Garbage In – Garbage Out

My bloggin’ buddie Ben Mitchell has done a series of posts that are really helpful for those awful doubts all of us who like to write have in spades.  Ben’s latest post, My Writing is of the Highest Quality made me think of this story.

*     *     *

We’ve all had them.  The Boss from Hell.  Anna was mine.

Thirty years ago I worked for a woman who was known to swallow subordinates.  People who worked for her often left the state just to get away from her.  That’s how I got away, and I started a trend, actually.

Anna was smart, dedicated, a work-a-holic.  She expected perfection.  Documents were edited by four or five people, proofread by everyone from the most senior lawyer on down to the lowliest paralegal (me).  Nothing could go out to our clients with a substantive mistake, a grammatical error, an incorrect comma or extra space between words.  Worse, Anna didn’t mince words.  She didn’t spare feelings.  Working for Anna was a daily “sink or swim” situation.  And she always seemed to want to fill your pockets with rocks.

Still, for me, the job was a gift.  I had been working as a legal secretary, a job I hated.  But, the head partner of the department thought I was funny (which as we all know correlates with being incredibly intelligent).  So he offered me a promotion, asked if I would be interested in taking a job as a paralegal, a “professional.”  I would be part of the team of professionals in the legislative and regulatory division of a law firm.  I would learn all about Washington from the inside.

I would get paid less, work longer hours, and get no overtime.  What a deal!

I snapped it up though.  Because a big part of it was learning and the rest was writing.  Writing boring, humorless stuff, yes.  But writing is writing.  And getting paid to write?  Well, it doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

But Anna was unenthusiastic.  She didn’t want me.  She didn’t want to have someone else, even her boss, choose her assistant.  But we were stuck with each other.

It took five years for her to laugh at one of my jokes.  But I digress.

So I became a legislative assistant on environmental issues.  My job was to analyze legislation, attend hearings, know what all the different Senators and Congressmen thought about legislation, predict what would happen to a bill.  And I wrote memos to our clients to enlighten them.

But first they had to get past Anna.  The clients, they were easy.  The boss?  She was damn hard.

She didn’t mince words.  She tore apart sentences, decimated analyses.  She always knew more about the issue and the Congress and what position each member was taking than I did.  It was, well, challenging.  And annoying.  It was often hard not to collapse in angry tears.

But for the most part, I understood that I was getting the best training I could get.  How many of you have had each and every word you wrote for 10 years brutally dissected?  I did.  And it was never pretty.  But I learned.

Still, even a person like me who desperately needed that job has her limits.  And I reached them when, during one period, Anna would inexplicably throw my draft memos back at me saying “WHAT IS GARBAGE???!!!”  This question was not good for my ego.

I couldn’t quit, I needed the job.  I couldn’t go over her head, because, well, I like to fight my own battles.  But clearly, I needed to do something.

So I rooted around in the files until I found a memo Anna herself had written about one of my issues.  It was years old, but the factual information was still spot on.  I needed to change a couple of little things, the Senate Bill number, the names of a few of the Senators, and voila!  Anna had written my memo for me.

When I gave it to her, Anna shouted “What is this GARBAGE?”

“Actually, Anna,” I responded, “You were so unhappy with my last memo that I got this old one out of the file.  You wrote it; I just changed the bill number.”

Anna was silent for a minute and then said,

“Well, you write better than I do; I expected more of you.”

From that day on, she was respectful and pleasant.  She learned that it was OK to laugh at my jokes and that I would still work hard, regardless.

*    *    *

The Boss from Hell.  Anna was mine.  Or was she the one that taught me the most? She certainly taught me more about writing than anyone else I’ve ever known.  She taught me to be careful, to pay attention, to look at every word.  So was she really the Boss from Hell, or the Editor from Heaven? I can never decide.  Probably both.

But she is still my friend.


Filed under History, Humor, Writing

52 responses to “Garbage In – Garbage Out

  1. Mine was Carrie. No matter how hard I worked, or how perfect the work was, it was never good enough. Not for her. She could slice you to pieces with just a look, and totally decimate you when she opened her mouth and her scathing words spilled out. She had one weakness. She liked other people to do her work for her, so she could take all the credit. I became her ghost writer for about eight months, and she started winning awards and eventually got promoted. Then I fought my way into her old job. Within three months, she was fired, and I was promoted to her new position. I never told a soul. I didn’t have to. Her work spoke for itself.

    Despite being horrid and mean and selfish and crude, she was also a perfectionist, who demanded excellence. Her methods might not have been the best, but it did help me hone my writing skills. Back in those days, I was writing material for what would eventually become HIPAA compliance regulations. Boring stuff, truly. But very technical.

    A few years later, I ran into her at a local craft fair. She had ditched the corporate world, and decided to take up the art of making enamel jewelry. Her work was inspired and beautiful, and I think I might even still have the lovely and colorful parrot lapel pin that I purchased that day. I took that opportunity to thank her for helping me become a better researcher and writer, and she surprised me when she apologized for hiding behind my writing all those months. She said she became nearly suicidal when she got fired from her corporate job, but that now she was happier than ever, so it all worked out okay in the end. When I think of her these days, I think about that parrot lapel pin. Such artistry, from someone who I had once believed had a heart made of stone. Thankfully, people evolve. Otherwise I’d still be the snotty little knows-everything that once inhabited my skin. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wait — you’re not a snotty know-it-all? Just kidding, natch.

      This is a nice story, actually about someone who was just not in the right place. And I am astonished that she admitted she’d hidden behind your work. Very gracious of you to have eased her conscience.

      The boss in this one is still a friend (although I rarely see her). She was a hardass boss and quite a bitch quite often, but she was also incredibly good to me. That part doesn’t fit in this story!


      • Sorry, I thought it was self-evident. I once used to be a snotty little know-it-all who thought they knew everything there was to know about life. Now? Obviously, now there’s no doubt I know it all. Just ask me.



  2. Pingback: Some Things Do Change With Age | FiftyFourandAHalf

  3. Thanks, Mom! I agree. There is a certain amount of real pushing that we all need to become good workers.


  4. Some of my toughest bosses were actually my greatest. They taught me to be a hard worker and to push myself, though I didn’t know it at the time. Great post.


  5. Great story, Elyse! My very first boss was a crusty old curmudgeon of a pharmacist who insisted on the very best for his customers, even if I was just a 16-year-old part-timer. I learned to be on-time, helpful and courteous and give my best effort no matter how many zeros were on the paycheck, because that was what he expected.


    • The jobs you hold when you’re younger really do shape you into the sort of worker you are.

      And now we get to be the rusty old curmudgeons …


  6. I’ve had five out of my last seven bosses be extremely challenging. Before that it was a streak of about 15 years of pretty decent leaders.

    I felt the chest-tightening as I read your post. You made me feel those feelings again. I needed my jobs as well. The first bad boss, I put up with for about six months and lost 40 lbs from the stress – I only needed to lose about 20! I resigned, and he was fired six months later. Now I’ve learned to cope with it much better.

    There will always be bad ones and good ones, and like you did, one has to learn from them or quit. The latter is usually more painful, speaking from experience.

    And yes, my friend, you are an excellent writer. One of the blogs that is always coherent and well-constructed.


    • Thanks, MJ. I’m glad the adverse effects stopped with a chest tightening and that my post did not send you into cardiac arrest. I am already feeling guilty enough about this post because, while in her Dr. Jekyl side, she is good.

      I’ve been incredibly fortunate with my bosses since then. Then again, I’m married; without my income, our family will get by. I wasn’t always in that position. I am very fortunate.


  7. cooper

    Trying to remember – i believe i’ve never had a boss from hell. I had a boss who wanted me to lie to the customer and I refused, but that just made him an unethical slug. I guess I’ve been lucky.


  8. Excellent post with much meaning. Interesting how you turned the tables on her, but wow … what a surprise ending!


  9. I’m sure you learned a lot, but I HATE constant criticism. I’m glad you survived.


    • Thanks, Nancy. After a while the criticism becomes like traffic or city noise. And the job was so busy that it was difficult to stop and focus on my misery when I was working so hard!


  10. This post is the perfect example of why people say “Nothing comes for easy!”. You went through hell to see the heaven. You had the worst boss yet the best editor to help you become a wonderful writer. 🙂


    • Well, it sure wasn’t easy, Arindam, you have that right. And thanks for your nice comment. She did improve my writing (although it took about 10 years to write anything creative after I left). But everybody can benefit from the one-on-one with an editor and a proofreader!


  11. You are a genius for giving her a copy of her own writing! I’ve always noticed how good your writing is, all those years of hard work. Damn, you have been through it all. I would’ve crumbled into a puddle of self-doubt.


    • Actually, there was something about her manner that made everyone determined to do it right or die trying. The burnout rate was pretty high.

      But Darla, you would have had nothing to worry about — your writing is great — absolutely up to Anna’s standards. Except that you’re funny and she isn’t. (In fact once a co-worker and I walked half way across the office before he turned to me and said, “Wait — did she just make a joke? Should we run back and laugh at it?”)


  12. Like you said, it really does make you better at your job.
    As long as you have a way to defuse your stress.
    Well done!


  13. Clinton

    Wow. I’m speechless. And, now that you mention it, I’ve never noticed a spelling or grammatical error in any of your blogs.


    • Oh Clinton, there are both. But I am a compulsive proof-reader and editor. If I see something I try to change it (although sometimes I feel like I’m cheating!)


  14. I love your story! We can each use an Anna in our lives.


    • An Anna is good for short bursts if you have a strong backbone! But full time was often difficult.

      She also had a very caring and nurturing side, strangely.


  15. I’m glad you took something positive from a hellacious experience. The only thing that comes close (and not really) was when I worked as a reporter. The nightly copy editor would call me at home and ask questions in a way that conveyed he felt I was a total idiot. “Speaker7 did you mean the possessive ‘their’ when describing the location ‘there'” These awesome interactions would usually take place after working a 16 hour day that entailed calling the family members of someone who died. He also would send emails to all my bosses that would list the mistakes he found and how he saved the story. I had to lob of my hands to keep from replying: “Great buddy, you did your #@&!*! job. Congratulations.”


    • What a jerk — I think though that the higher-ups no doubt had his number — 1-800-INSECUR (yes, I know there is an E but it didn’t fit! I, like you, am not an idiot. Take that stupid copy-editor!)

      I think I spent all those years with a (thankfully) invisible speech bubble over my head that said nasty things I would have been fired for saying.


  16. bigsheepcommunications

    A fine example of why working for yourself is a wonderful thing!


    • You have a good point, Lisa!

      I thought I would never work for another woman (as if gender had anything to do with it). Now I work for an incredibly wonderful woman who, while she’s equally demanding, is really appreciative. More importantly, of course, she laughs at my jokes. Although, when I told her my “Boss from Hell” story, she didn’t think it was terribly funny…


  17. I never knew when a particular principal would show up in my classroom 5″ after the bell rang to observe me. Solution…be ready and prepared every period, every day. Years of that rigor sharpened my timing, shaped classes with an opening (anticipatory set/warm-up), instruction, practice, cool down and closing. To this day I drive my husband nuts saying something will take about 11″ (not 10 or 15), and I’m spot on, etc. Good story and how wonderful you and your Ana are good friends. You went through so much together.


    • What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? In some ways, I think it is sad that the generation that is just starting out is unlikely to have the hard-nosed (or hard-another-piece-of-anatomy) bosses we had to suffer through! Lawsuit! Lawsuit!


  18. Great story. You were clever to hand in some of her own writing.


    • It was the only option short of strangling her. And then I would have needed another lawyer.

      Are you back? Yours was a wonderful series of posts about your magical trip.


      • I’m sure you’re both glad that you didn’t end up strangling her. Then your blog name would be the number of years you got.

        I actually wrote all of the posts about my trip after I got back. While I was traveling I just wrote down some notes and took lots of pictures.


  19. My Anna was Lawrence, also a lawyer. He plucked my right out of my Federal Courthouse job to be his paralegal. It was a challenge to say the least. One of my duties was to draft Motions and Applications for our clients. Lawrence was the head of he Bankruptcy department and this was 1988 right before the crash. It was my job to console rich people through there Chapter 11 proceeding. Lawrence used a blue Mont Blanc pen to the level of not being able to see my draft. He pushed me to levels I never thought I could reach, because he saw something I did not. We are also still friends. Years later I did write him a Thank you letter.


  20. Ohhhh….my…I love this post. And I admire you. I could only tolerate my Anna (it was a political situation and like you, I was selected as the assistant to my boss, who clearly didn’t want me around) only 3 years. My boss was an alcoholic and often called me to come pick her up when she was drunk. We reached a tolerable understanding of each other and she even contracted me several times a year for free lance work. She seemed to like me better when I wasn’t her assistant. You’re my hero and inspiration. It took me a while to rebuild confidence after quitting that job.


    • My Anna had (and has) a very good side too. I will have to tell the other side of this story soon.

      But you had it much harder — you had to pick her up when she was drunk? Good Lord!

      It really is awful what folks can get away with when somebody under them knows they can’t quit. It’s something I try to keep in mind when I am frustrated with someone who works for me now. (I don’t always succeed, but I try…)


  21. Impressive professional background, Elyse. Seriously. And brilliant move on giving Anna her own memo to loudly pronounce “garbage”. Lol – A lot of bosses wouldn’t have been big enough to take what you did in a constructive way, but instead, many would only see you as a threat to be eliminated, as soon as possible.

    So I guess that your former boss was the Boss from Hell, as well as the Editor who was one hell of an excellent teacher for you… but like having a Marine Drill Sergeant for an Editor. (can’t bring myself to say that she was from Heaven)

    And you can still say that she is your friend? Maybe you are from Heaven… or from somewhere in that general direction.


    • There was a lot more to the relationship, Chris. This is only one side. I woke up guilty for having not really said anything nice about her. Maybe I will have to do Chapter 2!

      Thanks for your nice words, Chris. As for my professional background, it has been a combination of luck and humor, I believe. I jokingly insulted the senior partner who later promoted me the first time I met him, after which he would wander past my desk daily for abuse. Everybody was too scared of him to really yank his chain. And he loved it!


  22. What a perfect way to move the ball forward.


  23. What a great story! I LOVE how you found a way to get her attention and begin to turn her around! Bravo Elyse!



    • Thanks, Russ. Generally there is always a way to turn people around. And like you, I find that doing it in a humorous way allows folks to accept the obvious!


Play nice, please.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s