How I learned to stop worrying and tolerate the day job.

Eden Robins writes what she has just decided to call quirky fantasy or “quirkpunk.”  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.  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.    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.  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.    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.    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.

13 comments on “How I learned to stop worrying and tolerate the day job.

  1. Adam says:

    What exactly is ‘quirkpunk?’ I love the term. Could you list a few examples?

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I’m with you on 2-5 (though my job doesn’t fit 4 and 5), but for me, 1 isn’t true. I wrote a lot when I was a reporter – something about it being a different kind of writing, and so much of a reporter’s job being not-writing, made it not feel like all I ever did was put words on paper. (I now write web copy, which is at least as creative as newspaper writing was.) From what other people have said over the years I suspect more lean your way than mine, though.

  3. deborahb says:

    I concur! Though I’d love to change that 10am to 12noon. ;)

    My 4-day working week means I have 2 *mornings* off, rather than 1 full day. In a full day, I might run out of writing steam. But across 2 mornings I can be much more productive. It’s the most efficient word-production schedule I’ve experienced & I love it.

  4. I have to disagree with 1a. Did that, and it was as though language had turned on me – that which had been joyful and sly had become suddenly dead, sanitized and corporatized. My god, just thinking about those two years makes me cringe. But on the other points I generally agree.

    I remember people telling me that teaching was a good job for writers, health insurance, summers off, blah, blah, blah – and maybe that’s true if the school you teach at is like the one from Dead Poet’s society, but is less true if you’re teaching stressed-out low-income kids. In my first year of teaching seventh grade I had one student who was killed in a gang fight, two who committed crimes and landed in jail (one was tried as an adult), three students pregnant, and one “lovingly coerced” into a cultural, though not legal, marriage (the note I confiscated to her ex-boyfriend explaining the situation still haunts me to this day). Add that to the daily fights, shouting matches, threats and bullying happening in the hallways (oh! and that was the year of the Blow-Job Club – oh, god! Teh rememories! Teh horrors!)Emotional exhaustion is a real thing and it can kill fiction.

    For me, really, the turning point was when we realized that once we hit three kids, our childcare costs eclipsed my teaching salary, so I stayed home instead. When my whole day revolved around pretend games, made up stories and made up songs, I found it was not that difficult to catch bits of it at the end of the day and pin them to the page.

  5. That’s definitely a good set of guidelines; I’ve begun to wonder if there will be a time before retirement when I can write full-time, so it’s more than ever important to find ways to be okay with the dayjob while still being fully engaged in the fiction writing, and, to a lesser extent for me, the career side of it. I had a pretty perfect dayjob…and then the center where I worked was defunded. Now it’s more of a struggle, and some days are definitely better than others. I would so love to find a job that didn’t start until ten, because I used to write in the mornings, too…

  6. DeskJobWriter says:

    Posting anonymously for perhaps obvious reasons, but I’ve had two professional jobs in between/after my MFA and they were both of the worst “look busy” desk job variety–the work itself was ok, but just not sufficient to fill up an 8/9 hour work day. To me, this is terrific and ideal: all I need to write is a word processor, and at both of these jobs I got both my work done, and more writing done than I did when I was completing my MFA. Perhaps my employers wouldn’t like the sound of it–writing on the clock–and, of course, I would prefer to live a more honest life and just straight-out write full time, but it works for me. What my coworkers see as time to get caught up on their hulu watching, I see as time to write novels. Bonus: I always look busy.

    I taught during graduate school, and found that the effort I had to expend to be a halfway decent teacher (and most TAs and adjuncts, in my experience, perhaps justifiably aren’t) was energy that I much rather would have put into my own writing. I felt that my students deserved a teacher who wasn’t distracted, who didn’t view them as an impediment to doing what she really wanted to do. I couldn’t stand how my evenings weren’t my own, either–I was always grading. Desk jobs are better for that, too. Your evenings belong to you, to do with as you please.

  7. Kristan says:

    Yay, I intuitively found a job that satisfies all but #4, but I do work slightly reduced hours (8:30 am to 4:30 pm). Woohooo!

    In all seriousness, though, my professors gave me much of this advice before I graduated, and I… didn’t listen. So for a year, I worked a full time job in a creative field that left me exhausted. It was really hard to take the leap and quit that job, but I did it, and it’s been marvelous for my writing.

    Great advice. :)

  8. It takes all kinds, obviously, but I’m in the middle of Going Back To School for the 3rd time and I am crazy-ass busy; but I am also in the process of being insanely productive, more productive by far than at any other point, including traveling the world, living on other continents “writing” full time, working a mindless technical job, working a mindless non-technical job, and hanging around cafes unemployed. I have pretty much been at every possible point in the employment column space.

    Now, I’ve had trouble sleeping for most of my adult life. Since the semester started, it’s never happened, not once, owing to profound mental exhaustion every single day. And yet there’s this productivity to account for. So here’s what I think is the trick, so far: 1) the thing for which you Go Back To School has to honest-to-god matter. You have to think it means something and is important. If it’s just a delaying tactic I don’t think it will work. The CSCI PhD attempt fell into this category and could not have been a worse failure. 2) write in the mornings. I think this is everything. There’s no f’ing way I would write a single damn thing if I had to do it after I came home. No way. Right now I do it before I do anything else, and in those moments the story has my entire mind to itself.

    Between those two things I have struck a very happy medium, writing-wise, and it’s working the way nothing else ever has. So I would advise anybody to take that creative and exhausting job, if it matters to you, even if you’re working every waking moment, so long as the first bunch of waking moments are occupied with your fiction.

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