Playing with Time and Clustering for Short Stories

I’ve been musing about jobs. I’ve had more than a few part-time jobs. Some to make extra money. Some to get experience in a specific field. Some out of curiosity. Some were very entertaining; some even adventurous. Each one has a story. A story worth writing.

How to Start

created a list based on my memory. This covers quite a span of years so I feel freed from blame for any omissions. From the time I was thirteen until I was fifty I held about twenty different part-time jobs, many during years when I also had a full-time career.

List of jobs: Babysitter, mother’s helper, housecleaner, library aide, factory assembly line worker, secretary, file clerk (in Manhattan during the ‘60s-adventurous), personal assistant, office manager (the “office” was the boss, his wife, and me), department store (manager in the women’s clothes department), tutor, telemarketer, pharmacy sales clerk, hat check “girl” (the entertaining one), folk and Middle Eastern dance teacher, Middle Eastern dancer (the very entertaining one), typist.

Make your list and read on for story organization ideas. I’ve used jobs as the example. Fill in with your own topic.

An Organizing Theme

Clusters of jobs could be a story. Compare the bland ones, or the adventurous ones. With mine, the adventurous ones were mostly because of the cast of characters involved in the work place. Other cluster stories: short term ones and why (less than a day to a month), Long term ones and what kept you there? Ones that paid well; ones that paid a pittance, but were fun.

The job that could have become a career: Did it? Why? Why not?

Ex.: There were two part-time jobs I had for years, which tempted me to make a career change. Personal assistant to an executive at an international industry headquarters in NYC- $$$ and my boss was very smart and fair. Sales rep for an import company- the lure of travel perks.

There are distinct differences between jobs and careers, and there are shared characteristics. Careers have been touted as having the distinction of “providing experiences that fuel your future.” I’d have to say careers and jobs provided vast “fuel” experiences, especially useful in dealing with people.

Duration of the job. Longest held and why. Shortest held and why.

Use time to create an organized arc for your story: 4 ways to play with time in a story

  1. Make a Timeline

    Bee Bloeser’s timeline for Vaccines and Bayonets

Break down the chronological order from beginning to end of one particular job. Or just looking for the job. Who helped you get the job? Did they help or hinder the process? How long from application to start date? What was the shortest application time? Longest?

Ex.: My shortest time application was my pharmacy job. I walked into the local drugstore to inquire of the manager if they needed holiday help. The manager said, “Look there,” and nodded his head in the direction of the checkout counter. “Can you work that cash register?”

“Yes.”

“You know how to do lottery tickets?”

Hmm. Truth or lie?  “Yep.”

“Can you stay for a couple of hours tonight ’til we close?”

“Sure.”

How long did you have the job?

Ex.: I worked at the drugstore from December ‘til the spring when days were longer, the weather got warmer, and I could be inline skating at the park. What was the fuel of the story? It started a lifelong habit of dealing with people directly if possible rather than over the phone or via email. Also find out quickly who the real boss is. It’s not necessarily the manager. In the case of the drugstore, the manager turned out to also be the owner/boss/security/accounting dept.

That might be a microscopic story because the timeline closed in on only getting the job. The job itself could be another story. Or a chapter in my soon-to-be mega-seller book, Selling Drugs,or some other very misleading title.

Ex.: My job list at the beginning of this piece is a timeline, chronologically from high school babysitting to the last part-time job I had. The last one was typing a very senior citizen’s notes for his autobiography. The fuel of that one: appreciating different ages and stages of life; being aware of and developing compassion and patience for changes with aging. The loneliness of aging.

  1. Flashback

Begin the story at the end.

Ex.: This would work for the telemarketing job I had for a short while. Start with the story’s end: When I quit, I exited with quite a bit of drama out the front door where my boyfriend was waiting, parked by the door, not in the parking lot, his weightlifting-enhanced arms crossed, leaning against his black Trans Am. He was ready to go in and do battle for me after the boss had chased me around his desk one too many times. I decided I wanted to deal with it myself but bf could be back-up.

  1. Big Sweeps of Time

Write the story in two sentences. That might be fun!

Ex.: A hundred books to reshelve at the XXX Library. Only twenty got shelved before someone pulled the fire alarm for real and no one knew where the fire extinguishers were.

  1. Slow Motion

Focus in on details. Include dialogue. The old “show, don’t tell.” This kind of playing with time started me using sensory musing with my writing and falling in love with words. It’s like doing a slow panoramic sweep of description and action.

What works for you?

  1. Timeline
  2. Flashback
  3. Big Sweep
  4. Slow Motion

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s been immersed in writing for over 30 years, teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. She also enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Tucson Tellers of Tales, and just about anywhere there’s a mic. 


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