Monday, February 20, 2012

Incessantly Written Down: OJT

Several years ago when I got into the restaurant business, I did it for the money, not for the love of food or service. Discard any romantic notion of service industry workers. In the past, or possibly in some places, the partier or the burn-out still prefer restaurant work. This sort of work still appeals to students. But, for me, all those years ago it was still the money.
I got to Marlowe's in Denver because of my dear friend Jeff Fagan who worked there. I was broke, brokenhearted and nearly out of luck when I ran into Jeff. “Come down to Marlowe's,” he said. “Sunday. 11:30.” The rest, they say, is history.

I learned way too many things at Marlowe's to list here. I met too many people, and those connections are too many to list too. It was a valuable experience both on and off the clock. And, as I've said, I did it for the money. And now? When I compare myself at the onset of the job in January 2006 to the person I was at the end of the experience in October 2010, I was hardly the same person.
Today, I want to consider on the job training. OJT. As writers, what does that mean? How much formal education do we need? Is high school enough? What about a four year degree with a major in creative writing? The ever growing circle of MFA programs in writing? Is that enough education? Then there are the workshops, the lectures, the books, magazines and articles, when is it all enough?
If we can go back to that moment in January 2006 when I began the job at Marlowe's, I had not waited tables for a good twenty years. I knew how a restaurant worked, I had worked as a bartender, a coffeehouse worker, a commissary manager and a busboy, but not as waiter. Marlowe's was an intimidating place too. When the job began, there were 16 training shifts. Each shift involved a checklist, a set of objectives, and a test. Pretty intense. What I learned was that a restaurant gig is just what it is, a restaurant gig. I took the task very seriously, because such a regimented training schedule demanded it.
About halfway through the training, a gentleman named Richie asked me how confident I felt. Admittedly, I was to tell him that my apprehensions were many and I felt unsteady. “Do you think you got 60% of it?” he asked.
“60%,” I repeated. Who asks for 60%? In school that's a D. “Yeah,” I said.
“65?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“70?” he asked.
“Probably,” I said.
“75%?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “That's probably pushing it.”
“You got 75%, you're ready. You'll learn the rest on your first shift. Guaranteed.”
What he said to me gave me confidence in the 60% to 75% of what I knew and it made me relax about what I didn't know. There was only so much training I'd get before it was time to just start waiting tables. It was just that: waiting tables.
Being a writer is no different. Being a writer is no different from any job, any profession. I feel like it's a profession that is often romanticized or gloried. It's just what it is, it's a writing gig.
What about the training?
What about the OJT?
The formal education, that is, the institutional stuff will only go so far. The institutional stuff gets a writer as far as the creative-writing-stairway-wit short story we discussed in IWD:Experience. The furthering education of a writer happens under a tree with a book in the lap. A writer's continuing education of workshops, lectures, conferences and critique circles do help in growth. The reading of books, all sorts of books, but especially those a writer writes like is also important training.
How about the OJT?
There must be a certain curve in the learning process. The process begins the very instant a writer puts a pen to the paper. That instant is where and when the job begins. Where the job ends is far away from that moment. On that timeline of when it began and when it will end is one long job. As far as the on the job training? That happens every minute of every day. Each failed sentence. Each vague scene. Each boring character. Every failed plot. These are the possibilities for teachable moments. These are not job failures, rather for each of these comes a mirror and a moment summed up with an “a-ha.” These make the beautifully constructed sentences and elegant language that paints a scene or explains a concept lovingly explicit. These successes spawn from failures. We will only know this from experience or job experience, if you will.
When are we ready to get out there and go? When are we ready to write and to call ourselves writers? Once the training stops, of course. I think Richie's advice holds true, if you know 60% of what you've been taught, that's enough to get started. The other 40%? That may be learned after the first shift as a writer. It will take hundreds, thousands of shifts to gain that last 40%. it's a process, a very long process.
Write. Rewrite. Revise.
Write Haiku. Write short stories. Write novels.
Meet other writers.
Keep a personal journal. Keep a professional blog.
Submit short stories to magazines.
Submit novels to publishers.
Just start working. All the training you'll ever need will make itself apparent to you.

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