Keeping the Day Jobs

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: On Publishing, On Writing

I recently read this interesting essay (by way of Erika Dreifus’s awesome blog, Practicing Writing) about writing as a second career, by necessity. As a writer who, until recently, has always had a day job, I loved reading this — and even got a little nostalgic for my former day jobs.

The essay, by Emily St. John Mandel (a writer who’s held myriad day jobs herself) features two novelists who balance work with writing: “I wanted to know if they experienced their day jobs as an impediment, as I generally have, or if they’ve managed to find jobs that have fueled their writing.” And it’s interesting to see these writers’ preferences — either for work that, because it has nothing to do with writing (bartending, for example), provides fuel for story and character; or for work that is writing-related and therefore enhances skills that relate directly to craft. It’s also nice to see that writers appreciate their day jobs, and not only for the paycheck. As Jason Quinn Malott notes, “If you talk to full-time, un-famous writers, they’ll confirm just how unromantic writing full-time is.”

So why are we so eager to quit our day jobs?

I’ve known several writers who have quit their jobs to write, only to watch the year (or years) go by without writing much. Jason Quinn Malott is right: It’s not nearly as romantic as it sounds. My situation was a little different than simply giving up the day job: Having relocated to a new city for my partner’s new job, I had a handy excuse to take the next year to try out writing full-time. And because I’d just published my first book, I’d have more time to promote it as well as plenty of time to work on current projects. Every writer’s dream…right?

Well, sort of.

It’s fantastic to have time to do readings and other events, which would have been difficult with a day job, and to have time to devote to new work. But as many writers suddenly faced with plenty of “free” time know, given a freer schedule or none at all, time slips away far more quickly than when you have to carefully budget your writing time. And it happens to us all: As this essay notes, Franz Kafka, after switching from twelve-hour shifts at his day job to a six-hour daily schedule, “somehow managed to avoid writing till 11 p.m. — he frittered away the late afternoon and early evening hours with exercises, lunch, a nap, dinner with his parents, an hour or two or more of writing letters or writing in his diary.”

And of course there’s the money issue: like many full-time writers, I still need to earn a few bucks, which means teaching, editing, freelancing — and juggling all these different things can be far more exhausting than simply showing up at one place every day, getting one’s work done, and going home to write. Instead, I’m a slave to email, and there are no such things as weekends. But this is okay; anyone who writes around a day job knows that weekends are for writing anyway.

And of course, day jobs do take us out into the world about which we write — which, if you’re writing full-time, is something you have to consciously go after. So I volunteer in the community, which is unpaid work but is among the best things I do every week: I’m out in the world — a different world than any day job has ever given me, in fact — and it keeps me focused and grounded and forces me to be a good manager of my own time.

Emily St. John Mandel writes that “every book we write is a lottery ticket” — that is, we most likely won’t hit the right numbers, but life is capricious enough that we just never know.

Meanwhile, we can keep in mind that even the most famous and successful writers started out with day jobs, squeezing in their writing whenever and wherever they could. Stephen King taught high school and wrote in the closet of his trailer. Raymond Carver wrote stories in the back seat of his car. Anthony Trollope worked for the postal service. Toni Morrison worked nine-to-five in publishing. William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. Scott Turow was (and still is) a lawyer.

I may eventually be back in the market for a new day job, and this helps me grasp any moments of time that may want to slip between my fingers. And, though I’m enjoying my Year of Writing immensely, I’d welcome the new adventure of another interesting day job. Unless, of course, I win the lottery.

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