of 984 parts off to the truck. It’s almost always impossible to make rate, but if you go above it, you make more money. I never did. I was too lazy, and I couldn’t shut my mind off and move my hands in the exact way it had to happen without dropping a piece or fucking up a box label or something.

One time I DID make rate, actually. I had to take a hollow tube, maybe an inch around and a foot or two long, lock it in a special vise, and then drill a bunch of holes in it with a drill press. You had to stop halfway through, flip it over, and re-fasten it for another set of holes on the bottom. According to the rate schedule, you were supposed to raise the drill all the way up and go all the way back down between each hole. Fuck that! I didn’t back that drill up more than two microns each time I moved it to another hole, and was doing parts four times faster than rate. I worked on the machine for two and a half days, and made like 468% rate for like 20 hours. Every full-timer there was pissed as hell, and they shut down the machine and re-rated it. Next time I got on it, you couldn’t make rate if you were The Flash.

Most of the full-timers hated college kids. The first summer at the plumbing parts place, that was actually the factory where my dad worked. The people there were nice, in the sense that my dad worked there since I was an infant, so they remembered me from the company picnics and whatnot. But they didn’t get me. Instead of sitting around talking gossip or whatever, I usually brought a book to lunch, and almost every day, someone would asked me why I was reading. I remember reading the Richard Rhodes atomic bomb book that summer, and everyone kept asking me WHY I would read a book that was three inches thick. I don’t know, it’s not as if the people were bad in any way, they just had different goals. Everyone had to struggle to feed kids and pay bills and everything. People with some tenure bought pools or bass boats or fixed up old Mustangs or added to their houses. Some people put a kid through school, but some had their kids come in at 18 and start work on the line. I guess I got to see both sides of the story.

Anyway, some of this stuff came up while I was writing on this new book. I need to capture it a bit better sometime, although there’s no real plot to ten hours of wiring down saxophone keys to plating frames. I spent every hour of every day wishing I was back in school, back with friends, back with whoever I was dating at the time. I drank a lot of Cokes and took a lot of “allergy medicine” to make the hours pass faster, but I still took in a bit of the culture.

OK, I ate during the update today, and now I’m ready for a nap, but I’ve got to get back to work…