Eden Robins writes what she has just decided to call quirky fantasy or “quirkpunk.”Â She is also co-founder of Brain Harvest: An Almanac of Bad-Ass Speculative Fiction and lives in Chicago where she dreams of advances in non-dairy cheese technology. Her day job is pretty cool, but she’d still like to quit it someday.
In honor of Jeff’s thoughtful and helpful new guide to the writing life, Booklife, I thought I would offer my own less helpful advice on living through the life before you get to the good stuff.
I’ve seen a lot of advice from writers about day jobs — when to quit, when not to quit, how to quit, how to deal with the aftermath of quitting/not quitting — in fact, most of the advice I’ve come across deals with that exciting time when a writer has to decide when and if to take off the training wheels of day jobbery.Â This, I’m sorry to say, is not helpful to me. I am not anywhere near a place where I can quit my day job, though I certainly one day hope to be. Nevertheless, I have to live my life now and not then, and so do most aspiring writers that I know.
So how do you manage those eight or so hours a day where your time doesn’t belong to you? So many writers I know hate their day jobs, but this really shouldn’t be the case. Surely there’s a way to work on your dreams while not dreading half of your waking life?
I don’t have a perfect solution, but over the course of the past several years, I’ve honed a set of rules for myself in choosing a job I can live off of while still enjoying myself, relatively speaking of course. Few writers desperately want to be at their day jobs. If we did, we would make them our regular, for-real jobs. Note that these rules are not applicable to everyone — just me — but I encourage others in a similar boat to come up with their own.
But before I get on with my rules, I’d like to take a brief moment to talk about the day job choice of Going Back to School. When I first decided to become a writer, I thought A-ha! What I will do is Go Back to School for something utterly unrelated to writing. This is not a terrible choice in and of itself, but it was a terrible choice for me. I didn’t think it through, and I ended up starting and then quitting a master’s program in which I had no business enrolling. But this tactic can work for people who are very good at managing time and multitasking several different projects and ideas at once. Particularly if they study something in the field that they enjoy writing. Every so often I think about this idea with yearning, so perhaps someday I will Go Back to School and become an Expert in something that I enjoy writing about. But until that day, here are my rules for choosing and thriving in a day job:
1. It must be unrelated to writing. I’ve found, and maybe you have too, that people who know you’re a writer are always trying to get you to be a newspaper reporter (or, at least, they were… when there were still newspapers). If you’re funny, they tell you to write for Saturday Night Live. If you’re politically-inclined, they tell you to be a speechwriter. Personally, there is nothing more exhausting to me than writing all day and then coming home and writing some more. If I just enjoyed putting words to paper, I would do something other than fiction, trust me. As it is, I just like writing fiction.
1a. The exception to this rule is what I have heard called “word math.” This is basically writing that doesn’t take much creative initiative, or writing about a subject that you know so well that it takes almost no energy to do. Curriculum, web copy, press releases, that sort of thing. Word math.
2. It must be interesting, but not too interesting. Have you ever wondered how you can sit all day from 9-5 doing absolutely nothing and then come home and be utterly exhausted? Me too. That is a definite day job no-no. On the other hand, a job that is too exciting, keeping you on your toes every moment of the day is, by definition, exhausting. So you have to find a happy medium. Something that keeps your interest in a low-level, Flight of the Conchords in the background kind of way.
3.Â Â Â It can’t make me dread getting out of bed every day. Tough one, right? I don’t have to look forward to work, but I can’t want to burrow a hole in my mattress either.Â A lot of times, people will tell you to get a job that has “interesting characters” that you can “take notes on.” Well, for me anyway, it doesn’t take a lot of “interesting characters” to make me want to burrow a hole in my mattress. It may sound like good research potential to work as a dental receptionist or a singing waitress but it loses its luster very quickly.
4.Â Â Â It can’t start before 10 am, and it can’t include weekends. Don’t roll your eyes at me. These are my rules. I’m happy to work late, but I want my mornings and weekends free. I do most of my writing in the morning before work, so the more time I have, the more writing I do. It’s important to know and work with your strengths.
5.Â Â Â Ideally, it would involve a four day week and health insurance. Now you really hate me. But I’m trying to make a point here. Make rules you can live with and try and find a way to make them work for you.
I’ve actually managed to find a job that follows all of these rules, but it has taken a long time, and I’ve had to hone these rules through trial and error. It’s not perfect. I still get bored/tired/cranky/wistful/envious about a future that doesn’t exist yet in which I am endlessly prolific in my writing and money/happiness/accolades rain from the sky. But the fact is unless you have a trust fund, you have to have a day job. This day job will take up a lot of your time, so you should probably find a way to enjoy it. And though I can’t say from experience, I would bet that enjoying your day job now will make the transition to a full-time writing life much smoother — because if you’re not constantly dreaming about your success and how glorious and full of singing angels it will be, you’re less likely to be disappointed by the fact that being a full-time writer is a day job too.