• Prompt: Write About Your First Job

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 44 comments

    Discussion questions: Has your work life ever colored your fiction? If so, in what way(s)? Have you ever written nonfiction about your work? I’d also like to learn about your first job and what it taught you.


    The other day I was searching for some writing prompts and came across this one:

    “Write about your first job and what it taught you.”

    It didn’t say, “Write a novel about your first job and what it taught you,” but that’s what I’m doing.

    I’ll resist writing anything obvious about how large a role our jobs, our careers, play in our lives. Because duh. But what about those early jobs, the kid stuff we did to earn a few extra bucks for baseball cards and milkshakes during such a formative period of our lives?


    When I was sixteen I worked a summer job in a factory and then in the fall began working at a Hardee’s, where I lasted nearly an entire year, whereupon I returned to the factory. Both of these jobs had a heavy influence on the adult I would become, and I think about them both all the time.

    In fact, they’ve both stuck with me to the point where the two main characters in my novel work similar jobs (they both work in the factory, and one of them also flips burgers) in a town where the plant is its backbone.


    I’m curious about you and your early work, so I’m going to throw out the same prompt:

    Write about your first job and what it taught you.

    You don’t necessarily have to write a novel, but if it happens, hey, you’re welcome.

    But what I also want to know is this: Has your work life ever colored your fiction? And if so, in what way(s)? Have you ever written nonfiction about your work?


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2020 writing project you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. If you have a manuscript that’s ready for some editorial care, check out our various critiquing, editorial, and proofing servicesJoin our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Barbara Mealer

    My first real job (beyond babysitting the two brats next door) was as a waitress, a dishwasher, a short-order cook at the local W. T. Grant lunch counter at 16. It didn't pay much but it would provide me with money to buy clothes and fun things for college. I worked 4 days a week, six hours each day. It was hard work, but I was good at it, surpassing the girl who had been there for years in tips in no time. That meant I had to work the grill more frequently since she was living on what she… Read more »

    Last edited 3 years ago by Bobbie
    Kenneth Harris

    “…babysitting the two brats next door.” I love it.

    Barbara Mealer

    Of course and I’m looking at a book where the woman works at a diner as she is hiding out. It’s honest work. doesn’t pay much but will keep body and soul together until you can find something better.


    My first job was retail sales on the floor at Woolco. I worked it the couple of years I went to a community college. That was a time of learning to live like an adult, but I don’t think much about it. More influential was when I began working in Info Tech after my second community college graduation. I’ve written a bit about that, using several of my IT jobs for inspiration. That career led to a bad case of burn-out in my later years that actually prompted my initial interaction with the WBN blog. It also prompted a short… Read more »


    Thanks, Dave. That was a tough time for me. I’ve considered writing about it so as to help others. Maybe…

    John Liebling

    I was a few months shy of my sixteenth birthday when I started working at MacDonalds. I was about four inches short than I am now and over a hundred pounds lighter. I started growing a mustache when I was thirteen. Movies were a buck fiddty, gas had doubled to fiddty cent, because of the middle east war, and middle east boycott, not only had the price jumped, we had shortages, based on our plate number we could get gas on either a mon, wed, and fri…or tues, thurs, and sat… everyone got an alternating sun. No fill ups, only… Read more »


    Wow! Three dollars an hour? I guess learning how hard it is to actually earn a dollar makes one appreciate money a bit more. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    Barbara Mealer

    I would have loved to have $3 an hour. I worked for $1 an hour and tips, supporting two children on that with no help. It wasn’t my first job, but it was the only one I could get where I could walk to work since I didn’t have a car. I worked nights simply because the lady down the street would let them sleep at her place for nothing. Of course this was a few years back but even then, that $32 paycheck didn’t stretch far.

    John Liebling

    When I talked to my students about how inexpensive rent and food was in the past, I also let them know, there were no child labor laws, kids as young as nine or ten, did not go to school they worked in the mines, or labor intensive jobs with lots of moving machine parts, for 3-4 cents an hour. And if their fingers are chopped off, the attitude was whatever, they were easily replaced, with no compensation. People working for the Pullman Railroad company went to a Pullman school, rented from a Pullman landlord, and was sent to a Pullman… Read more »

    Kenneth Harris

    Drawn from Merle Travis’ triumphant “Sixteen Tons.” This is the good stuff, folks.


    I remember my first job. Or at least one of my first jobs. I was hired as a waitress at this diner in New York. I did not live in New York City but on Long Island instead. And the hours I was supposed to work was from 5 pm until 5 in the morning the next day. It was brutal in so many ways. Not only because I got very tired and had to drink endless cups of coffee to remain alert, but I also got free food and the idea of free food intrigued me. I ate alot… Read more »


    Did the job ever make it into any of my writings? Good question. In a way, sort of. I remember the diner I worked at. And the way people sat and enjoyed conversation while eating or having coffee…and so, some of the environment or the placement of my stories seems to be around people sitting and eating hamburgers and chatting. So, in a way, the diner setting seemed to be in my writing. But not many of the occurances or the people I worked with. Just the setting seemed to be in my writings. I think that answers the question.


    Hmm…i guess in my mind, the place was more general like. I did not find that diner overly exciting. I mean, it was and it was not. I think the basic layout of the place was friendly though. People coming in at all hours of the night to grab a bite to eat. Or hang out with some friends. Since the place was open till 5 in the morning, I sort of felt busy and liked the feeling of not being bored. So, many of the pictures I drew were of coffee shop design. So, just general coffee shop images.… Read more »


    David…you are funny. The diner opened at 5 pm and closed at 5 a.m. from what I remember. Unless those are the hours I worked. But that is all I remember. I am pretty sure five to five were the hours. Because then I think everyone had to sleep or clean the place or something. I remember cleaning after five in the morning many times.

    Lydia Colbert

    The first job I worked as a secretary for a fire adjuster in the 12th grade. I walked after school two miles in snow, sleet or rain. I was happy with my earnings of $2.00, working 5 days a week. I bought my school clothes and paid for my senior trip to Miami, Florida. Looking back, I made that $40 paycheck stretch. I typed on a manual typewriter using 2 sheets of carbon paper. The job taught me how to type fast and to avoid typo’s. I like the computer better!

    Elissa Malcohn

    I taught myself to type on a beloved Smith-Corona manual. 

    Back in the 90s I stood at my office copier, speaking with a coworker young enough to be my daughter at the time. She asked, “What does cc: stand for?”

    I said, “Carbon copy.”

    “What is a carbon copy?”

    “It’s a copy you make using carbon paper.”

    “What is carbon paper?”

    Kids. :-) I like the computer better, too!

    Christina Del Pozzo

    Ah, the memories of pre-computer! As newlyweds, my husband needed to send his curriculum vitae to various hotels in Europe, so we went out and bought a small Olivetti typewriter and paid 10,000 Lira per month for 3 months. It was the first loan either of us had made. It amounted to about $30. I used carbon paper and can still smell it some 45 years later.

    Elissa Malcohn

    “You want to go down that street.” The man running the food cart pointed. His hand shifted. “Avoid that one. It’s too dangerous.” “Thanks.” I was sixteen and had just graduated high school. Now I had just gotten off the bus, about to hoof it to my first day on my first job. Military Ocean Terminal, Brooklyn. The elevator I stepped into was large enough to haul a tank and sometimes did, but not during my one-month stint there as a clerk-typist. Except for a skeleton staff, now including me, the place was deserted. It was no ordinary office building. It was a concrete and green glass behemoth, with… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    I’d love to get your impression of the place if you visit. I haven’t been there for 45 years. Wonder if I’d even recognize any of it now.

    Elissa Malcohn

    “Have you ever written nonfiction about your work?” I wanted to do a separate entry for this one. I haven’t written a deep dive, but I have used my work experience in anecdotes. The following is an example. In October 2008 I was keynote speaker at the Florida State Poets Association convention, and I told this story (reproduced in my blog): In 1985 I found a poem in Aldrich 111, a lecture hall at the Harvard Business School. The poem made its way into the July/August 1986 Harvard Business Review and then into a case by Professor John K. Shank called “Jones Ironworks,… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    Funny story about how that sonnet got into <em>HBR</em>.&nbsp;I didn’t submit it, per se.&nbsp;I just wanted to share the poem with the professor, to let her know her talk had inspired me even though I didn’t get to hear it.&nbsp;Turned out she was on the editorial board of <em>HBR</em>, which had been soliciting “business poetry.”&nbsp;It was one of those right place/right time situations — and the most, by far, that I have ever been paid for a poem. Your story cycle intrigues me.&nbsp;”Cog” is set in a factory and draws from overheard factory worker conversations (thanks to Christmas dinner at… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    Not the best quality copy, but it should still be legible. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1lHLhXWiVo8ggwM3JwDsHYbwRzQVKhVlT/view?usp=sharing
    I had submitted it to TOTU (published by the MN SF Society) as an homage to my psych professor. He was an alum and a great supporter of U MN.

    Kenneth Harris

    Three months after high school and car-less, I needed a ride to the recruiter’s office downtown to join the Army. A friend volunteered a lift but first had to swing by the burger joint where he worked to pick up his paycheck. I went in the back door with him. I was leaning in the ice machine when the manager walked up and asked if I wanted a job. So began my work life. First thing I learned was that working in a burger joint means you, your clothes, your hair and your first car’s interior smell like a burger… Read more »

    Kenneth Harris

    I’m going to keep any eye out for Stewart O’Nan’s book. The burger joint was on the far east side of Columbus Ohio; “Burger Boy Food ORama-Home of the Whirling Satellite.” Aka BBF. The former dumpster patrons ate a howling dog on the hoof. Yes, it sounds straight from Steven King. We were slinging ground beef at the same time a hound was being ground off a chain. Virtually all of it. The pooch’s owner sued the burger joint and won a large settlement. At the time, I was getting the long side-eye from head of household; “What exactly are… Read more »

    Christina Del Pozzo

    All through high school, I babysat. I charged 50¢ per hour (it was the 60’s), while my friends and step-sister charged $1. The other girls had plenty of dates but, although I didn’t date very often, I bought my prom gown with my own money. I took pride in the fact that I had so many calls that I made referrals to other girls. By autumn of the year of graduation, it was time to get a full-time job. I was hired, on a teacher’s recommendation, to be a teller at our local bank. Two years later, I was hired… Read more »

    Christina Del Pozzo

    Both babysitting and teller appear in the stories I’ve developed, so far. My main character in a book (not published) is a teller who becomes a photographer (my father’s profession) and refers to a past of babysitting. In this 4-book series, I never refer to my past as a flight attendant, however, I do have foreign characters speaking German, Italian, and French.


    When I was 14 years old, I spent my summer working at Porky’s Pickled Pork Products for $1.35 an hour. (This was a lot better than babysitting the five McShane boys, hardly younger than me, who once locked me in the basement all night until their parents stumbled in drunk at 2am, thinking it hysterically funny.) My friend Susie Peeples, who was always leading me into danger, got me the job. Porky’s was a small, smelly, stifling plant with slimy floors. I was a stapler. This job consisted of stapling bags of crispy pork rinds onto cardboard display boards. I was stationed… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    Evocatively told. You had me right there with you (though it’s impossible to compare with your actual experience, I’m sure). Wow. I love the parallel of your going from the five terrorizing McShane boys to the five pickled ladies. What Susie had to do sounds like something out of a Bosch triptych by way of Upton Sinclair.


    Thank you, Elissa. I love the Bosch triptych comment too, and that describes it perfectly. I didn’t even realize I’d gone from five bratty boys to five sausagey women. Maybe five is some kind of bad luck number for me.


    That relish pun was irresistible.

    Oh, I think I’ve been abused on most of my jobs. This one was not the worst, for me. The thing, at 14, you don’t even realize that you’re being mistreated. I really didn’t have it that bad, but what in God’s name made them think it was okay to let a child throw up every day and go right back to work and throw up again? Poor Susie! Now that I think about it, though, she probably didn’t tell them for fear of losing the job.

    Thanks, David!

    Fran Wiedenhoeft

    Raw sugar, ground walnuts and a sticky mist of molasses. My cloths felt heavier from the sweet air. The aroma was a drug and I rushed to my ten cent a bag piecework job and I didn’t even like the cookies. Stack twelve cookies in the metal shoot, slip the bag over, twist tie. Andrea had been right, once I got the muscle movements down I could fly through and stock my boxes while my mind traveled elsewhere; to the car I was going to buy, my graduation, getting out of this town that suffocated my creativity. I was off… Read more »

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