How Working in the Service Industry Has Made Me a Better Writer

As a beer brewer, published writer and adjunct professor, Sam Slaughter knows a little something about working in the service industry along with practicing your craft. If you're spending your days pouring pints of beer behind the bar when you'd rather be writing, not to worry—all is not lost. In fact, you might be better off than you can imagine, and Sam Slaughter is here to tell you why. 

I’ve been writing on and off for around fifteen years and I have been serving, waiting tables, bartending or doing something related for around a decade. In the time that those two have overlapped, I’ve learned that, at least for me, having a job that has nothing to do with writing has helped me tremendously when I do finally sit down to write.

I realize that for most of y’all that will be reading this, writing full-time is the end-goal. We want to be able to get up every morning and get to it, typing furiously to produce the next great [insert type of writing here]. In this day and age, though, while it is possible (and there are plenty of examples of it elsewhere on Dear English Major), there’s probably going to be some period of time where you’ll need to write and have some sort of other job to pay those pesky things called bills. If that is the case, my suggestion is to find a job in the service industry—waiting, serving, hosting, bartending, whatever—because those types of jobs can teach you valuable skills that are transferrable to your writing craft.

First and foremost, I think, working in the service industry teaches you to listen.

I don’t mean listen as in taking an order (important, but not really to writing). If you’re a bartender, you’re going to hear stories. When I can, I talk to the patrons. Most of the time it is about beer, but usually after a few, the conversation wanders. They tell me about their days, their families, their jobs, the screwed up things that have happened in the world. As a bartender you are the ultimate confessor. You don’t have the ability to absolve one’s sins (excluding the ability to help them forget for a little while), but you are the one a person can come to to get something off his or her chest. It can get annoying, sure, but it can also provide an enormous amount of insight into a different world.

People want to talk about themselves and talk about what they know (even if they don’t actually know about it) and as a bartender, you are the receptacle of that knowledge. As a creative writer, this is a boon. The stories I’ve heard from patrons over the years have made their way into my stories in little ways. A detail here, a detail there—the pieces that hit home do so because they are steeped in reality. As a journalist or marketer, you conduct anthropology as a server. You learn about people, their wants and wishes, their likes and dislikes. As a writer, you can parlay that information into article pitches, advertisements, you name it.

Photo by  Justin Carmody

Complementing the ability to listen is the ability to observe.

The benefits of doing so are many of the same as listening. On a practical level, you need to observe so you don’t spill red sauce on a white-dressed woman or don’t clothesline an errant child or something else that will negatively impact your tip. On a writing level, observation is key. There are many writers that advocate for being a watcher. Among them, David Foster Wallace said a good writer is, by necessity, a lurker, staring at any and everything.

As a server of any sort, not only will you listen to people’s stories, but you will see them played out. For the creative writer, you will see how a family interacts—are the kids hooked to their iPads, is an elderly man holding an elderly woman’s hand?

All of these things are writing gold.

From one little detail like that, an entire story can arise. For non-creative writers, observation can lead to inspiration for pitches. Do you notice a consistent crowd of doctors at this one bar? Are all the kids now playing with X instead of Y? There are ideas in every seat, at every four and two-top, you just need to look at them.

Third, the service industry forces you to use all the muscles you don’t typically use when you write.

Some may write standing up, or for some writing may be a full-body activity (how, I don’t know, but I don’t want to discount it). For most of us, though, we’re slumped (okay, I’m slumped, I have terrible posture) over a keyboard in an only-somewhat comfortable chair for hours staring at an artificially bright screen. Being a server, you’re moving. You’re exercising (if you want more on the benefits of exercising for writing, read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running) and allowing the rest of your body to work as hard as your mind usually does.

During that period of exertion, too, it allows your mind to run free a bit. I work in a brewery and spend hours lifting fifty-pound bags of grain in a mill and later scooping those same grains out of the mash tun. The motions are the same—lift, drop, lift, drop, scoop, pull, scoop, pull—and during them I can reflect on what I’m writing. I have a chance to write without writing. What will come next? How can I rewrite that scene? It all can happen during the exercise brought on by the service industry.

Finally—and this one is less about writing and more about general humanity—being in the industry teaches you to be a real, kind human being to others.

Ask any waiter and you’ll surely hear anywhere from five to five thousand horror stories about terrible customers. Working as a hookah lounge one summer, I was repeatedly referred to as “Boy” when a table of twenty-somethings deemed me necessary to their plans. Boy. I’ve been harassed by drunks more times than I can count (and, speaking as a white middle class male, I get off lucky. I know I am not harassed anywhere close to as much as, really, anyone who does not resemble the reigning hegemonic forces since forever).

I realize this may not work for some. The sheer fact that the service industry in most cases forces you to be social may not be one’s cup of tea. For me, spending hours with only my mind, I need that kind of interaction. I need strangers to confess to me. I need to haul grain bags and feel the strain in my muscle fibers. I need all that to write better.

About the Author

Sam Slaughter is a writer, beer brewer, and adjunct professor based in DeLand, Florida. He received his BA from Elon University and his MA-English from Stetson University. He has had fiction, book reviews, and nonfiction published in The Atticus Review, Heavy Feather Review, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Drafthorse, The Southern Literary Review and elsewhere. He can be found behind the bar at Persimmon Hollow Brewing Company, on Twitter @slaughterwrites, or on his website


Posted on October 13, 2014 and filed under Articles, Featured Articles, English Major Stories.