16. Working non-writing jobs can be fruitful for one’s career (Stanley W. Lindberg’s ‘But before You Start’)
Good writers have always been good researchers. Of this, I’m sure.
It must be so since a writer—and let’s just equate writer here with fiction writer—must deliver a world to the readers that is real enough to matter. Even if the world is totally fictional, a fantasy world or universe sorts, there are fundamental truths that must be inserted for a story to hit the emotional center of its readers. And that’s what makes it important.
There are still friendships, allegiances, emotions, and all the other things that make us human, even if characters aren’t human.
But that’s getting passed the point I’m using for this specific piece of advice. I wrote a novel (that I recently finished editing) about a technology startup and app. That’s pretty close to life, and few inventions of any kind of “world” were put in. The startup had to be real enough to mean something to a future reader. That means it had to be real enough to be an actual app, real enough to raise money, and real enough to find the success it does.
And the reason I was able to create that was from working in tech and startups myself for more than 7 years. Because in that niche of work and life, there is a language that you only get by being in it (HBO’s Silicon Valley does a good job of lampooning that language of course). And that language must come out and signal to the reader that this is the real deal. This could happen.
That’s the fruit of working non-writing jobs. You pick up the language. You learn to speak to speak it and translate it into fiction. But you also get the benefit of something else. I’ll call that “the background” and it’s something like a wallpaper and exists as you work somewhere that you translate. This sits around the language, like an aura, but isn’t so translatable.
Something of “the background” would be how startup workers hold their laptops. What they talk about at the bar after work. The hours they work. The expectations they have, often unsaid, about what their stock options might translate into one day. That kind of stuff—and without both knowing this and bringing it into fiction, it’s like your characters are speaking their language in a foreign country.
Which is pertinent to me right now because I’m writing this from Rome and I haven’t spoken Italian since I studied it here 10 years ago. I’m lost except for a series of words. And many here are kind and speak English with me but my actions seem untranslatable. I like to sit down and drink my coffee, for instance, and while I can say that I’m going to take my cappuccino to the chair on the other side of the cafe, I still seem odd here. My actions don’t translate. That’s the background.
I wrote my book while traveling in 11 countries. So I had these moments weekly, if not daily. Of course, I tried to adopt whatever customs I could—and certainly tried harder never to offend. But the background of everything exists for the simple reason that it has been willed to continue.
That’s a digression. But what I meant to equate is that traveling to a new country is like working a new job, in that you learn the language and start to see the background revealed. And for writers, this is fundamental. I could write about startups because I had been around them for so long. I wanted to write a story about gardeners recently, but I’d need much more research to understand the language and years to get the background. Such is the challenge. A good writer can probably cut that timeline down, but a shortcut might show up in a crucial part of the fiction.
A friend of mine recently read the first handful of chapters of my book. He’s in tech. His response to me was that it gave him some kind of PTSD about the worst days of his startup experiences. That’s a compliment. I don’t meant for the book to scare, scar, or recur nightmares, but this meant I had got some important parts right. And I was pleased with that.