Saïd Sayrafiezadeh on Writing About Bad Jobs

This week’s story, “Nondisclosure Agreement,” is about a young man who, in the age of e-commerce, has taken a job at a company making mail-order catalogues. Why did you choose this particular line of work? Did you want it to feel anachronistic?

There’s a lot behind the decision, starting with the fact that the narrator has recently left his job working on the assembly line at an Amazon fulfillment center, and, at least on paper, his new line of work—in an office—should be a step up for him. But he soon begins to have a vague awareness that he may have actually got himself into an obsolete industry that’s on the verge of going under. I wanted this conundrum to be just one of many examples of the “defective wiring” in his brain that has rendered him unable to recognize what should be obvious red flags, otherwise known as scams, frauds, deceptions, and things too good to be true. Having his salary doubled without having to even negotiate is another example of this. But, as far as the narrator’s concerned, he’s finally found professional employment.

So I was in need of a business that would have absolutely no utility in today’s world, and mail-order catalogue happily popped right into my head. It’s mentioned in the third paragraph, and I was hoping, in addition to its necessity to the plot, that it would add a bit of absurdity to the story, which is another way of saying that I wanted the reader to find something funny. One of my aims in this story, as it might be in much of my writing, is to try to strike a tonal balance between humor and dread. I don’t think it’s easy to achieve one without the other, and I was hoping that if I could get the reader to laugh at the beginning of the story then I might have a chance for them to feel some of the more complicated emotions: sadness, fear, despair, anger. Those take more time to develop.

By the way, one of my favorite songs is Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and she sings about how every winter her father would buy her a new pair of shoes from the mail-order catalogue, after she’d had to go barefoot in the summer because of her family’s poverty. Maybe that’s why the idea popped into my head. Her way of singing the phrase “mail-order catalogue” has always struck me as being impossibly affectionate, sung by someone who no doubt had an up-close-and-personal relationship with such catalogues. She’s describing her life as a child in the nineteen-thirties and forties in Kentucky, and I’m writing about life in contemporary Buffalo, but my objective for using a mail-order-catalogue company wasn’t anachronistic—it wasn’t about looking back. It was about desperation on the part of the narrator and his inability to see what’s right in front of his face.

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The narrator studied comparative literature in graduate school, but since leaving his verdant New England university he’s worked in entry-level jobs, at Hertz, Trader Joe’s, and Amazon. With the mail-order-catalogue gig, he’s finally got a job in which he can sit down. How much does that matter?

On a certain level, it’s all about status and image. He mentions several times how he and his classmates would sit around a wooden table, casually discussing literature with their professor. He’s nostalgic for those days. But, sadly, everything ended—literature, intellectualism, and sitting—when he graduated with his master’s degree. In an early draft of the story, I’d written that the prime benefit of his new job was that it had the “aura of a skilled trade,” and I decided to swap that out for “sitting in a chair,” because it seemed that that would be a more immediate and real benefit for someone who’d left a job standing for twelve-hour shifts. And it’s more of a concrete physical description that the reader could experience on a sensory level, as opposed to something more abstract—we all know what it feels like to be able to finally sit down. Besides, “sitting in a chair” does imply a certain level of respectability and professionalism. I used to work for Martha Stewart’s company—the best day job I ever had—and I was always very appreciative that I was able to do my work while sitting in a chair, which, incidentally, was also ergonomic. Not too long ago, I happened to be chatting with some Starbucks baristas whom I’ve known for a very long time, and, when I asked what had happened to so-and-so who had worked there for years, the answer was, “He found a job where he gets to sit down.”

In college, the narrator observes, “we believed the act of reading and writing to be its own legitimate form of labor,” though the subject of money itself seemed impolite or unintellectual. How ill-equipped is a liberal-arts graduate for the world outside the academy?

I don’t know about liberal-arts graduates in general, but, when I was starting out as a writer, the publishing industry was a complete mystery to me, as I think it is for most people. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to be a writer, but other than having that burning desire I was completely clueless as to what I needed to do in order to have a career. So I wasted a lot of time walking around in a state of confusion about what steps to take—I didn’t even know that there were steps. Perhaps this could be a result of the fact that I’d been in only two writing classes in my life, neither of which talked about careers, and I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree because I dropped out of college. But I think it may have more to do with a general pedagogical philosophy at the university level, in which art and commerce shouldn’t be intermingled lest the art become tainted.

There’s obviously no standard blueprint when it comes to forging a career in writing, but I think it’s imperative to know about agents and editors and publishers. Did I mention work ethic? I learned about these things when I finally met people who could teach me. They weren’t professors. They were working artists. The sad truth is that no one’s owed a writing career, just like no one’s owed an acting career or a basketball career. You just have to go for it and hope for the best. Some of it’s luck, some of it’s talent, a lot of it’s perseverance, and, frankly, there may be no better education than having your work rejected by an actual editor. I think that a rejection letter—as opposed to getting an A in a class—can go a very long way in sobering you up and making you work to become a better writer.

The owner of the mail-order business is a reader of Rilke’s poetry, it turns out, and the novels of Jean Genet. Should we believe that his interest is genuine?

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