We Need To Talk About…Day Jobs and Money

I tweeted the following – it’s as simple as this

So, what is it about articles about writers and writing not talking about the Day Job?

I’ve just read an article about writing rituals. It had a series of writers talking about how they work for x amount of hours in the day, starting in the morning, or if they’ve become parents (well mothers, because men don’t get asked about parenting as much) how that has all changed. Nowhere, anywhere, did anyone mention “well at 7.45 /8 / 8.30 I commute to a demanding job and work there until 5 and then come home and stare at the computer for an hour or so trying to pull it together.”

We Live on Love and Fresh Air

The necessity of work – and even successful novelists often have to return to the workplace after a while – is elided and glossed over. One gets the impression that when one moves into this sphere, one is in some sort of rarefied cultural vacuum where there are sashed windows and teak bookshelves and Bach playing over speakers. The writer who puts on work clothes, sensible shoes, enters an office with large modern glass windows, possibly for a corporation or a government or a semi-state body, and spends all day being a completely different person talking about, well in my case, IT stuff – she isn’t a body included by such articles.

I don’t believe the writers in this article really do inhabit the Bach-playing sphere (if they do, I’m delighted for them :)) I’m guessing many of them make the same sacrifices the rest of us make. But there’s maybe an unspoken encouragement not to highlight these sacrifices and to instead pretend one can maintain the writing life without the struggles of day work, or the endless encouragement (and sometimes financial support) of an understanding partner. That’s why I was delighted when Caitriona Lally, author of new novel Eggshells, recently wrote an article of her struggle to find jobs. All right, her problem was the lack of work rather a surfeit of it, but it was so damn refreshing to read an article where jobs actually got mentioned.

(I get there are some people who do mention jobs, and they’re the “You’ve Got to MAKE Time” team. These folks drive me more up the wall than the ones who don’t mention jobs at all. No matter how busy you are, they say, you can always make a little time to write in your downtime, or between tasks, or early in the morning, why look at me, I’ve ten kids and I work for Google and I always make sure to make time and…oh do bog off. My brain is not a ping pong ball; for me, it takes time to switch from one mode to the other. It very nearly fried my brain back in 2013. Subsequently I took five months out of work to finish the edits for White Feathers and I’m glad I gave them my proper attention, because that was the least my editor and future readers deserved. But thanks for playing.)

Fiction

Another problem is, if you have a philosophy of not mentioning the role of work in a writer’s life, you can end up with a lot of jobless, inexplicably well-off people wandering around fiction. People who have dead-end jobs can live in wealthy suburbs with no querying about the mortgage, or travel places when they’re too broke even to afford Ryanair. The lack of money, the need to have enough, is a powerful driver of ambition and choice; ignoring it is disingenuous. Historical fiction writers have a particularly hard time of it with currency and inflation, but it’s something we all need to be aware of. A character’s job, loved or hated, is part of what gives them an extra dimension.

Alain de Botton was right to say that work has both pleasures and sorrows. It can break your heart and yet it keeps food on the table. Most writers work, and this is a truth that needs to be as universally acknowledged as that of a man of means in search of Elizabeth Bennett.

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18 Comments

  1. I completely get this. I gave up my full time job last year to write, because the job took over my brain. As you say it’s not about making time, the creativity just begins to peel away. I’m now working in a much less demanding part-time job and I’m writing or editing most days. The jury is still out as to whether I can afford to keep my house on! Is there a perception that you’re not a “real writer” unless you do nothing else? Some writers seem to spend as much time networking as I do working. It’s hard to find a balance between the need for money and the need to write.

    1. Thanks, Annette and welcome! Yes, networking is a whole nother demanding and exhausting skill. A relative who has to do a lot of it told me it was very much a learned skill, and I’d agree. I’m not good at it, but I pushed myself a bit because I realised I’d have to fight for my novel. It’s a good book with a strong story and it’s truly worth fighting for, so I had to get over myself and push myself out there. And then there’s also the pesky earning a living thing too…I guess the only plus point is that the publishers will be delighted you’re too busy to keep bothering them with requests for copies for this and that 😉

  2. Hi Susan,
    I know for myself, I am VERY fortunate in being retired. That means I have the time to write If I think back to my working life, I would have found it desperately difficult to try to write. The change of concentration from one subject (work) to another can be intense.
    Add in the requirements of any young family, and it truly becomes amazing how many people DO manage to produce commercial fiction while holding down a salaried job and raising kids.

    A fellow RNA member made the point to me that MANY of the membership are 1 divorce away from penury. If they had to write to support their family, pay the mortgage, run a car, etc. they would find it very hard indeed. If you are retired and on a pension, or if your partner can produce enough to keep you both, then great – and you are truly lucky -and I really do wish you every success.

    No one should go into the world of writing fiction from ground zero with the expectation of making a fortune. It’s small money, but masses of effort.

    Doesn’t stop us trying though! 😉

    Cheers

    John

    1. Indeed John. My last contract was quite intense and not much writing got done during that time. Something had to give. And it can take a long time to see a return. I respect publishers too for investing and taking the risk as it’s a tough business.

      And with retirement, the future of my generation is less assured, and the generation coming up behind me less secure still.

      I guess we keep going because we’re idealists or masochists, or we love what we do 🙂

  3. Great post which I could relate to in so many ways. I did what everyone tells you not to do and gave up the day job to take a year out and study for an MLitt in Creative Writing. The year gave me a chance to focus 100% on writing but I was always aware that it was temporary luxury and it felt self-indulgent to allow my writing goals to impact on the family’s finances. I am back working, albeit part-time so I’m trying to strike the balance between work and writing which isn’t always an easy combo.

    1. Hi Helen! I think my Masters in Writing helped me a lot, but then again I had no dependents, so I understand the struggle it must have been for you to take that risk when perhaps you felt you were still proving yourself. I know that securing representation made a big difference to how I felt about my writing and how I negotiated time for that. I have to comment at this juncture that I’ve received only support, interest and warmth from professional colleagues about my writing. They’re great.

      I hope the writing degree helped you as much as mine helped me. And you will never be good to your nearest and dearest if part of your soul has been choked and allowed die away, so it sounds like you did the right thing.

  4. Hi Susan, another terrific post and my guess is that there is a lot of fiction about the writing life which does no service to anyone. That Irish Times article was a page filler and could be considered a bit harmless, except that it perpetuates the myth that writers inhabit some alternative universe and don’t have to engage with the muck, the sweat, the tears of ordinary mortals. Heck, not even the laughter!

    1. Thanks for your comment Margaret and glad you enjoyed! I should say that in fairness to Sara Baume, since she’s mentioned in it, she’s written quite a lot about how tough it is getting by financially and sticking to one’s art, and very bravely made it clear that it’s been hard going. However that aside, I do feel we need to talk more about the issues writers have with carving out time and energy after their day jobs, simply because it affects so many of us. It’s like ignoring the elephant in the room!

  5. Yes, my reality too!! But doesn’t work and writing compliment each other as well? Can’t the distraction of work be helpful in overcoming creative challenges and providing new inspirations for our writing? Doesn’t our work challenges occasionally provide us with disguised characters or potential plot lines? I’m reminded too by the superlative comedy of Peter Kay’s “Car Share” and how something as mundane as sharing a ride to work can form the basis of six episodes of some of the best comedy writing in years. You agree? Many thanks for the post Susan.

  6. A lot of authors likely avoiding discussing work much to avoid getting in trouble. There are a lot of things I can’t say online due to my day-job, and I like to keep my day job life and writing life separate so nothing I say online can reflect badly on my employers.

    I’m one of those people you don’t like much. I have my 40 hour a week day job with an hour commute each way, 3 kids under the age of 3. I also write for some websites, manage my blog, do freelance editing, and I’ve written two books this year so far (one still in revisions before querying). 🙂

    We each get our work done in our own ways. Some writers can’t switch into “writing mode” readily enough to spend an extra hour in the morning, or their lunch time, writing, but some aren’t in a position to take months off work at a time to get their current book finished.

    1. Hi Paul! No, I don’t hate you, for that. I’m glad you can swing it. Re time off, I am still in financial recovery from that decision, believe you me. Thanks for the comment and I’ll reply later in more detail due to the fact that it’s early afternoon and, well, I’m at work 😉

      1. It’s not easy, believe me! I started my career before my wife and I had any children, so I was able to develop a routine of getting up early to write before work, and I use my lunch hour to write or edit.

        After our youngest was born, my wife had to give up work because childcare costs were just too high, and I had the higher salary so I didn’t get to become a full-time author. Which means balancing my writing work with the necessity of being the primary income provider.

        In the evenings my wife teaches singing and piano, or goes to the gym, so I have a couple of extra hours to work then, as well. Then there are weekend mornings, where I can squeeze in an extra few hours. Sometimes if I need to get some extra work done, I’ll sit at my computer while my wife practices music or writes songs.

        But there are sacrifices. I don’t see my friends as often as I’d like, outside of our weekly gaming group. Other hobbies and interests have to be left aside for months on end, at times.

        I do most of my book planning on my work commute, or doing housework. I imagine scenes in my head and repeat them over and over, effectively rehearsing them until I can write them down,

    2. I’m enjoying these comments and particularly how everyone makes it work! That’s a lot to juggle, Paul, it’s admirable, and you’re right that some things get let go. Regarding my decision to take time out of the workplace to finish the novel. I knew that I couldn’t do both because I tried in 2013 and my brain nearly fried to pieces. I was not in good health as a result of trying to manage both. This is because work, day work, is demanding. If I were to put my writing first, it was not an option. So at considerable financial cost (and I *am* lucky that I was in a very supportive household) I made the choice to concentrate hard on the edits and – quite literally – I went for broke.

      Regarding the decision whether or not to talk about work – I don’t generally tend to because that’s not what my social media is for and I’ve had mixed experiences on profession-related forums. I’ll usually find the answer on Stack Overflow anyway. There are parts of my work that I can’t discuss, and then there are parts of my work that I could discuss, but if I have any sense at all I won’t 🙂

      However I am open about my writing to colleagues and the novel is on my CV. It’s my proudest professional accomplishment and there’s no way I’m not going to put it there 🙂

  7. I completely relate to the part where you say your ‘brain is not a ping pong ball; for me, it takes time to switch from one mode to the other”. I feel the same way.

    I work three days, have four teens at home (three need regular shuttling to jobs/schools/friends and don’t get me started on driving lessons), and do freelance work on the other two days. I also have a book review website and so a lot of my spare time is spent reading books or writing reviews. Somewhere, I am supposed to “make time” for my own writing. I am learning to write for me – when my brain is on, that’s when I write best.

    1. Yes, indeed! And it can take a while to warm up, too. And you also have to ensure your time is respected and not intruded upon, particularly if you are a parent.

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