Wednesdays on Writing: The Day Job

February 9th, 2011

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine mentioned a part-time, flex-time opening in her office, which happens to be at my health club. A few hours a week for barely any money, but some really great perks. “Interested?” she asked. Why not, I said, thinking the pay would at least offset tennis lessons for the boys, and entice me to work out more often. Next thing I knew, I was hired.

It’s been a long time since I”ve had a “regular” job.  It’d be a stretch to call this gig one, but it’s been a refresher course in what a regular job entails. There was a formal application process (under “average current salary,” I answered, “not very much, to a lot”). There’s a dress code (no jeans, which throws me into a wardrobe crisis every day I have to go to work). There’s a punch clock, and an expectation of punctuality. There are coworkers, and customers.

I don’t know how long it will last. My schedule will be busy and erratic around the time my book comes out this spring, and I’ve given my blessing should they find someone more motivated and dependable than me. But for now, it’s perfect. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

The months between writing a book and seeing the final product are a long walk through a strange land. There’s hyperbolic press material. There’s a lot of writing and reading about one’s self in third person. There are flat stretches of silence interrupted by sudden, dizzying heights. Your ear becomes attuned to buzz. Your eye becomes fixated on a distant point. At the office, things are concrete and immediate. Do this. Do that. Done. At the office, nobody (besides my friend) knows or cares about my amazon pre-orders or what author has said something wonderful about my book. At the office, I get to say, over and over, “How can I help you?”

Call it a practice, if you want. I call it a godsend.

There’s another significant perk to the position. Every writer dreams of arriving at the point where they can quit their day job. All in all, that’s a good and desirable thing. But it’s equally good and desirable to keep a foot firmly planted outside the world of letters. There’s something stale and airless about writing that only draws from the writing life. If it were up to me, no one could enter an MFA program without substantial experience working in a completely unrelated field: banking, roughnecking, bartending, whatever. Anything but writing, studying or teaching literature. As a matter of fact, while we’re putting me in charge, let’s extend it to all the arts, and the professions, too.

There’s a lot to be said for the advanced degree. Take it from me, a college drop out (and the queen of dumb questions I would know the answers to, had I gone to graduate school). But I personally think an internship as a secretary, taxi driver, stripper, stock broker, ditch digger or dog walker is going to serve your writing–and your humanity–far better.

12 Responses to “Wednesdays on Writing: The Day Job”

  1. Great post on maintaining reality while living in the world of words. Excited for you and your book!

  2. Melissa Mc says:

    I think shelving books for minimal money falls into the latter category.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I agree with you here. Life feeds the writing. And, anyway, I’ve always had a hard time picking just one thing to BE. My interests range far and wide, and honestly, they’re fickle and indiscriminate at times. Right now, I’m starting a business that has nothing to do with writing, and I’m looking for a day job at the same time. It all takes its greedy measure of my time, and it will for a long time. It should. But I know, always, that I will circle back around to the writing.

    If only I’d had the good sense to be a stripper when I still had my figure. 😉

  4. TrudyJ says:

    “But it’s equally good and desirable to keep a foot firmly planted outside the world of letters. There’s something stale and airless about writing that only draws from the writing life.”

    I agree with this totally. I stayed home from work (teaching, in my case) when my kids were small, to dedicate myself to kid-raising and writing — two full-time jobs right there. When they both went off to school, I was making relatively decent money as a freelancer, and intended to continue doing that — being a stay-at-home fulltime writer.

    But I went back to teaching instead, because I did feel the need of that something else, that contact with the outside world, to feed the writer-brain. And it’s worked out, mostly. Except for the few writers who make a living wage off book royalties alone, most “full-time writers” have to take on writing jobs just as mudane, bizarre, and demeaning as anything the “working world” could demand of you, to bring in enough cash to support the creative side of writing. If it’s a choice between writing someone’s promotional pamphlets and their annual reports, or teaching English to adult learners — knowing that in either case I’ll be tucking novel-writing in around the edges of my free time — I’ll take the job that gives me some contact with other people on a daily basis.

  5. Bev says:

    Writer or not I’ve believed for many decades that EVERYONE should be required to work with the public for a year or two early in their work life. If everyone could experience how people behave from “the other side of the counter” there might be less meanness directed toward others in many situations throughout life.

  6. KyranP says:

    Trudy, I think you said it better than I could. I hate to see creative writers go into advertising and other close-but-not-really fields that use up all their energy for their own writing. It’s a very rare individual who can do both.

  7. erniebufflo says:

    I’m SO glad I spent a few years as a professional phone-answerer before I decided to go to grad school. It helped me realize that I really did want to go to school to be an English professor, and makes me realize what a luxury it is to be able to go to school and talk about books every day. Plus, one day I can write a novel about a bunch of crazy art professors who try their secretary’s sanity.

  8. rowena says:

    ITA, say I, as I am getting ready to go to my part time job as a waitress. I think the whole world should spend some time doing some sort of service job. Not only is it good for creativity, but it’s good for the soul.

  9. Schmutzie says:

    I work as a part-time shoe salesperson to maintain my social sanity and insure rent, and I’m so glad I do. It keeps me even keel.

  10. path says:

    “How vain is it to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

    Henry David Thoreau

  11. Kim Duke says:

    Greetings from Canada!

    Kyran – stumbled upon your article in Good Housekeeping (I think – hard to say from the mountain of ripped out magazine pages on my bedroom floor!)

    As I live in the country, surrounded by dandelions (we’ve resorted to seeing them as SALAD) – your blog title cracked me up…and I loved the deep roots bit.

    You’re so right – if you want to write – you really need a well of weird and normal jobs to add depth, whimsy and insight to your work. Hmmm could I add meter reader, chicken plucker, TV advertising sales woman, and entrepreneur to your list?

  12. […] part-time job I spent 8% of my time on (4-8 hours a week) is ostensibly to cover my membership at the fitness […]

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