Four Benefits of Keeping Your Day Job While You Write
By Sharon Dunn
The writer wakes up at 8 a.m. Feeling rested and ready for the day, she dons her Nikes and takes an inspiration filled walk through the forest on her 40-acre spread. After a leisurely breakfast in a sunny nook and a shower, she brews a latte and sits down at her laptop. Hours stretch before her. Coffee and inspiration flow like the Amazon. Story plots hang almost tangibly in the air. They are hers for the taking and remaking. She writes uninterrupted in the idea-laden silence.
Nothing but time to write. Itâ€™s every writerâ€™s dream. But is quitting the regular job really the ideal for a writer? Holding onto the false belief that writing full time is the only way to succeed as a writer is often what keeps some writers from accomplishing anything. Even though Iâ€™ve published three novels and numerous shorter pieces, I have continued to work part time as a tutor at a university. Keeping my day job and squeezing writing in when I can instead of waiting for the ideal of being able to write full time has proven to be rewarding. The benefits of remaining at a job while pursuing the writing dream are numerous.
Less financial pressure means more productivity. A steady predictable paycheck contributes a great deal to peace of mind. Living in a constant state of panic every time a bill arrives makes focusing on various writing projects that much harder. Once you are an established writer, royalty payments still fluctuate. Jim Denney the author of Quit Your Day Job: How to Sleep Late, Do What You Enjoy, and Make a Ton of Money as a Writer! even acknowledges that not everyone is cut out emotionally to write full time. Writers â€œknow that the anxiety and insecurity of the working writer’s life would only dry up their creative juices, so they hang onto the regular paycheck and the 401(k).â€
If it is your dream to succeed as a writer, the best job is not always the one that pays the most. Other factors must be considered. First, does your job have any built in â€œdown timeâ€? During slow times in the semester, I edit my work, brainstorm, and read books about writing while I sit at my tutoring carrel. Indirectly, I am getting paid for honing my craft as a writer. Seasonal work or employment with a school or university provides time when you are not working at all. At my tutoring job, I have a huge break around Christmas as well as summers off.
Because your primary focus is writing, flexibility is another factor to consider when finding a job that fits with writing. Eric Wiggin author of The Hannahâ€™s Island series for girls and The Gift of Grandparenting worked a night job at a fish plant as part of the clean up crew. Eric utilized mornings when his brain functioned best to write. His boss was fairly lenient as to when Eric cleaned as long as the job got done between 5 p.m. and 9 a.m. The write boss is important too. An employer who respects your writing dream is likely to give time off to attend a writersâ€™ conference without requiring an act of congress.
The final thing to ask is does the job fuel creativity or drain it? A high stress job where issues go unresolved, where you often bring work home with you (either literally or emotionally) and have to deal with difficult people usually sends the muse packing. At the university where I tutor, I also spent several semesters teaching. I found that the creative energy I had to put into writing lesson plans and lectures drained me mentally. Sitting down to work on a short story when my eyes were glazed over from reading textbooks and student papers was nearly impossible. For that reason, I stopped teaching. The people interaction I get from tutoring fuels rather than zaps my creativity. For some writers, a physical job offers a nice break from the hard mental work of writing.
A job provides structure causing efficient use of time. Tasks usually expands to the amount of time allotted for them. The problem with having eight to ten hours to write is that it often gives a writer too much wiggle room, making them more likely to procrastinate. It takes a great deal of discipline to use all those hours productively.
Sometimes less time is better. I first started to write when I was pregnant with my oldest son. While my babies were little, my husband watched them for an hour or I wrote while they napped. Knowing that I only had limited time to write made me very productive — no head scratching/chair wiggling/coffee making time allowed. When I sat down to write, I had already mentally brainstormed what my first couple of sentences would be.
Robin Lee Hatcher, author of Beyond the Shadows, worked full time as an office administrator. As a single mom, she was the sole support for her family. She set aside 7 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Saturday mornings to write. â€œI wrote long hand on legal pads in the evenings (no computer back then) and typed the manuscript on the office typewriter on coffee breaks and lunch hours. I wrote in every spare moment I had.â€ Robin structured her writing time around work and family, publishing nine novels before quitting her day job to write full time.
Writers often think the lack of time is what keeps them from being productive. In fact, the barrier is usually something different and claiming lack of time is the excuse. Even the busiest person can find an hour a day to devote to writing if writing is really what they want to do. The question that needs to be asked is not do I have enough time to write, but what I am willing to give up in order to write? How bad do I want to make this dream come true? Planning writing around a work schedule often makes a writer more efficient.
A job keeps you normal and connected to an audience. At a discussion panel of agents at a writersâ€™ conference I attended, one of the agents pointed out that writers who quit their day jobs become weird. The calls to their agents increase and become more emotional and desperate. Even though writing is a solitary activity, human beings, even writers, were designed to interact with other people. If all your coworkers are imaginary (which is what happens when you write fiction) you run the risk of becoming a little eccentric.
The nice thing about having a job to go to is that there is built in interaction with other people. Talking with co-workers about what they are reading gives an idea about trends and what a reader looks for in a book. Even conversations that are not about books indicate the needs, preferences, and issues that people deal with.
Jobs are a treasure chest for ideas and found research. In my first book Romance Rustlers and Thunderbird Thieves part of the mystery revolved around buffalo leaving Yellowstone Park. My job as a tutor involves helping students in beginning composition classes write a persuasive paper. One the studentsâ€™ favorite issues concerns the buffalo wandering out of Yellowstone risking infecting cattle with brucellosis. When the buffalo issue became part of my mystery, I didnâ€™t have to do any outside research to feel like an expert. I had already read a hundred papers on the topic.
Almost any job can be incorporated into a story. Description of a profession becomes real to a reader when details are believable. Working at a job provides insider info that reading about or watching someone else do the job doesnâ€™t. Some of the action for my second book, Sassy Cinderella and the Valiant Vigilante, takes place at a university and has professors as supporting characters.
Even the most mundane work allows opportunity to people watch and gather raw material for characters both in appearance and personality. More than once I have met someone and thought, â€œThat person belongs in a book.â€ Story ideas often come from discussions we engage in and from overheard conversations.
Letâ€™s face it, if all you do is sit in a room and write, pretty soon you will be writing stories about sitting in a room and writing. A â€œrealâ€ job gets you out in the world interacting with people, garnering story ideas while reducing financial stress.
So what would be a more realistic picture of the writerâ€™s ideal life?
A screeching alarm wakes the writer. Red letters glow 5:30 am. Fatigue and the fogginess of sleep whisper seductively for her to stay in bed. Resisting their advances, she throws the covers off and stumbles to the room where her computer waits. She has one hour and thirty minutes before the children wake up. Then she has to get them ready for school and get herself dressed for work. With a glance at the clock, she clicks the power button and opens a file. Coffee would be nice, but there is no time for that. Her fingers touch the keyboard and the magic takes over. For ninety minutes she is lost in the story, sometimes racing to keep up with her thoughts and sometimes pushing through slow passages and poorly chosen words, but always the time is golden, precious because of its scarcity.
â€œMommy, I canâ€™t find any matching socks.â€ Her seven year old stands glassy eyed by the door to her office, which is also her laundry and ironing space. There will be more than socks to find before they can get out the door. There always is. Somehow the chaos of the day and the stress it causes is easier to face when she thinks about coming back again tomorrow morning to sit at the computer and be engulfed by the sacred magic, lost in the world she creates and controls. With a glance at the computer, she grabs the suit she needs for work from the clean laundry pile and turns out the light.
About the author: Sharon Dunn has worked as a tutor at the Writing Center for over 16 years. Her fifth book, "Death of a Six Foot Teddy Bear," was released in January 2008 by a Random House imprint. It is the second book in her Bargain Hunter mystery series. Her second Ruby Taylor mystery, "Sassy Cinderella and the Valiant Vigilante," was voted Book of the Year by American Christian Fiction Writers. You can read more about Sharon and her humorous who-dun-its at www.sharondunnbooks.com.