Meaty Memories

Nickolas Butler’s meat-packing journals get digital treatment

by Samantha Kobs

AND THE OSCAR MAYER GOES TO ... Local author Nickolas Butler’s (Shotgun Lovesongs, The Hearts of Men) latest project, The Meat Diaries, lives exclusively online.
AND THE OSCAR MAYER GOES TO ... Local author Nickolas Butler’s (Shotgun Lovesongs, The Hearts of Men) latest project, The Meat Diaries, lives exclusively online.

What is it about something hand-written that makes us feel nostalgic and sentimental while subsequently stuffing whatever it is into the back of a drawer to save for decades? Internationally published local author Nickolas Butler (Shotgun Lovesongs, The Hearts of Men) certainly knows the feeling. He keeps hold of everything he’s ever written, and recently, some of it has made its way to the public stage.

The Meat Diaries are a series of three composition notebooks in which Butler cataloged his life during an eight-month employment stint at an Oscar Mayer meatpacking factory in Madison, which shut down operation this spring. With the help of Brett Rawson, founder of Handwritten (an online publisher that creates digitized handwritten work), Butler’s first “meat diary” is up for viewing, with the other two diaries following in the coming weeks.

The digital exhibit operates as an interactive portal interspersed with interview snippets, photographs, and diary quotes. The diaries, front to back, have been scanned and digitized, revealing an intensely personal account of Butler’s day-to-day life in 2003 and 2004 as an Oscar Mayer meatpacker.

The journey started where all good journeys start – at a point of personal conflict. After earning a bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison, Butler was struggling to find a job with decent pay and benefits. Eventually, he found himself somewhere he’d never expected: Madison’s East Side Oscar Mayer factory. As a meatpacker, Butler had a lot of free time to write, which may seem odd considering how physically demanding and laborious jobs like that can be. But luckily (or unluckily?) for the workers, the factory line had semi-frequent malfunctions.

“A lot of the time, we were broken down. At any given time, one of those machines could be broken down for 15 minutes to an hour, waiting for the mechanics,” Butler said. “I was often isolated at a point in the assembly line where I couldn’t talk to anyone. It was too loud or I was too far away. So what was I going to do to kill the time?”

Well, he took out his diary and started writing. Often, he’d write about the malfunctions on the line (“mutilated meat everywhere. stupified mechanics dumbly examining innards of various machines”) or briefly touch on world events and daily tasks (“saddam hussein captured yesterday. honey chopped ham today.”). One page contains a “GOALS” list for the upcoming New Year, while another page seems to be a poem narrated by a piece of lunch meat.

But what Butler writes most about are his interactions with people at the plant – a demographic he admits was much different than he’d ever experienced before. He mentions the sexually suggestive Fifi and foul-mouthed Darwin, two of many co-workers that taught him profound lessons along the way. “They were pretty much all characters. You had to have a sort of twisted sense of humor to deal with the monotony, I think,” Butler said. “The work itself, I wouldn’t wish any of that repetitive, dangerous work on anyone. But the people are what made it OK.”

Just this spring, the factory began closing its doors after nearly 100 years of operation. For those who worked there, even if only for a few months, the job served as a place of camaraderie and personal growth. As Butler’s diaries are being released, he hopes that the entries will serve as inspiration for other factory workers to share their stories. Through relatable descriptions of quintessential, Midwest factory workers and disturbingly honest accounts of assembly-line blunders, Butler tells a story that is both raw and unprocessed (puns intended).

To check out the first installment of The Meat Diaries by Nickolas Butler, go to www.handwrittenwork.com/themeatdiaries.

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