By Nick Rees Gardner
My love for working class literature goes back to my preteen years when, over the summer, I rode with my dad to mid-Ohio car dealerships where we’d repair car interiors and windshield chips. We walked the hot asphalt and sweated. I listened to my dad trade stories with smarmy dealers and gruff mechanics. We ate fast food lunch in the van that reeked of paint and chemicals and returned home around dinnertime, our hands specked with glue and the itchy carpet fibers we used to repair cigarette burns. I can still smell the melting vinyl as my dad waves his heat gun over a leather repair. I remember my blush when he introduced me to his friend and called me a “hard worker.” This, along with “good helper” were top-tier compliments in our hard labor, low pay world. I had picture books filled with construction workers and mechanics and little train engines that pushed until they, against all odds, peaked.
In high school, I remember checking out George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London from the library. The book follows a twenty-something Orwell through Parisian kitchens, locked into hard, thankless labor in sweltering basements. I mowed lawns, painted barns, and stacked firewood for spending money and read Bukowski’s Factotum late at night in Cruisin’s Diner. When I graduated into a recession, I picked up minimum wage jobs at a shoe store, a convenience store, temp work at several factories, a gig at a pizza shop. I was a bartender, a wine-maker, a server, a sous chef. I read Wiley Cash and Sam Pink. I saw myself in working class stories, the often anti-academic and ignorant, but no less adept characters. I saw myself, my work, glorified on the page.
In his book, Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses states that “What is noticed depends on who does the noticing.” And Benjamin Percy, in his essay, “Get a Job: The Importance of Work in Prose and Poetry,” says, “your way of seeing the world bends around your work.” It makes sense, then, that writers like William Gay, a drywall hanger and painter would pen “The Paper-Hanger,” about a worker tasked with re-papering a remodeled house who is blamed for kidnapping the wealthy owner’s child. It’s a story of a worker berated by his employer who shows he has the upper hand.
There is an insider-outsider mentality that exists between those who do the job and those we do the job for. Much of my adult life I barely scraped by clocking in for almost sixty hours per week and I’d given up on the idea that I was someone who could succeed in academia. I was too poor. I got bad grades. People who went to college looked down on people like me, a gas station clerk or fast-food worker. The way I saw it then, college was an ivory tower from which wealthy writers wrote down to people like me. But the authors who put the working class on the page really got the struggle. They valued the toil that you don’t exactly choose, but that you make your own. There are the uniforms we wear and the way we wear them, the way we carry ourselves, codified language that acknowledges the mutual struggle. That’s why I wanted to be a working-class writer: I wanted to honor my peers, to speak their language.
Eventually, with some encouragement from a coworker and writing mentor, I did come to value education. I completed my undergrad and TA-ed my way to an MFA in fiction writing. I gained many invaluable tools to make my stories cleaner, clearer, and, honestly, more interesting. I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity to meet so many wonderful writers during my MFA and to learn to see the world from their various perspectives, but here I am again, selling wine and beer, a job that doesn’t require much education or training. The fact is that much of the world doesn’t give a shit about critical theory or sentence structure, but the world cares about stories. With an education in literature and writing, I’m able to take the jumbled stories from my working-class life and arrange them into something more readable, more interesting.
I don’t regret the years spent on my education, but I’m also not as interested in the careers that a writing degree supposedly prepared me for (teaching, publishing, nonprofit work). I’ve chosen a different path that pays less, requires fewer unpaid hours, and encourages my own writing. Whereas with teaching I was in a position to give advice, to give and not take from students, my career in sales and service allows me to observe my variety of customers, to glean details from their lives, anecdotes which may serve as inspiration for my own writing. Yes, students have also led me to new revelations, but it is that unexpected genius that crosses the counter via the stale King Cobra breath of a nine-AM drunk that really awakens me to new possibilities. Not to mention the richness of the lives of those often overlooked.
Of course, there’s also the issue of having time to write. Though sometimes a shorted drawer or customer complaint will follow me home from a shift, at 9:30, I lock the door and take the Metro home. I work on my stories in the mornings, unconcerned about syllabi or student emails or staff meetings. Certain jobs have also allowed me to write while on the clock. There is the famous story of how George Saunders penned CivilWarLand in Bad Decline during shifts at an engineering company, and I was able to accomplish sixty-thousand words for NaNoWriMo mostly on the clock at a rental car company.
Finally, work, and especially the hard physical labor I’ve done on-and-off throughout my life has trained me to daydream. At least two of my published short stories came as a direct result of that summer I painted a barn. I sweated in the hot sun and my arms and neck burned and I came down the ladder, wobbly, hungry, thirsty, exhausted. I imagine other lives while I work, or I pick a customer and turn them into a character and expand their life inside my head. I can wield a brush while exploring another world. I can punch in prices while also imagining the customer’s daily routine. By living these imaginary lives while I work, I’m able to pass the hours productively, as long as I treat each character with respect.
Benjamin Percy believes it is the writer’s job “to do the required research that will bring the language and tasks and schedule and perspectives of your character’s work to life.” Often that requires more than Googling or even going to the library. As Percy states, “You need to write from the trenches.” You need to do the job. For a working-class writer like myself who wants to honor those most overlooked by the literary world and by society, it’s important to work with us in order to understand us. Often that requires a bit of danger, sometimes exhaustion. It includes flying pots and pans flung straight from the stove or a shattered six pack all around your feet. But remember that such memoirs and fictions which embody toil can turn a nonreader into a reader and help some working-class kid feel much less alone.
Read Nick’s other work at Reckon:
Fiction – Deer
How Should a Writer Be?: Burnt Out on the “Fuel of Darkness”
How Should a Writer Be?: Intoxicated by Stories
Nick Rees Gardner
Nick Rees Gardner is a writer from Ohio currently living in Washington, D.C. He holds an MFA in fiction writing from Bowling Green State University and is currently employed as a wine and beer salesman in Maryland. His novella, Hurricane Trinity is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press (Dec, 2023), and his book of sonnets about addiction and recovery, So Marvelously Far, (2019) is available through Crisis Chronicles Press. His short fiction, criticism, and poetry has been published by Cleveland Review of Books, Mid-American Review, Epiphany, Ocean State Review, Atticus Review, Reckon Review, and other journals. In his 8th year of recovery from opioids, Nick has worked as a drug and alcohol counselor, a college writing teacher, and in various manual labor and sales jobs. Since getting clean, he spends his free time researching the history and theories behind drug and alcohol treatment especially through the lenses of critical theory and intersectionality. Having spent six years employed in the wine and beer industry, Nick has a passion for the history and production of alcoholic beverages, and though this passion may seem at odds with the concept of recovery, he hopes to promote the balance he has found between respect of the process and indulgence.