I find the secret languages of occupations fascinating, the jargon, the tools, the tasks, the verbs of work, the insider perspective, the mysterious “Employees Only” doors. I keep writing these stories, and I keep returning to the “we” narrator to voice them. Collective first-person point of view seems such an organic fit for stories about work, since, so often, our work is done in crews, departments, divisions, networks, teams. The group is essential to work, and the “we” captures the idealized sense of camaraderie. Yet, if it was just all harmony and community, the point of view would be terrible for fiction. “Only trouble is interesting,” Janet Burroway says. “Tension is the mother of fiction,” Jerome Stern says. We only need to nudge that collective point of view for it to bare its teeth. Within the safety of community prowls the horror of lost identity. In the very nature of the telling, an individual “I” is disappearing, drowning in a collective consciousness. Again, this seems natural to the working world, where we struggle to preserve identity against jobs that ask us to train and calibrate until we’re all thinking and acting in robotic synchronization, whether we’re talking about a factory line or making a hamburger or grading by a rubric. This push and pull of identity creates a useful conflict for me as a writer: “We” represents a voice simultaneously finding its community and losing its individual identity.
And if there’s a collective “us” then there must exist a “them.” Again, the collective point of view comes fully equipped with natural conflict when from its first utterance competing factions emerge, an in-group and an out-group, an “othering” that, for my fiction, so often materializes in class consciousness. I wanted this story to immediately imply an “othering,” which is why I chose this title that seems to speak to race, but then the group quickly reveals a job-specific focus on uniforms and working identities—the rookies versus the veterans, the hopeful versus the jaded. Painters dress in all white as a means of camouflaging mistakes, but there’s a theme of invisibility there as well. You can tell a lot about a painter’s experience and perhaps even their skill by the color slashed onto their clothes. We hide the white paint well, but if you screw up with the wrong color paint, you’re wearing it all day, probably for months until you burn through your uniform. The vulnerability and exposure of having to wear your mistakes was the inspiration for the story. It’s a physical way to show discord within the working community.
I recently saw a painter walking into a gas station wearing a giant blotch of brown on his ass, and it took me right back to my painting days. I could imagine all the harassment that poor guy would be taking. I’d been there many times, and it hurts to be on the outside, and that hurt is good for fiction. That’s the thrill of the collective “we,” the separation from the herd, the painful accountability for one’s identity, the pressure to stand up for yourself or endure insults. Exposed and ridiculed, the defenses of the group disappear. In this story, Simon smolders under the spotlight, outside the group, and this is where a character, a human, has to make a choice to be exiled or initiated and baptized.
DUSTIN M. HOFFMAN is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA from Bowling Green State University and his PhD from Western Michigan University. His stories have recently appeared in Baltimore Review, The Adroit Journal, Washington Square Review, Witness, and The Threepenny Review. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. You can visit his site here: dustinmhoffman.com