Day Jobs

In my day job, I’m a career counselor, so I’m going to put on that hat for a moment.

It’s virtually impossible to live as a full-time writer these days. Once upon a time, I’m told writers could actually survive off the money made from short story sales, which boggles my mind — but that was long ago, in a time when rent wasn’t 50% of the average American’s budget and you could buy a full meal for a few cents. In other words, ancient history. I’m probably a typical example of a modern full-time writer in that I’m intermittently full-time. My book deal was a nice one; I’m very pleased and lucky to have it (and my phenomenal agent). But even with that, I could only afford to be a full-time writer for 3 months, which have now passed, so I’m back to working part-time. If my financial planning works out, I’ll be able to take a few more months off next year when my book debuts, and maybe do a mini-tour. After that, unless the book is a best-seller or I get another deal, it’s back to work.

I’ve always known I would have to go back to work, though, because I made some conscious choices that virtually guaranteed it — I kept living in expensive New York, for example, rather than moving to some nice cheap place in lower Boondockia somewhere (which would’ve only delayed my return to work, not prevented it). But the prospect of returning to work part-time or full-time doesn’t horrify me, because I’m one of those folks who actually enjoys her day job.

I can’t stress how important this is for a writer. We all need day jobs, unless we’re independently wealthy; we’ve got bills to pay. But we need to make certain the day job is, in some way, servicing our primary goal of being a writer. Think about it: if you’re working a typical 40-hour/week job, you’re not just working 40 hours/week. Think about how much time you’re spending on the commute. A 1-hour, one-way commute = 10 hours of your week! And what about time spent ironing your clothes for work the next day, or making lunches. Working at home. Answering calls and emails at all hours via your Crackberry. Thinking about work, late at night when you can’t sleep. My guess is that the average 9-to-5er is actually putting in about 60 hours/week; they’re just not getting paid for 20 of them. Adding up all that time, most Americans spend one-third of their lives at work. And the people who actually do work 60 hours/week? I don’t know how they do it and stay sane.

If you’re going to spend that much time on something, shouldn’t it help, not hinder, the other parts of your life?

As a career counselor, I had a couple of career paths open to me: corporate life, academia, and government employment. I would’ve made more money — by far — in the corporate track. Still would’ve done okay in the government track, especially after a few years. But I chose the least lucrative of those career paths: academia. My first job after grad school was $20,000/year. I survived on crappy cheap food and furnished my first apartment via yard sales. (Wish I’d known about Freecycle back then.) I lost a lot of sleep wondering how I was going to eat and pay for heat and get my aging car fixed, and worrying over whether the people at work noticed I was wearing the same 6 or 7 outfits, rotated carefully. I cried a lot. It wasn’t fun.

Why did I do this to myself, especially when I had a choice? For one reason: working in academia made it easy to write. First off, most full-time professional positions are less than 40 hours per week. The usual is 35 — they don’t pay you for lunch. Which encouraged me to write or edit during my lunch hours; hey, it was my time anyway. By contrast most of the folks I knew who’d gone into the corporate world were working 50 to 55 hours per week. The government folks were doing a little better, but they spent those hours swamped and majorly stressed; those were the years when there was a big push to “cut spending” in Washington, which meant that most government offices stopped hiring even though they desperately needed staff. So they just worked the staff they had that much harder.

Most of my positions had flex time, so I usually chose to work 10 to 6 so that I could get up in the morning and write before work. Other useful benefits included free classes — which I took advantage of when I needed to do some research for a short story or novel. Also, unlike many corporate positions, most universities have a culture of self-directed productivity; no one cares how you use your time as long as the work gets done well. I suspect a lot of the things that companies do to “maximize productivity” and discourage employees from doing anything but work at work really just encourage employees to dither over their work to keep from being bored. I was never bored; I learned to work efficiently and fast so that I could complete projects quickly — and use the leftover time to write, edit, etc.

On top of that, I loved my co-workers, who knew about my writing career and were supportive. I was genuinely fulfilled by working with students. I didn’t exactly get up smiling every morning — not a morning person — but I did leave work most days feeling like I’d Done Something Good, For Good People. That sense of satisfaction was important, because it helped me dredge up the energy to sometimes spend an hour or two more writing in the evenings after a long day and grinding commute. I’ve had bad jobs — yeah, even career counselors pick duds sometimes — and that’s how I know they’re bad: when I come home in the evening and just want to stare at a TV, gab on the phone, or do something mindless and non-creative to relax. Any job that saps my creativity is a job I know I won’t be in long.

This is not to say, note, that I think a writer has to impoverish him/herself or jump from job to job in search of the perfect creative environment. That worked for me; others’ mileage may vary. I’m just saying that those of us who consider ourselves foremost writers must make certain our day jobs suit the writer’s life — or adapt ourselves so that our day jobs don’t overwhelm the creative impulse. I’ve known writers who were Wall Street analysts, after all; the best one I knew only had time to write for an hour on Sunday afternoons, and then only when the market was up.

But she did write.

3 Responses to “Day Jobs”

  1. March 22, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    I enjoyed this very much – thank you.

  2. 2 mlronald
    March 22, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    Thank you for this. I’ve pretty much reconciled myself to always having some kind of day job, but one of the things that it took some pounding to learn was that I couldn’t have a day job that ate my brain and still expect to write well. I had to have enough emotional stability during the day that my subconscious could use the time to process some of the ideas I had, and I can’t do that if I’m stressed or unhappy at work.

    (That said, the day job is currently eating my brain, but I’ve been there long enough to know that it’s a temporary thing. And that’s heartening.)

  3. March 26, 2009 at 1:06 am

    I was very much struck by Cormac McCarthy’s decision to work at nothing except his writing; he endured poverty and privation so as to not do anything else, and I think it was this monomania which eventually caused his first two divorces. There were times he couldn’t even afford a new toothbrush, but still he persisted in doing little more than house sitting for others or the like so as to focus full time on his novels. Inspiring and terrible both, I feel, in that it demonstrates the level of sacrifice necessary to be a full time writer in this age.

    This is a very wise post, nkjemisin, but still presents a bitter pill to swallow; though I enjoy teaching middle school more than any other job I’ve held (which range from working in factories to mortgage brokering, from being a janitor to a corporate blog manager), I still dream of being a full time writer. Fully aware of the challenges inherent in the lack of structure, and the inspiration I derive from working outside my home and being ‘in’ the world, as opposed to out of it, ensconced within my bedroom typing. But ah, the ascetic dream of removal and isolation, pure focus and unlimited productivity! Even if it’s just a mirage, it’s a damned attractive one.

    I think I’m the only person I know within my circle of friends who aspires to be sufficiently successful in their dream career that they can subsist just above the poverty line while pursuing it. Everybody else dreams of promotions and money, bigger apartments and vacations to Barcelona. But ah! To be able to simply and indefinitely cover rent, health insurance, food and transportation on the most basic of levels, and just write, write write write! Now that would be a dream come true.

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