Last year, I confided in a former colleague that I was thinking of getting a regular job instead of writing full-time. See, I’d taught creative writing part-time at a middle school, and I liked many aspects of having a job outside the house.
They expressed that I’d burst their bubble about the writing life. Wouldn’t that be giving up? At this, I felt slightly ashamed, as if going back to work would indeed equal throwing up the white flag. Indeed, at other times, people have asked if writing’s the “only thing I do.” When I reply yes, they give an approving cluck and say something like, “Good for you.” But the truth is, I’ve only really been able to write because my husband works and is willing to support us—every writing check I’ve earned has gone to some put-off familial necessity.
This notion of writing full-time is usually seen as the Holy Grail for those fantasizing about publishing. If you give up your day job, the myth goes, you have it made. Yet I find myself having a lot of hours to fill once I’m done with my work. And giving an anxiety-prone writer too much free time can be bad. Some people, like Border Collies, need to keep their hours filled. If you leave a Border Collie home alone with nothing to do, expect a (proverbial) couch to get shredded.
Over the years, there have been a few posts about day jobs here at Writer Unboxed. I decided to ask a few writer friends with day jobs how they juggle writing and the 9 to 5.
One thing that many newbies are surprised by is the vagaries of income in the publishing world. Advances are paid out in increments; author royalties are generally paid just twice a year. Bestselling author Cheryl Strayed was upfront about this in a Vulture interview, noting that while she was on tour for her book Wild, her rent check bounced. She didn’t receive her first royalty check for nearly a year.
Sometimes payments get held up by contract negotiations. Sometimes the publisher actually just forgets. The constant anxiety of not knowing when or how much your next paycheck takes toll. How can you be creative if you’re worried about your next meal?
A steady paycheck does away with these anxieties. Extra income may also you to attend more writer conferences and classes, and therefore advance your career more quickly. Also, having a day job could allow you to use any book advance you get toward publicizing your book.
If a publisher wants you to substantially change your book and you need that money, chances are you’ll change the book to get that green. Another income gives you the freedom to say no, because you’re not dependent on that income.
Filling the Well
Another benefit of having a day job is getting out of the writer cave. Writers need experiences to write about. They need to hear how people speak, and catch snippets of stories to inspire their fiction.
Middle grade author Casey Lyall wrote Howard Wallace, PI, and works as a branch assistant at her local library. “First of all, I get to work with kids of all ages which is always a blast. It’s an opportunity for me to chat with my target audience and hear what they’re interested in,” she says. “I also get to check out the latest titles as they come in so I’m keeping on top of what’s new in the wording world. And, last but not least, it gets me out of the house. It would be way too easy for me to be a total hermit and stay inside with my laptop all the time. Fresh air is good for the brain!”
Julie Wu, author of The Third Son, says she chose to go to medical school instead of getting an MFA. Though she no longer practices medicine, she says that time was necessary for her writing life.
I actually went to medical school after I reached an impasse in my writing and realized how narrow my life experience was. I’d had a happy childhood in a wealthy Boston suburb, majored in literature at Harvard, and was studying opera. I considered getting an MFA, but thought doing so would keep me in the same insulated, rarefied environment I’d always been in. Being a doctor took me out of that and gave me an intimate relationship with people of all ages and walks of life, at crucial junctures of their lives. It gave me a broader perspective. Maybe if I’d done an MFA my prose would have been absolutely fabulous, but I’d have far less to say. I’d rather be bursting with ideas and convey them slightly less elegantly.
Author Brooks Benjamin (My Seventh Grade Life in Tights) teaches 5th grade in Tennessee, and finds inspiration in his job. “Teaching has always been rewarding, but ever since I began writing, I have discovered that it also guides the voices of my characters in so many ways. My students inspire and motivate me to push for depth, individuality, and complexity with my own characters. Each child is so unique that I can’t help but use them as creative fodder for my projects.”
When you have very limited hours to tackle writing every day, time becomes precious. Benjamin says, “My writing schedule has adapted tremendously to allow me some time in the morning and at night to work. Since the bulk of my day is spent teaching, I have discovered I tend to approach these writing moments the same way I approach writing toward a deadline. The need to focus on the story is heightened and my time wasters tend to get ignored a little more.”
Publishing moves at grandfather turtle speed, as one of my teachers used to say. Sell a book today and often it won’t come out for two years. It can be frustrating to watch the progress, or lack thereof. The life of an author is filled with short times with lots of work, and times with nothing at all to do.
Having a job with quicker deadlines satisfies the need to see completed projects.
Sharpening Writing Skills
Some jobs lend themselves to making your writing generally better. “As a freelance editor I’ve realized I’m a much better editor than writer. This has been so helpful because it has freed me up to write bad first drafts in the sure knowledge that I can put on my editing head and fix everything later,” says Amanda Conran, author of The Lost Celt, book seller and freelance editor. “As a book talker, it’s fascinating to talk about books and see when a character, or an idea really engages my kid audiences. You can hear the gasps of interest.”
Janet Sumner Johnson (The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society) says, “My day job is as a French translator. My job has a lot of overlap with writing because I’m taking someone else’s words and rewriting it while trying to maintain the feel of their words and their voice (vs. taking it over and saying things the way I would want to.). This is a huge help when I work to establish a voice of a character, instead of just saying things the way I would say them. I also think it makes me more aware of how one’s culture can really affect one’s language.”
Do you have a day job? Do you think it helps or inhibits your writing? Would you quit?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!