This is a Writers' Other Jobs post from Hannah Reekie
In the final year of my creative writing degree, a conversation often came up about whether one should get a post-university job related to writing, or something on the opposite end of the spectrum, i.e. some thing menial, or in the customer service industry. I always swayed to the side of a non-creative job, believing variation would help me to create a more balanced and therefore happy lifestyle.
Throughout my degree, I was a full-time hospitality worker. I relished the escape from the essays, the readings, and the mental pressure that assessment time brought. At my job, I would have the distraction of physical work, as well as the social interaction with my work colleagues. I was friends with the people I worked with, so would double up my working and social life. Banal talk was a welcome relief.
Mostly, I enjoyed the freedom that came with escaping my own thoughts.
When faced with rural living earlier this year, my choice of separating creative work and paid work was taken to extremes.
I moved to New Zealand with my boyfriend and his family for six months. We lived in a small enough town for it to feel small, and the jobs were few and far between. There was one decent bar in town, and most of the cafes were owned by the same person, with little variation in decor and food. It gave me the impression that, no matter what part of town I was in, I would constantly see the same people and buildings.
When the offer of work in a dairy factory was presented, I saw it as my opportunity to escape the norm. I had never done any kind of factory or production work, let alone the kind where you make yogurt and cheese. I was accustomed to a whole different kind of culture.
My boyfriend worked at the same factory. He was the milkman (he spent five days delivering milk and two days enduring milkman jokes). Each morning, we would get up with the sun and head to work together.
As we drove, frost and sunrise glared orange. Light caught the orchards and golden hills. Sheep clustered in the vineyards, amongst any other stereotype you wish to insert there. It all seemed like a good-humoured national joke.
My job was as a factory assistant. A lot of the time it was simply labelling bottles, and wrapping cheese, but as it was a food production area, the right kind of clothes were essential. The knee high, white gumboots, long white shirt and fetching hair-net made me feel like a country town go-go dancer. Somehow this ill-fitting milkmaid go-go getup helped me feel the part and eased me into my new role.
Mostly, it was just me and the owners’ niece working in the factory. She was eighteen years old and bursting with popular acronyms that would usually be annoying, but seemed almost charming coming from her. Scurrying around in our white boots and hairnets often made the most mundane of tasks hilarious, if only to us.
The first job of each working day was setting up the various machinery and labelling anywhere from 800 to 1200 empty milk bottles. Milk bottles were covered in a plastic wrapping and stored in pallet-sized lots, which meant one of us would have to balance the two-metre square bulk over our heads and somehow maneuver it into the bottling room. If the plastic wrap had already been opened, a trail of milk bottles would dot the corridor from the storeroom to the bottling room.
Labelling those milk bottles – front and back – was almost enjoyable, and that was thanks to one man, and one man only: Ira Glass. Blessed Ira! Blessed human-interest stories! Blessed podcasts to make the day go faster! I introduced my fellow factory workers to a few podcasts, and soon we were averaging 3-4 episodes from the This American Life catalogue a day. We even named a large block of cheddar after Ira, which we then had to massage with salt and bath twice weekly. It’s safe to say me and Ira became quite close.
I worked part-time at the cheese factory, which in theory was meant to allow me more time to write my masterpiece whilst living in small town New Zealand. I would instead come home exhausted and crave the simplicity of cooking a nice dinner and chilling out by the fire, talking or reading.
Pleasures were simple and often not academic. Back home, a lack of personal writing would get me down and make my mind fuzzy with slight grievances, emotions or world-changing ideas. This new, simpler life taught me to relax, which in turn taught me to look at the unadorned elements of everyday life and take inspiration from them. Although being a dairy factory worker is not what I would have chosen post-university, it was really a blessing in disguise in terms of my mental evolution.
I know talk of “the simple life” may sound cheesy (pun intended), but for me it came at an opportune moment. Before my reign as a New Zealand Dairy Queen, I often felt that I was never doing enough in terms of writing and trying to get my work published. I felt more was more, rather than less. The stress and chaotic nature of this lifestyle meant a less productive, less happy working life – in both creative and non-creative spaces. By slowing down and being able to enjoy less but more often, I enjoy my creativity more than ever. I guess I can thank the Good Baby Cheesus for that.
Hannah Reekie is a writer and Ira Glass cheddar enthusiast. She lives in Melbourne.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.