Friday, 6 August 2010

Writing Fiction


‘Redevelop the product, redesign the package, you still refuse to reach in your pocket…’

My perennial underemployment is probably one of the first qualities people associate with me, so I’m used to getting well-meaning advice on the matter (usually on about the same level as Hayley Taylor’s ‘always brush your teeth before an interview’, but never mind). Last week, a second-hand acquaintance of mine (who works as a recruitment consultant) suggested a reason why my CV might not be getting me interviews - because it contains gaps, and you can’t have unexplained time on a CV, so I should lie and make up jobs to fill them.

Like most CV writers, I do a little stretching and warping to suit my purposes - small gaps of a month or two can be covered by pulling the dates of the surrounding jobs together, while intermittent work with an employer over a period of time can be quickly and harmlessly made solid. One of my workplaces has closed down and left no forwarding address (I went through agonies trying to track down somebody there to act as a referee), so I can blithely alter my length of service there. But these techniques are of no help for a work history that contains gaps of six months plus - to cover those, I’d have to completely fabricate periods of work with an employer. That’s the kind of heavy production work that I’m really not used to.

I’ve had similar advice before, from a tutor on a government jobseeker training scheme - she even offered to give me a false reference for the two years I was going to have worked as her personal administrative assistant in London. I did send out a few of these fictional CVs, but reverted to the old version as soon as was decently possible - I felt it would have been difficult to explain in interviews why, as someone who’d been earning 18k in a steady job for the last two years, I was applying for minimum wage retail jobs…

Because plausibility is the problem here. If I’ve been in continuous employment from the age of twelve, as my newly manicured CV will suggest, why haven’t I had promotions, got my feet securely onto some kind of career ladder? Whatever series of jobs I put down, I’ll come across as, at best, chronically indecisive and completely lacking in ambition. But if the lies aren’t plausible, neither is the truth. To borrow Ivor Southwood’s lovely phrase, my real-life work history has left me with a ‘botched CV which tails off like the limp narrative of an unrealistic novel’. With such an unconvincing script, there’s no way for me to construct a plausible story about myself.

Interviews are the same - even when I’m telling the truth, I habitually adopt the body language of the liar (covering my face, crossing my arms, averting my eyes). Even when answering the questions about my hobbies and interests (supposedly the easy/relaxing part of the interview) I feel like I’m wasting the interviewer’s time. ‘Let me see - I’ve been living hand-to-mouth, on and off the dole for years and haven’t had real disposable income since 2007 - what do you think my life outside work is like? Right now, my idea of a having a good time is catching the bus into town and getting out a few library books. Can’t do it too often, obviously (those fares soon mount up), but it’s a nice treat…’

My academic qualifications, which I’m sincerely proud of, have become a double-edged sword. Basic McJob-type employers don’t want to know about which Philosophy modules I studied, so I currently have two separate CV templates (I think of them as the white- and blue-collar versions), one with the academic section stripped down to basics. For ‘serious’ jobs, my education isn’t a liability, but my lack of subsequent work in my field (my failure to even enter any serious field) is the problem.

The irony of my difficulty in this area is that, though sheer repetition, I’ve actually become very good at composing CVs - I still write them for friends, and used to write them for clients at one of my voluntary jobs. I’m fluent in the language of employers. (In some parallel universe I’m working for A4E, being invited to ‘Tea with Emma’ and beaming the pride at the thought of the all the good I’m responsible for.) It’s just that the raw materials of my own CV are too far gone to make anything of - beyond the point of polishing or rearrangement. Bombed-out shops don’t need visual merchandisers.


In a job interview, no negativity is allowed to enter the discourse. Boundless enthusiasm must be maintained for even the most uninspiring work. I need to have a positive answer ready for every conceivable question and situation. I have to - somehow - turn unemployment and stagnation into tales of triumph, like Soviet propagandists explaining how agricultural quotas were over-fulfilled by several hundred per cent, for the twentieth successive year. Yet, for a situation where modesty, self-deprecation, and ruefulness are instantly fatal, where nothing but positive communication is permitted, it seems openly sadistic that the interviewers deliberately place you in a situation where nothing but a negative response is possible - the ‘greatest weakness’ question.

For the interviewers, it’s doubtless a chance to see whether the candidate can think on his or her feet, and cope with the unexpected (even though it‘s such an obvious and ubiquitous question). For the despairing jobseeker, it just adds to the bewilderment and frustration of the process. In an interview last week, I did as the self-help books suggest, and answered the question with a carefully rehearsed improvement story: ‘well, I used to have a problem with x, but over the course of my recent work, I’ve made great strides in that area’. My interviewer nodded slowly and repeated the question - ‘but what would you say is your greatest current weakness?’ The process of symbolic self-denigration cannot be escaped! I corpsed.

In this and in other ways the whole routine is experienced as a headache-inducing perceptual dissonance. On the one hand, the bar for every job seems to be set impossibly high - to have lived a flawless career, blessedly free of interruptions or difficulties, with no weak spots or gaps for interviewers to seize upon. But then we look across the desk and see the mediocre individuals opposite us, and think of our friends and relatives who have managed to establish themselves on the ladder without possessing this seraphic perfection. For my entire life I’ve been asking myself: Why can everyone else do it and not me?

I think that what I lack, as compared to the employed people in my life, is hustle. If I had that unreflecting ability to cheerfully, believingly, pass off shit as shinola, in such a convincing way that the buyer wouldn’t bother inspecting the product before reaching for his pocket, I wouldn’t be in this situation. The latest advice - to lie, lie, and lie again, contradicting the pious self-help book advice that one should never so much as embellish the truth on a CV - is just another variation on this theme.

I can’t quite make up my mind whether this missing quality is a ruling-class privilege (for which see the discussions collected here a few years back), or more of a stereotypical working class thing - hustle, graft, with its suggestions of not-entirely-legitimate activity. Perhaps it’s something possessed by people at both ends, but lost by those inbetween? Rather like the ridiculous etiquette books of early Victorian times - real aristocrats didn’t worry about that type of thing, they just did what the hell they pleased (knowing that they were immovably established and that being seen using the wrong kind of spoon wasn‘t going to affect them at all). Only the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie cooked up these arcane rules and customs to try and monopolise the road up and discreetly kick the bulk of the population off the ladder.


  1. In my last job, fucking years ago now, I used to tell the students that when you get asked the inevitable bullshit question about what your greatest weakness is, never, obviously, say the truth 'Speed and Charlie' or 'Scandanavian porn' 'Cake' etc. but to say "I've always been a perfectionist and I like to have all the paper work up to date. I just can't help it." Total bollocks, but got me through a couple of interview farces.

  2. Brushing your teeth before an interview isn't the only good advice the Job Centre can offer you. I spent a few months unemployed last year and was told to attend a meeting on improving your employment hopes, where we were told: "Make your CV stand-out from the crowd. Try printing it out on coloured paper."

  3. Yes, I tried to address the dreaded 'greatest weakness' interview question in an early version of the book, but it became a whole absurd riddle which threatened to unbalance the whole section.

    Remember beforehand to think of a 'good' weakness which is plausible but not awkward, not too generic but not personal either: a 'positive' thinly diguised as a 'negative'... and be sure to rehearse a suitable answer, but don't make it seem obviously rehearsed, etc... And then if he feels like it the interviewer can always call your bluff, so you have to give yourself away either as a pre-programmed jobseeker or as a human being.

    Maybe: 'My greatest current weakness? Well, in job interviews I often feel compelled to give answers which correspond to the staged scenario, rather than real life. I'm trying to deal with this by being honest about this deception in interview situations...'

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    Source: Weakness interview question

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  5. Postscript:

    "If you do mention weaknesses, make sure that they are those which sound more like strengths. For instance: 'I sometimes take my work too seriously and will stay late at the office to get something finished,' or 'I tend to be very flexible as a work colleague, and I will do the jobs that no-one else wants to do.' No employer will mind you having weaknesses like these."

    (anguished expression)