Think Labor Day is a boring holiday? Not for writers

Monday is Labor Day. What does that mean, besides a long weekend, parades, lots of advertising circulars featuring barbecue grills, and thoughts about going back to school? What is this holiday for? What are we celebrating?

History.com says: “In 1894, Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a federal holiday after a failed attempt to break up a railroad strike. Observed on the first Monday in September, Labor Day pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers.” Visit History.com at http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/labor-day for the whole story.

That’s the official view. Personally, the only thing I’m celebrating this weekend is the departure of the tourists from our coastal town. I’ll be working.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, as with every holiday, it’s a source of ideas. If you read the information at the history.com website, working conditions in the pre-union era were awful for many people. Long hours, no safety precautions, children being put to work instead of going to school. What if you set a fictional story in a factory in 1880? For example, entire families worked in the cloth mills in Fall River, Massachusetts. What if you wrote about a mother and her child sent to work there? What might happen to them? What if the mother saw her son being mistreated and couldn’t do anything about it for fear of losing her job?

What kind of work situations have you experienced in your life? Have you designed microchips at a plant in Silicon Valley, sold shoes in Houston, or milked cows in Minnesota? Have you worked for terrible bosses who treated you badly or good ones you loved like family? What have you experienced on the job that could be turned into a story, either fictional or true? How have working conditions changed?

Spend some time observing somebody doing a job you’ve never done and write a poem or story about them. Or put on your reporter hat, do some research and write an article about some kind of work that interests you. You could even get a job completely out of your comfort zone, then write about it. Barbara Ehrenreich did that in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America She told the behind-the-scenes story of working at Wal-Mart and other low-pay, low-status jobs.

You see? I think  “Labor Day” and suddenly I’m typing away. You can do it too. Start brainstorming. Holidays. Work. Jobs. Lunch breaks. On-the-job romances.

Your turn. Let me know what you come up with.

Now go write.

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Fill your bucket with writing ideas

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Earlier this month I went to California for my cousin’s wedding reception and some quality time with my dad. I took my laptop and a pile of work to do, but you know what? I didn’t do any of it. Didn’t even get those papers out of the case. All I had time for were some hasty notes at bedtime and lots of photos. But that’s okay.

I stayed at my father’s house, which may be the last place in Silicon Valley where I can’t get an Internet connection. Sure, the neighbors have Wi-Fi hookups, but they all require passwords that I don’t have. I could go to a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi, but that would mean peeling myself away from the family I had driven 700 miles to see. So I couldn’t get online for three days, and I didn’t get much work done. But as I sat in the backyard listening to Dad’s stories and watching the squirrels and the crows, I felt my brain relax. And then, like the squirrels gathering nuts, I started gathering ideas.

I think that’s what travel is for, at least for writers. Can we call it a vacation? Maybe not; maybe it’s more of a supply trip. If you stay in the office day after day with most of your input coming from the Internet and TV, you find yourself getting stale. But out in the world, if you’re open to it, ideas sprout up everywhere, like mushrooms in October on the Oregon coast. The question is: Are you prepared to pick them and bring them home in good condition?

If you’re going to pick mushrooms, you need a bucket or a basket. A writer gathering ideas needs at least a notebook and pen, a camera, and perhaps a computer or iPad. I also use small voice recorders that I keep in my car for the ideas and information I can’t write down while I’m driving. Bring lots of rechargeable batteries and a charger; today’s electronic gadgets eat batteries like I eat chocolate chip cookies. Make sure you have a memory card and flash drive with plenty of room on them. Expect to take lots of pictures, gather all the handouts and brochures you can find, and take notes. Also expect that you might not write every day, that your schedule may fall completely to pieces. That’s all right. If you’re going to write about life, you need to live it in order to gather the raw materials for your writing.

Capture whatever you can before you come home. It starts to fade as soon as you return to your ordinary life. For me, when I get within a few hours of South Beach, I start thinking about upcoming appointments, deadlines I have to meet, and oh God, I still haven’t called the plumber. That magic I feel on the road, whether it’s standing alone on a windswept beach, staring up at the redwoods, or enjoying a family moment, fades away.

So gather the notes, impressions, stories and pictures. Don’t publish it all half-baked on Facebook without looking at the bigger possibilities. When you get home, spread your treasures out around you and look at all the ways you can use them. Parcel them out little by little, taking time to write, edit and publish what you gathered on vacation.

Travel disrupts my writing schedule, but it also brings the focus back, like a reboot. It hushes the noise in my mind and allows me to fill my bucket again.

It’s summer. Get out, change your scenery, even if it’s only for a couple of hours. Just don’t forget your bucket/notebook and camera.