The Starving Artist’s Guide to Temping

A number of years ago, when the success of books-turned-movies like The Devil Wears Prada and 13 Going on 30 were putting chick-lit on the map, I had a hot new idea for a book. It would be called The Temp, and would chronicle an office temp through various jobs, poking fun at work life. I had temped for a couple of years, so I knew what I was talking about.

But I could never get the right angle on it. I wasn’t funny enough to make it entertaining, nor salacious enough to make it sexy. So, what would I really write about? Then, Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak came along with just the right formula and ended up making a whole lot of money on essentially the same idea. (Damn those Harvard grads!).

But, in my journey as a writer, I have gone through…well…more than my fair share…of jobs to support my unhealthy addiction to coffee and Microsoft Word. (My low point was the eight jobs of 2008, after which, I gave up, dyed my hair purple and joined a band of traveling gypsies. Seriously).

Some of these short-lived jobs have been permanent, some of them not. I am sure if I were to lay down on a couch Freudian style and analyze the reason, it would have to do with some sort of deep-seated fear of commitment rooted in my nomadic childhood. But, if you asked me on a not so analytical day, I would say it had to with a tenacious drive to succeed in an artistic field with no clearly outlined path of progression (or even entry). But, whatever the reason, here is my advice on surviving the temporary work world.

1. Don’t think you’re too cool for school. Because I got news for you Walter Cronkite…you aren’t.

As my shameless Zoolander reference intimates, temping can be a thankless job. Sometimes you can get some really cool temp jobs, like the one I had for a printing company where my job was actually to read magazines for forty hours a week. But overall, they call you to do things the real employees won’t do. I have worked in places where I did nothing but stuff envelopes for an entire week. I also worked in an airport hangar where I counted the screws in the maintenance department for inventory. In another assignment, I was handed pages from a phone book, and directed to fax an ad to every business on the page…for two days straight. In yet another, I was instructed to wrap Christmas gifts to send out to all of their vendor clients. My point—temping can be a quick way to make money—no doubt. But, don’t expect it to be, exactly…brain food.

2. Don’t Try to Make it More Than It Is.

Most temp jobs just need a warm body. In my all-time favorite temp job, I walked in on the first day and was shown my office, yes, office, complete with a door and a window and everything. My supervisor sardonically commented, “If you’re bored, you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.” I laughed. He didn’t. He was right.

I did absolutely nothing, and hung out on the Internet for forty hours a week. For four months. Every once in a while, I would book the CEO a flight, file a small pile of papers, create an expense report, or order some coffee online. But other than that, I sat in my office, played Smashing Pumpkins, ate chocolate, and talked to people online. And everyone in the office loved me. But, when it comes to trying to get hired permanent from a straight temp assignment, don’t put too much stock in it. It’s expensive to hire someone through an agency. Unless it is a temp-to-hire assignment, which, given, many are, don’t bother. It’s probably not going to happen.

3. Take Advantage of What It Is.

In that job, and in my next similar job at health club, I whined and complained that I wanted to use my mind and I wanted to have a career. I didn’t quite get it. These jobs were the ultimate writer’s dream. So, when the next job came along, a summer gig covering the receptionist’s maternity leave at a boat dealership, I took advantage. They put me alone in a secluded corner with nothing but a phone that rang maybe half a dozen times a day. On my first day, they pulled out a television. “It gets pretty dead in here,” he said. “So, you can watch movies if you want.” Movies? Are you kidding? I have better work ethic than that! For the first couple of days, I tried to be super worker. But where there really wasn’t anything to do, I began bringing books.

After Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde had had their way with me, and I took an entire Intro to French course on video, I brought a laptop and decided I was a full-time paid writer. Over the rest of the summer, I wrote an entire 80,000 word novella about an unsuccessful art graduate who married a guy because he needed a green card. It was a bit…unrealistic and made use of way too much of the poetic prose gleaned from the Victorian literature I was reading. But I was rediscovering the joys of writing, and it was amazing how quickly the day went by. Then, suddenly the summer was over and the girl wanted her job back. So, I moved to the next assignment as a data entry clerk, where I was totally confused that they wanted me to actually…do stuff.

4. Don’t chat up your co-workers like you work there, because you don’t and they know it.

This is straight from how to be an annoying and desperate temp 101. It’s easy to think, “Well, I do work here right now.” But they don’t see it that way. More often than not, they have no interest in investing in relationship with you. I once worked with a co-receptionist who complained, “They send so many girls through here, and they tell me all about their lives and their boyfriends, and whatever. And then they leave and I have all this useless information in my head.” This is how they see you. Don’t take it personally. Because it’s not. And especially do not involve yourself in office politics. No one will appreciate this.

5. Choose the Right Agency.

Your success as a temp depends a lot on the agency you choose. There is no rule stating you must only work one agency. But any one you do work with, make sure you know their commission policy.  Agencies make money when you work. Exactly how they do it, depends on the agency. The “slum lords,” of the temp world, charge the client the fair market value for the job, and then take their cut leaving you underpaid. But, the other type, pay you what the job is worth, then charge the company a high mark-up. It’s more expensive for the client, but leaves them with a more productive employee.

Temping can be an excellent tool in the artist’s tool box. You can work for a few weeks, and then take a couple of weeks off to write, paint, play music, whatever. You won’t make a ton of money that way, but it may just be enough to get you through…as long as you do it right.


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