Guest contributor: Kristen Keckler

Bad Advice Wednesday: Everything I Need to Know about Writing I Learned from Bartending!

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Make it a Double!


Bill and Dave have got me thinking about cocktails. Writing, too, of course, and how the two fit together. And I’d really like to hear about how your work fits in with your writing.  Or how it doesn’t.  See, once upon a time I was a bartender. And lately, I’ve noticed that people who haven’t worked in the service industry react to that with a certain reverence and awe. “Wow, I wish I’d done that when I was younger,” they say. They imagine I was a sort of female Tom Cruise, shaking fruity libations, tossing bottles, juggling coconuts to the likes of “Kokamo,” lots of wicker and palm fronds and gorgeous customers lining up to fall in love.

Kristen Keckler working on her new book…

Well, sort of. Just substitute Jamaican tiki bar with suburban restaurant specializing in “New American cuisine,” one with a name like Main Street Grill. Imagine décor along the lines of a Frontgate catalog. Bistro-style barstools. Birdbath sized Martini glasses. Sconces. Pendant fixtures over the bar. Fabric banquettes. Tile. Contemporary, comfortable, with a few unique-seeming details, maybe a little generic.  But, then, I’m not down on genre.

I lasted six months.

I was twenty-six, well beyond that post-graduation grace period when you can coast on your laurels. I’d done the cross-country-camp-out-of-your-car thing. I wrote sporadically, mostly when I was falling in love or after things went really bad. Sometimes I read poems at some café open mike. At the point I started bartending, my job history included: lifeguard; camp counselor; library book-shelver; birthday party clown; barista; vegetarian short order cook; seitan (wheat-meat) maker; and psychiatric group counselor. The last of which I quit to travel around the world on a frequent-flyer ticket, eventually landing back at my parents’ house, windswept and vaguely more aware of my own unsettledness. But up for anything. My dad knew the owners. I was set.

Bridesmaid’s Martini

I did eventually master the four M’s: martini, Manhattan, mojito, margarita. And the “cosmo” of course—bridesmaid’s martini. I learned dry, extra dry, and dirty. I learned just enough to be able, over a decade later, to take over for some well-meaning husband or wife at a dinner party and pump out some serious aperitifs. Case in point, recently a friend had the brilliant idea to make watermelon martinis. I watched, curiously, as he hacked the melon open, scooped chunks in a blender with too much ice and too little vodka. The result was like watermelon shaved ice, something you’d eat with a spoon. I didn’t interfere—not until the results bombed. I’d never actually made a watermelon martini, but what the hell, I found a few tools—drink mixer (metal kind with a lid with holes), a plastic juicer, agave nectar. Juiced the watermelon, discarding the pulp. Filled the mixer with ice, lots of vodka, a few splashes of watermelon juice, a couple drops of nectar. Shook and shook and shook. Strained the mixture—pink like dragon fruit. Summer in a glass.

But beyond the arts of improvisation and entertainment, it seems that bartending and writing share a similar list of do’s and don’ts.

1. Know your Audience.

Tommy Hardware drank Coors Light, bottle not tap. Stockbroker Steve liked Macallan 12, once in a while would splurge on the 18, always trying to haggle down the price. Captain John, two-tour Vietnam vet, expected his Bacardi and Diet on the coaster at exactly two minutes after he gave the nod.  The O’Brien’s—husband and wife legal team, very sweet, good tippers—liked margaritas, rocks and salt. Donna the therapist ordered house Pinot Grigio, always with a glass of ice on the side. And Chardonnay Ray, retired village police chief, liked, you guessed it. But Tommy Hardware would never drink a Guinness, and Stockbroker Steve would never order a cosmo. Though it still makes me giggle to imagine.

2. Be Realistic

Before my first shift, and well into the first few weeks, I did sort of aspire to be a female Tom Cruise. Well, maybe more along the lines of Rachel in Friends—but substitute wine for coffee. I imagined myself serving wine mostly. Sure, I expected some light cleaning, lifting, stocking, ass kissing. Doing all of the above while engaging in sophisticated conversations about art. And eventually being offered free Yankees tickets and stays in patrons’ vacation cottages.

3. Think Big

When prepping for your night shift, always remember bigger is better, and cut the lemons and limes into fat wedges—or whole circles with a slit to hug


the glass. Feel good about your generous garnishes, at least until the owner tells you to cut them smaller—if he even notices at all.

4. Bartending is a Process

There were very few shortcuts that actually saved time. Glasses needed to be washed, buffed, chilled. A pina colada took freaking forever, always inspiring a fuck-me inner sigh. Especially when I was slammed. Pop the coconut cream, pineapple juice, simple sugar, rum, and ice in a blender (first rinse out the leftover margarita), which will drown out the music and banter with its annoyingly loud whir-hum. Blend until the ice is fully incorporated—a full thirty seconds. Try to shave a few seconds off, and the colada will be full of straw-clogging ice chips. And that’s no fun.

5. Honor thy Apprenticeship

You’ll be itching to gain credibility, make some real money. But most bartenders have to start as barbacks, basically manning the service window, pouring wine for the wait staff and staying out of the way of the real bartender, who gets to socialize and make all the cool drinks in the pretty glasses. You’ll make a fr

Wade on in, the water ain’t deep!

action of the tips. You’ll respect and want to impress some of the bartenders who train you, and others, you’ll wonder how this dipshit lucked into a bar shift. You’ll need to prove yourself, wait for someone to call off or quit. Watch, listen, learn. When your time comes: pounce.

6. Eavesdrop

Learn about all sorts of things you could care less about. Like: golf, baseball, day trading, boat slips, property taxes, school districts, Costco, dog breeding, plastic surgery, fantasy football, point spreads, primer and paint brands, divorce proceedings, action movies, cholesterol medications, country clubs.

7. Become an Expert

When Tommy Hardware asks, “Did you catch the game last night?,” don’t ask “what game?” It’s July and he is wearing his Posada Jersey for Christ’s sake. Say, “No, I missed it. Did Rivera close?” And he will proceed to explain the highlights of the game in cinematic detail.

8. Eschew Disclaimers

No self-respecting barmaid would say, “I haven’t quite nailed my margarita yet.” Or, “My bloody Mary’s are so blah.” It would be like a poet saying, “My meter sucks balls.”

9. Seize the Personal Pronoun

You’ll find yourself using the word “my” a lot: “the” bar will become “my” bar. And not my in the collective-personal, like “my church” or “my bus stop” but my in a more intimate and possessive sense, as in “my boyfriend” or “my couch.” It will slip out that way, mostly without you even noticing, although sometimes it will have an oddly narcissistic ring—my, my, my.

10. Show Don’t Tell

Let’s face it, you’ll find out top-secret stuff too good to keep to yourself. Like, that a certain bartender’s thong underwear was once, before I worked there, discovered on one of the dinning room banquettes. I knew who she was—had been—banging, but I won’t tell, at least, not here. But that thong will remain draped in my memory. Sometimes I picture Victoria’s Secret, black lace, little bow, other times a satiny leopard print triangle. Then there was the night one of the owners came in with a date—a teacher, nice girl. They sat at my bar and had a couple drinks. He was obviously showing off his status as owner. They got a little sloppy, touchy-feely-gropey, and then left. The next day I mentioned that the owner was in with his new girlfriend to the waitress he used to date. They’d broken up a while ago, so I’d assumed she was over him. Big mistake.  The nex

t thing I knew, the pissed off owner cornered me in the dry goods storage to tell me that what happens at my bar stays at my bar. Capice?

Yeah, okay.

11. Take What’s Free

Liquor distributors will stop by, usually between the hours of three and five, when you are doing side-work. Engage them as if you actually have decision-making power. They are a nice mid-afternoon distraction. They will offer you samples of new products, most trendy and/or dumb, like green-flecked whiskey, bubble-gum favored schnapps. They’ll shower you with pens, pads, wine keys, ashtrays, bottle openers, bobble-heads, shot glasses, flasks, dish towels, hats. They’ll offer you a T-shirt or tank top, always in a size L, emblazoned with their brand. Take it. You can always give it away, or wear it to bed.

12. Bond with Colleagues

Since you won’t want to (always) drink where you work, you’ll find yourself in other establishments after your bar closes or on your night off. Don’t order: bartender’s choice. Let it be known, casually of course, where you tend bar and invite the person to “stop in, come see me!” Code for “I’ll hook you up.” When they come into your bar, treat them like royalty. Commiserate. Trade secrets. Some will teach you about bourbons, vintages. Some you will grow to trust, like, envy.  Smooch.  Others you’ll tolerate, because you know what they say about keeping your enemies close.


13. Immerse yourself in your Craft

As the saying goes, all great writers read. Just like all good bartenders drink. I’ve come across a few that didn’t, but they were in AA. You make a drink, and there’s a little left in the shaker, so you pour it into the rocks glass to sample—pretty tasty!, or not enough lime, or whatever. Always drink to taste. How else are you going to figure out what’s good?

14. Don’t Do it for the Money

On an average night, slow but steady, I’d gross eighty bucks. Wait, after tipping out the busboys, try seventy-two. Minus the drink I bought for a fellow service-industry worker who stopped in (as I’d invited). Down to sixty. Then drinks at the “workingman’s bar” watering hole next door, three long games of Quick Draw, a tank of gas and the two skirts I had to buy from TJ Maxx because the owners expected me to dress up, and I almost broke even.

15. Push through the Hard Stuff

There was a couple that came in once or twice a week—let’s call them Linda and Jim. They were in their late 40s, had a couple kids—daughters, I think. She had short frosted blond hair, looked like she placed tennis, and he was gray and tan. She drank red; he drank white. They drank a little too much and stumbled home—they lived close, walking distance. Usually they were happy drunks. But sometimes, it was like a switch suddenly flipped, activating their evil twins. My back turned, punching buttons on my touch screen register, I’d hear:

“How does it feel to be a loser? A pathetic excuse for a man? I should’ve listened to my mother.”

“Your mother is a gold-digging bitch.”

“I’m going to divorce you and take the kids,” she hissed.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. They weren’t shouting, though their tones were razor sharp. They were not turned toward each other, but looking straight ahead, as if they were addressing me, or the mirror behind me.

“Laughable. You’re an unfit mother,” he said.

“Fucking asshole…”

“Beef cavern…”

Sometimes marriage and alcohol don’t really mix.

Turn up the music. Then cut them off.

16. Respect Deadlines

You’ll never set out to serve a shitty drink on purpose. But you can tell that margarita’s off, suspect you went too heavy on the Triple Sec because it is more orange than that lovely translucent key lime pie color. But new tickets are popping out of the printer and the regulars are getting restless. So send it out anyway. There’s always next time.

Attention to detail

17. Develop an Eye for Detail

It’s the little things that keep you sane. Dusting all shapes and styles of bottles. Cutting fruit. T

he strawberry slice that clings to the glass like a perfect little valentine. The peach moon floating in the sea of white sangria. The festive umbrella staked into a pineapple island. The double olives that peer out like cute red-eyed aliens.

18. Primadonnas Need Not Apply

If a drink gets sent back, just shut up and re-make it. Don’t get hung up on semantics—like, if he didn’t want any damn vermouth, he should’ve specified very dry.

19. No Whining

No one wants to hear you bitch, except perhaps those in your, um, trade (see “Bond with Colleagues”) and they’re only thinking of payback. But others, they’ll remind you that you chose this. No one kidnapped you and dropped you off in a new American restaurant. No one’s holding a gun to your head as you change a keg. If you don’t like what you’re doing, do something else. But you know deep down, there’s something you do like about this job, sometimes, some little satisfaction that comes when you’re in your zone, get it right.

20. Make it Look Easy.

Rattle that cocktail shaker like it’s your moneymaker (because it is) and with all the muscle and flair you can muster. Pretend it’s a maraca or tambourine. Do a little dance.

21. Find Your Zone

Some people are always on their game. (We hate those people.) The rest of us are pretty much inconsistent. We have our good and bad days, and a sweet spot of peak performance we hit maybe once a shift if we’re lucky. I always needed to be very-busy-but-not-quite-in-the-weeds to finally find my groove. And then, for an hour or two, my senses became particularly acute, and I seemed to be floating through my work. When my body finally caught up to my brain—surpassed it, even—it was sort of like in a Disney movie, when a princess waves a magic wand and it sparks with little stars.

22. Disclose the Self

Once, I was bending over the beer cooler, a refrigerator that looked like a stand-up freezer, with hatches on top that slid. The beers all the way to the back were the ones that weren’t ordered as much, like O’Doul’s (non-alcoholic, down fifty for a buzz) or Peroni (yuck! Italians should stick to wine.)

Not a cabbage.

At barely past five, Chardonnay Ray was on his third glass, and a few others had trickled in for happy hour. I was stocking the beer case, pushing the Peronis further back to make room for the Heineken when I heard Ray’s unmistakable boom: “Hey, honey, why do you have a cabbage on your ass? Or is that one of those bloomin’ onions?”

“Looks like an artichoke to me,” piped in Stockbrocker Steve.” I whipped around, pulling down my skimpy shirt, saying, “Haha, I’m sorry you forgot your glasses at home, but I’ll have you know it’s a flower.” I said.

“Let’s have another look,” Ray said.

So, turn around, lift your shirt just a little, and let them ogle your tattoo. Say, “It was designed from a photograph I took in Australia.  And I got it done in Sydney.  It’s a lotus blossom.”  Add: “After New Zealand and before Singapore,” just because.

“When were you over there?” Ray asked.

Just to up the ante: “Couple months ago.  My second time.”

Don’t add that the price of such a trip was to work your cabbage ass off serving the likes of them. But now they know something about you that the average stranger or acquaintance does not.

23. Don’t Be a Scenester

Towards the end of my career as a drink slinger, I got a little caught up in the scene. Long story short, the restaurant had been closed for a private party, and we re-opened the bar area after the party cleared out, save three or four of the family lushes. Your regulars, they went over to the workingman’s bar instead, but the fact you were “closed” only makes them stalk you until you to re-open. (Usually people started off at the restaurant, and then moved over to the real bar where drinks were a lot cheaper, they could play Quick Draw and be really loud.) Since it was late, the female manager—a raven-haired no-nonsense Brit—changed the satellite radio from easy jazz to ultimate hip-hop hits. The manager was bored so she helped me work my bar. We were pumping out drinks, having a little fun. People were dancing little drunken dances. Next thing I knew, some guy talked us into doing belly shots.

So I’m lying on the bar, tugging my skirt down a little, my shirt up, exposing my belly, complete with cute piercing. Someone sprinkles me with salt. Someone else pours tequila in my navel. I’m trying to keep flat and still. My button is too small to hold much so the liquid pools around it but doesn’t spill over my sides. This all happens lickety split, and the moment after he pulls the bottle back, my manager, serenaded by catcalls, puts her pretty lips to my middle and sucks it out, washes it down with the lime I’ve had stuffed in my mouth. I repeat the favor. I feel wild and reckless and cool—for maybe a week. But when all is said and done, do you want people to remember you for your craft, or your navel?

24. Screw the Critics

People will treat your occupation with enthusiastic admiration, polite skepticism, or outright disdain they mask in the spirit of joking. Oh, so you’re a bartender. (Wink, wink.) You spend your nights dancing on a bar you’ve set on fire! Must be nice to drink for free (actually, one free “shift drink,” pay for the rest.) Or, on the flip side, it must be awful dealing with all those drunk people! They’ll assume you must be a flake, a hustler, or just too out there to hold down a “real” job, and sometimes you’ll think they sorta kinda have a point.

25. Honor thy Characters

Just another tequila sunrise…

Tommy Hardware wore a gold Yankees pendant (circle with a hat on a bat) on a gold link chain. His light hair was always short, like a shaved head after one month of new growth, and he liked every major sport, always rooting for New York (Giants, not Jets, Yankees not Mets, Knicks not Nets). He played in a softball league in the summer, lived with his mother, and helped me move furniture in his Jeep. Though the menu was peppered with “duck confit” and “frittes,” if he ate, it would most likely be a burger or a chicken sandwich.  He would never: hit a girl, convert to Islam, rob a bank, drive a Prius, or betray a friend. But the longer I stuck around, the more my regulars would surprise me. Chardonnay Ray was a retired cop who read the New York Post, and he had his sexist and racist Tourette’s moments. I could picture him twenty years earlier, setting up speed traps, slinking the streets in his patrol car. Then one day I’d find out that he had an unusual hobby—he had a stained glass studio in his basement. He said making stained glass relaxed him. He brought in a photo-album of his work—butterflies, kittens, birds, sunflowers, Celtic knots, and lots of crosses. Really nice stuff. He told me he did custom orders, could make almost anything. So I commissioned him to make a lotus flower, brought him the photo, and he sketched the design. The final product was spectacularly beautiful, delicate petals, a blend of bright and pearly pinks. Today, it still hangs in my window.

Your turn–what have you learned about writing from your job?

[Kristen Keckler is a writer living in Westchester County, New York.  She’s a professor at Mercy College and was co-author of the tenth anniversary edition of Writing Life Stories, the world’s best book on the subject of memoir.  She’s at work on a memoir of work, love, and finding a life, called Sex and the Group Home]

  1. Amy writes:

    I am one of those people who always wished I had been a bartender, half of the time because I make a better michelada and bloody mary than most places…

    But from my jobs, from summer hire secretary to senior business analyst with some teaching thrown in for good measure, the best is understanding (or not) people’s motives and issues and secrets and foibles…I love to collect characters. And sometimes at a good desk job, where you have deliverables that you can turn in and be done with it for a week or so…it is always a good way to sneak writing time. Don’t tell anyone, but I finished both of my master theses at work. Shhhhh.

    Thanks for sharing these observations. I need to apply as many of these as I can to my job…but probably not the body shots.

  2. Christina writes:

    I stalked you over here from Facebook; love this piece! I’ve never been a bartender, but I can relate from working retail for so many years.

    Also, I agree with Tommy, I would love to read the rest of the list.

    • Kristen writes:

      Thanks, Christina. Yes, I bet you can tell a lot about your “characters” from the shoes they buy 🙂

  3. Bill writes:

    I bartended for a number of years in various parts of the country back in the day and found it a great way to make money while paying my dues as a young writer–days free, work indistinguishable from partying. I also worked construction, played in bands, and rounded up cattle. I think bartending was most amenable to daily writing and daydreaming, though riding horse was great for the latter.

  4. Tommy writes:

    This ended too soon. Like a needle being dragged across a record album, used so effectively in film, you pulled me put of dream-land when you asked, “your turn…” I could have read this forever.