How Writers Can Make Working at Restaurants Work for Them

It should come as no surprise that for years I had to utter the words, “Pick up or delivery?” I am a writer after all. I know it’s cliché- the “poor writer.” But it’s for a reason. Whether it’s screenwriting, play writing, essaying, blogging, journalism or working on a novel, writing is a hard industry to crack. Often, especially nowadays, we find ourselves writing for little to no money, while we push to get our big break. This usually means putting on an apron, placing a tip jar right in everyone’s line of sight and learning how to balance five drinks on a round tray, while also answering a phone and bringing someone his or her dinner check that isn’t much less than your week’s pay. I worked at a restaurant for four years, and served ice cream out of a tiny window for two years prior. I hated it. I wanted to build a time machine, dart back into history, and on my way to kill Hitler, make a detour first to go shoot the person who coined the phrase “The customer is always right.” But as I look back on it, now, I realize that it wasn’t all wasted time. I did learn some things that definitely pertain to writing. So, here are five tips on how writers can better themselves through their restaurant experience:

  1. Story Ideas: Our imagination lets us think of any story to write, but some times our brains just no work good. The world around us is inspiration, too. Being out and about and having new experiences is another great way to come up with ideas, but circumstances can often keep us stuck in the same old routine. This is where working at a restaurant can really help you. More specifically, this is where those customers, who you really don’t want to serve today can become useful. For a waiter or waitress, a restaurant is a cesspool of priceless human interactions. There are customers who can’t help but tell you their entire life stories. There are customers who just don’t know how to treat another living human being. Whatever the case, each and every single one of them can be the basis of your next great character or story. I once asked a customer if she needed a plastic bag, and she was quick to yell, “Yes! Yes!” Her eyes were fierce and her fist balled. “Give me all the plastic bags! I don’t care about the environment! To hell with it! Give me the plastic!” I stood there shocked, but do I look back on that interaction with ill feelings? Well, a little. She was a nut job. But now I have a story to tell, and the basis for some sort of overzealous, extremely conservative, well, nut job character.
  2. Better Dialogue: In order to write good dialogue, a writer should listen to how actual people talk with one another. There’s no better place to do this than at a restaurant. Instead of sneaking a text message or stealing a look at your Facebook page, while the boss is distracted, do the real life activity that’s been replaced by newsfeed: eavesdrop. As you wipe down a table, walk through the restaurant or simply stand around, dialogue is happing everywhere. Listen! Listen to how a group of rowdy teenage friends talk to each other. Listen to the banter on a first date. Listen to the awkward pauses on another first date, as the two people start to figure out that they have nothing in common. Listen to the couple that’s been married for 50 years. Listen to the cops at table two, who are inappropriately discussing their recent case way too loud. There’s a mom over at table six trying to keep her new born child amused enough to stop crying for a full five minutes. Just listen. You’ll get a perfect sense for how dialogue actually flows in these real situations.
  3. Body Language: Some times the best dialogue is no dialogue at all. When writing a scene between two characters or more, the level of subtlety between them highlights their level of relationships. Do your characters know each other so well that their every movement seems rehearsed? Does Bethany get nervous every time Jack’s right hand is within 10 inches of her hair? Can Daniel and Rob have a 20-minute conversation with just glances? Writing these sorts of subtleties can be difficult. But, again, you can get good at this at your restaurant job. I’ll never forget working with the cooks. It was great. This was not the case at first- not when I showed up for my first day on the job, and they were all yelling at each other and me in Spanish. I like to believe that I have mastered the English language in my 26 years of speaking it. This wasn’t useful when I had to go tell one of the cooks that a customer needed another plate of Spaghetti because her dog just licked hers. Some of them spoke fairly good English, but a lot of the subtleties of the language were lost on them and vice versa. So, we had to become mind readers. In order to work well together, we learned the meaning behind every one of our gestures, eye rolls and raised eyebrows. Our interacting movements became flawless ballet. We focused on the little things about each other in order to become a well-oiled machine, and we wouldn’t even have to speak a word. So, if you really want to improve the way that your characters interact on a personal level, connect with your own co-workers first, and become mind readers.
  4. Get Used to Rejection: There’s at least one thing that both writing and serving have in common: they’re emotionally draining. For as fun as a writing career sounds, and no matter how good you are, rejection is way too common. Magazines reject your query letters. Newspapers reject your resumes. T.V. shows reject your scripts and studios reject your pitches. Even dealing with an editor for the first time can be jarring. You sell your first article or get your first writing job, and you feel great. You’re a paid writer. You have the talent you always knew you had, and now have the paycheck to prove it. Except that your lede just doesn’t sound quite right. The third and six paragraphs don’t really flow. And there’s way too much telling and not enough showing. You just got edited, and suddenly your writing isn’t religiously praised like you thought. Now, those who aren’t used to this usually have one of these two reactions: 1. You call the editor an idiot and claim that your pristine way with words should never be tampered with. Your mom did say you were perfect after all. Or 2. You accept the criticism, and work with the editor to make his or her changes. If you have ever worked at a restaurant, I like to believe that you’re more likely to be the latter. Life as a server allows you to get used to rejection and criticism real quick. Customers are editors. They’ll let you know if you got their drink order wrong. They will judge you for having to write down, “Cheeseburger with ketchup” instead of committing it to memory. They will yell at you if the food takes too long, too fast or too anything. And, worst of all, they will voice their displeasure with you through the lack of tip. A server’s life is under constant scrutiny, and you quickly realize that no matter how well you perform any of your duties, there will always be some sort of complaint from some customer- crazy or not. So, remember, the next time you tell a patron that his or her food will be ready in 30 minutes, and they start complaining about the wait after 10, and call you a moron, the constructive criticism that your future editor will dish out should be a lot easier to stomach- no matter how much you feel like your editor just doesn’t “get” you.
  5. Motivation: I was a very unhappy person during my time at the restaurant. Too often than not, I channeled that discontent into more discontent. That was a mistake, and I eventually regretted it. So, I would write every time I got the chance. I’d use my notebook, napkins and blank receipt paper. But at the end of the day, I wasn’t in the job I wanted, and this angered me too much. There is nothing more motivational than being in a situation you hate. If you let it, it can force you to think of new and creative ways to achieve your dreams. It can force you to take chances that can take your life and career onto paths that you never saw coming. Working at restaurant, or any job that isn’t the one you want, can ignite a dedication to your passions so strong it may never be duplicated again. Seize this, and aim to be the successful writer you always wanted. Taking a risk is more important than your tip jar.
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