My first job lasted only one day. I was fourteen and convinced I was a pioneer of high school fashion. Maybe I was—looking back at photographs of myself inspires equal parts cringe and pride at my own audaciousness. I had a thing for velour, especially crimson velour. Plus, I had dreadlocks. That’s right, white-girl orange dreadlocks.
Somehow, a friend and I were hired by a small clothing boutique in Canberra to promote their shop. I guess they liked my white-girl dreadlocks. The job entailed walking around with one of their shopping bags filled with tissue paper and talking loudly about how great the store was, all the while looking very glamorous. My friend and I took this seriously, and spoke in our most adult voices about how we’d bought a great dress for our dates that weekend. In reality we had no date, except with one another and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Call Centre Scammer
When I moved to Melbourne at eighteen I got my very first full-time job. It was a call centre office above a nightclub. The nightclub owners, with their slicked back hair and big guts, owned the call centre as well. My manager was a beautiful Russian woman who was lovely to me even when I was constantly late.
At first, we called people to promote a motivational speaker. Then, our company name changed, one hundred dollars in cash appeared on my desk, and we were calling people to sell houses. One day I spoke to a woman who said that she kept paying money but never heard anything back about her investments. For the first time, I actually paid attention to what was going on around me. I was going to be a whistle blower. It could be dangerous, but I was ready.
A friend from school’s brother worked for The Age, so I got in touch. We had a passionate discussion over $7 dumplings, but then I found out he worked in advertising. A few days later when I turned up for work most of the furniture had disappeared. There were papers and photographs all over the floor, including one of my manager naked. I quit.
Romance Novel Tragic
After a few months of juggling jobs at a ‘healthy’ burger shop and a ‘gourmet’ supermarket, I traded in my ugly uniforms for some polyester shirts and got hired as a temporary receptionist for a local newspaper. I was shocked at how much I got paid in relation to how little I had to do.
The receptionist who was on leave had left a romance novel on the desk. I resisted for the first week, but eventually gave in. I read the whole thing in one day. It was about a Scottish highlander and was surprisingly engaging. After that, the days felt even longer and emptier than before. There was only so many Which Sex in the City Character Are You? quizzes you could do.
A week later I was looking for some files and found a whole box of romance novels under the desk. I hadn’t been as excited by anything in a long time. There were so many options: sexy cowboys, naughty millionaires, bereaved new fathers who needed help to learn to love again. The next day, the real receptionist came back early from her leave.
I’d been working at a café down the street from a cheese shop when I noticed they had a sign in their window advertising a vacant position. I was fairly sure I was going to get fired from the café, as I still couldn’t manage to carry a coffee without spilling hot milk all over myself, so I applied. I got the job. I was in cheese heaven. Creamy bries oozing from their rind, English stiltons covered in varicose veins of blue, cheddar bitey enough to make your eyes water.
My boyfriend told me my skin was starting to smell like camembert.
Young Mum Imposter
Before I became a nanny I never knew how differently people look at you when you have two small children in tow. I prompted sidelong glances from sour-faced seniors attempting to subtract the children’s age from my own. My dirty ripped jeans and black band t-shirts received muttered condemnation, especially if the kids were being naughty.
On the other hand, I became part of a community of latte-drinking, buggy-pushing inner-city mums. We’d give each other nods of solidarity when we passed on the streets and tight smiles of empathy when our wards were screaming. In playgrounds, we’d congregate, and I’d find myself ten minutes into a conversation about nappies or tantrums before I’d have to out myself as the nanny.
Mechanical Christmas Tree
My whole life I’d been told that I looked like an elf so it felt only natural to go for a job as part of the Christmas display of a big department store. At the time I was living in a share house with black mould growing inside the walls and had come down with pneumonia in the middle of summer. Rent still needed to be paid and Santa wasn’t going to be able to order a line of screaming children (and sometimes adults) by himself.
In the middle of the Christmas wonderland was a giant mechanical Christmas tree. Behind the tree was a tiny room with levers to move the tree’s eyes and mouth and a microphone and headphones so you could hear what the kids were asking and respond. Quickly I came to realise that the other elves didn’t like to ‘be the tree’. They thought it was embarrassing. I thought it was amazing. I spent all of December sitting in that little room, eating lollies and talking to children between coughing fits.
For almost five years I worked at an independent cinema. This was when I started to get worried that I’d be working as a casual forever. I’d been to university amongst the jobs and got a degree and a postgraduate diploma—in writing. I’d been warned. Everyone told me along the way that writers made no money. My surety that I would be the exception was starting to fade.
90 per cent of the people you deal with in customer service jobs are fine. But after a while that 10 per cent really starts to grind you down. People shout at you for the strangest reasons. People throw things at you. People do really disgusting things in the bathroom. Anyone who has worked in casual jobs knows that these things become so normal they are almost mundane. A call of ‘someone’s shat in the sink again!’ barely bats an eyelid.
The problem is that if you are spoken to like you are an idiot every day, you begin to believe it. I know I did. It’s easy to internalise the feeling of worthlessness.
After a painful amount of unsuccessful applications, I gave up applying for full time positions. After a few months of floating along, I decided to go all in with writing. I’d write all day, then work at the cinema at night. I put my ambition to write before everything else; before my relationships with friends and family, before my mental and physical health. It felt like the only way to prove to myself that I still had worth.
My day job now entails a lot of unsavoury internet research. I have message boards for self-proclaimed psychopaths saved in my favourites. I know which sites are the best go-to for the facts on body decomposition. Sometimes I have nightmares. But finally, I am doing the job I studied for. I am doing a job where my clumsiness and terrible mathematical skills don’t matter, and my dreaminess and disturbing imagination are an asset.
I find myself drawn to characters with a desperation to succeed, with an obsessive drive. Despite the constant assertion that we are lazy and entitled, all the millennials I have encountered can relate to that desperation. In my experience many millennials are juggling study, unpaid work and casual work and are barely able to cover rent and groceries.
Throughout my working life I have had many ‘exciting internships’ and ‘industry training programs’. I thought that once I had written a book, the days of working for free would be over. I am now the proud author of four novels, published all over the world. But still I get a little nervous at the Woolworths check-out. Still, at least half of the work I do I don’t get paid for. Instead I’m offered ‘opportunities’ and ‘exposure’. Writing is often the first part of a journey, so if I team up with a producer, I’m the one who must spend months writing a screenplay in the hopes of it taking off. I’ll speak for free at a ticketed event, I’ll write unpaid articles for widely-read journals and national newspapers.
If what we are doing has no value, then does it have worth? If ‘we are what we do’, does it follow that we ourselves are worthless? It certainly sometimes feels that way.
Anna Snoekstra is an author and screenwriter living in Melbourne, Victoria. She is the writer of both adult and young adult fiction novels, most recently Mercy Point and The Spite Game.