Throughout May I have been finding it difficult or not so difficult to write depending on how much I was thinking about my day job. Or rather, my hope for a day job, since I’ve been looking for summer employment. Just this week I got a job cleaning houses. How…bittersweet. I’ll have money to support myself, but my writing is at the whim of my work schedule once again. I think everyone should have to do something in the service industry like cleaning houses (waiting tables, painting, whatever). As my boss said on Monday, the world would be a 200% better place if everyone spent at least one summer working in a restaurant. I also like jobs that give me some variety so that I can separate my writing time from my work, although this can move in the opposite direction too — sometimes jobs that differ too much from my writing pull me away from what is most important to me. This particular job gives me intermittent access to the interior lives of strangers, which is fantastic for a fiction writer. You can tell so much about people through the objects in their homes. (The moral here is don’t hire writers to clean for you if you don’t want to appear in their work.)
Still, it’s always depressing to forfeit the writing-centric lifestyle of an MFA student and composition instructor for random temp work. It’s like having a year-long dream that you are a real writer and a real teacher with something like a steady paycheck and then waking up to find out you’re actually back in the summer between your sophomore and junior year of high school working two menial part-time jobs for cash, only this time you have the added stress of paying bills. I mean, great things happened that summer. Great things will happen this summer. I’d just prefer to spend most of it in my writing/teaching dream.
What brought me back out of my day job malaise was Aine Greany’s “Writer with a Day Job” Exclusive, interviews with 20 writers who have day jobs mostly outside of teaching. Nurses, shoe saleswomen, the former marketing manager of a Fortune 500 Company: all carve out time to write while working other jobs. Some authors wake at 4 a.m. to get it done; others work on weekends; still others write on the subway. Some just work when they can. My favorite interview was with M. A. Harper, who told Greany “Whenever I let something come between me and writing, I don’t beat myself up about it. Discipline is overrated. A writer is not a monk. How can you reflect life if you don’t live one?” Harper also says that she doesn’t seek a balance of time as long as her day job requires as little intellect and creativity as possible, so that she can save that kind of energy for her writing. I have to agree that the day job should not drain too much of one’s mental energy, and that it’s often best if it requires zero intellect; the better to gather ideas while organizing sales displays, etc. It’s also refreshing to hear from at least one writer who is not a daily superhero, because 4 a.m.? Not a chance.
Worth noting: many of the people interviewed quit their day jobs to write full time once they were able, showing that trying to manage two careers is not an ideal situation. But most writers don’t get that lucky, so it’s inspiring to hear from people who have made it work.
Famous writers have held odd jobs, as evidenced by Flavorwire’s 2011 article “Strange Day Jobs of Authors Before They Were Famous” and a string of similar online posts. George Saunders once worked in a slaughterhouse, and Harper Lee sold tickets for an airline before she published To Kill a Mockingbird. Like most writers, I find this information gratifying. It means they were/are real people who needed/need food and shelter too, and they still wrote books, and so there is hope.
As for me, I’ll be listening to This Side of Paradise on my iPod (courtesy of Books Should Be Free) or absorbing my coworkers’ stories about their lives while I mop floors and scrub sinks this summer. This job isn’t totally unsuited to my personality either; I like to clean. So when I come home and want to scrub my own sinks, I’ll have to remember this woman’s wise words…
…and get to work on my writing.
What kinds of day jobs have you had, or do you have? How do you manage your writing time around them?
To read more from Aine Greaney on this subject, visit her blog: Writer with a Day Job.