Like many anti-social addictions, writing requires time and financial support, both of which can be difficult to come by in an artistic career. That’s why most writers rely on a day job to provide a steady income. While writing my novel and my first published stories, I held at least half a dozen very different day jobs. There were times when my jobs hardly allowed me to finish a single story in a year; and there was a year in which I
wrote a whole novel while working. What made the difference?
When writing became a priority for me, I started asking myself what factors in a day job would allow me to do the writing I wanted to do. The answers helped me to make some small transitions in my work situation that made a big difference for my writing.
Below is a discussion of four types of day jobs writers commonly seek to support
their writing: teaching, waiting tables, holding an office job, and working at “life experience” jobs. I wanted to take a look at which aspects of these jobs writers like and don’t like. It’s not always easy to jump from one career to another, but by isolating the elements of jobs that help or get in the way of writing, it might be possible for a writer to turn a tough day job into a productive one.
A lot of writers think of teaching English or writing as their standby day job. The nice thing about teaching is that you get to talk in a serious way, often with interested people, about your passion.
“[Teaching] requires you to read the kinds of things you use as models for
your writing,” says Asali Solomon, a visiting assistant professor at Haverford College
and author of the award-winning short-story collection Get Down (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). And although a fulltime professor’s schedule is demanding, Solomon notes that she has summers off. “My job gives me more time than if I had a 9-to-5 job,” she says.
Teaching jobs are in much shorter supply than they were 20 years ago. If you’re not on a full-time salary, the pay tends to be low, and in my experience, several hours of preparation and grading go into every hour of classroom time.
“Many years ago,” Solomon says, “I decided two things—that I wanted to be a writer, but that I needed to have a job. I thought, get a Ph.D., get a tenure-track job, get tenure, write, no hustle. “But academic life, especially these days, turns out to be more hustling than I expected.”
One benefit of teaching is that it gives you an audience. As a teacher, I’ve found it useful to see what engages students, and what nauseates them. Making students laugh and holding their attention gave me confidence that I could do that in my work. The speaking experience has also helped me make less of a fool of myself when I give readings.
Pros of teaching: talking about writing, learning how to reach an audience, health insurance if you’re full time, a good schedule.
Cons of teaching: salary, the difficulty of finding good positions, grading and preparation time.
If you want to plumb the depths of human despair and frustration, talk to a writer working as a waiter. On the other hand, there’s free food.
I made the most money I’ve made in my life from bartending and waiting tables in New York City. I’d leave a shift with as much cash in my pocket as I’d often get for months of working on a story. But, for the two years I spent waiting tables in New York City, I was constantly tired, constantly stressed, and often unproductive.
What was the problem? I was only working four days a week, making plenty of tips, and I had almost every morning free to write. The issue was that most mornings I’d been up until 2 o’clock the night before, so I wasn’t exactly fresh.
And then the manager would call and ask me to work brunch or come in early for dinner. I never felt I had control over my schedule, and what’s more, the work was physically draining, which doesn’t put you in a great frame of mind for writing.
I talked to writer Vinnie Wilhelm, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in fiction who has published stories in many top literary journals, and he speaks of having a very different experience waiting tables. “The best day job I ever had was waiting tables in San Francisco,” Wilhelm says. “The good things for me were: It was mostly at night, so I could write during the day; it was social; and it was physical. It provided all the things writing doesn’t provide. I often found that, after sitting in my room all day writing, I was
eager to wait tables.”
The positive aspects Wilhelm mentions about waiting tables do resonate with me. When you’re writing all day, it’s a relief to get out of the apartment, move around, and talk to people. Since I had more trouble with the scheduling and fatigue, I found that working for caterers helped with that. I could take the jobs I wanted, and pass on the ones I didn’t. And the work was less challenging, if more boring. That small change gave me a lot more control over my schedule, and helped me to get more writing done.
Pros of waiting tables: salary, the social aspect, the physical exercise it provides, free alcohol.
Cons of waiting tables: exhaustion, stress, lack of control over schedule, free alcohol.
I’ve never held a 9-to-5 office job but have always been curious how well that type of job works for a writer. I’d heard that the great Irish writer William Trevor wrote his first two novels while working at an ad agency. The poet Wallace Stevens held a job for decades at an insurance company, and refused to give up this job even when he won the Pulitzer Prize and was offered a faculty position at Harvard. I wondered what I was missing.
Rachel Pastan, author of Lady of the Snakes (Houghton Mifflin) and a fulltime staff writer for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, says she’s found a lot of advantages for writing in her office job.
“I spent a lot of years alone in a room with myself,” she says, “and now that I’m out in the world, I find I have more ideas. I have learned about new parts of the world, and spent time with different kinds of people. I also feel more happiness and gratitude when I do get in that room by myself.”
Pastan points out that it makes a big difference that she enjoys what her employer does. “I like working at a place that cares as passionately about art as I do—it makes me happy, and it makes me feel that making my own art is important, too. By contrast, when I worked at [a company that made corrugated cardboard], it was hard not to feel that life was dull and pointless.”
I wondered if it was difficult to keep a writing schedule while working 9 to 5.
“I like the structure of the working day,” Pastan says. “I used to have lots of tedious rituals I had to go through before I I could start writing, but now I find I can sit in the storage room at my lunch hour and just write the whole time.”
But Pastan says there are drawbacks to the schedule. “I do have some time to write, sometimes 10 hours a week, which is about the same as I had when my children were babies—though if I were deep in a novel, I doubt that it would feel like enough.”
Because of the lack of writing time, Pastan found that she needed to alter her schedule. “After a year, they gave me a special arrangement,” she says. “I go in late Mondays and Wednesdays and make up the time nights and weekends. Fridays I work from home, so I can use the two hours of commuting time to write.”
Pros of office jobs: an appreciation of writing time, more efficient use of writing time, the structure of a schedule, health insurance.
Cons of office jobs: less time overall to write, they’re tedious when you don’t care about what the company does.
‘Life experience’ jobs
Joseph Conrad had a stint in the merchant marines. Anton Chekhov was a doctor. Pearl Buck taught in China.
There’s a long-standing idea among writers that a day job can be a means of achieving the life experience writers explore in their novels. But does working in a quirky or dramatic environment actually give you material for writing?
I’ve held several jobs that loosely fall into this category: one as an overnight
supervisor at a homeless shelter in Cambridge, Mass.; another as a lounge pianist
at a Chinese hotel. During the job in Cambridge, I hardly wrote, because half the week I was staying up all night, and I could never get my sleep schedule in order. When I worked at the hotel in China, I was able to write my novel most days, because I only played in the evenings. I’ve never been able to write well about either job experience.
Wilhelm, who has taken several “life experience” jobs, including a job in a traveling carnival, has found the same to be true for himself. “I don’t recall ever having a job that fed me experiences for writing,” he says. “And I’ve tried to have jobs tailored to that. It just didn’t work. I never process things the way I expect to.”
In both our cases, we’ve found that the factors that matter more in a day job are the schedule and nature of the work, rather than the material it offers. The material has come from unexpected places. I developed the character of one authority figure in my novel based on a boss I had for a catering job. Similarly, Wilhelm has been surprised to find that he’s written about writers and waiters in his fiction.
When you’re doing any job, you come up against experiences of tension, humor and sadness, and the fact of being surprised by them often makes them more powerful than a dramatic experience you’ve actually sought out.
Pros of ‘life experience’ jobs: being able to say that you have done something unique.
Cons of ‘life experience’ jobs: less material than expected, often tough schedules or work environments that get in the way of writing.
So what are the factors that matter most in a writer’s day job? The writers I spoke to agree that having consistent, predictable spaces of time to write is a must. Most writers find mornings more productive than other parts of the day, because they have more energy and fewer distractions, but there are some who enjoy coming home to a manuscript, like a gin and tonic, in the evenings.
And they agreed on something else. “Not worrying about health insurance can also help you write” is how Solomon puts it. It takes a big stress off a freelancer to know that an employer is providing health coverage and standard benefits.
Many writers appreciate the variation a day job offers from the routines of writing: the social aspect, the physicality. Wilhelm goes as far as to say, “The worst day job you can have as a writer is one that’s writing-related.”
It also appears that an important factor for all these writers is that they enjoy or care about the jobs they do outside writing. It’s a drag to go into a job that feels meaningless, and this sense of meaning or purpose seems to do a lot toward keeping an optimistic attitude in general, which is one of the largest challenges of writing.
This was instructive to me, since I’d always looked at day jobs as a hassle, an obstacle in the way of writing. I’d thought that the most important criterion was that the job provide the most money in the least time. But it was much more helpful when I started to look at the job as part of a lifestyle in which I was writing, and to try to adjust the jobs I currently held to increase the amount and quality of the writing time I had.
While different jobs work well for different writers, there seems to be some agreement on the qualities they find helpful in a day job. If you’re unhappy with the amount of writing you’re able to get done in your current day job, look at these factors in considering a new one:
• Consistent time to write in the mornings (or the most productive time of day)
• Control over scheduling
• A benefits package
• A social environment
• Physical movement
• Satisfaction in what you’re doing
• Time with friends, family or loved ones
This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.