Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Guest Post: What Not to Get for a Day Job

I accepted long ago that first novels don't vanquish the day job, with average first advances covering a few month's expenses at best. But I'm still surprised when I hear of authors with multiple titles out—even some who win awards—who still have a day job. Day jobs are here to stay, it seems, so we had best find something that allows us to both pay the bills and get some writing done.

I'm in a good spot now, but that's not what this post is about. It's about what not to get for a day job. I've had a few:

Writer. After a brief stint waiting tables, my first real job was as a writer. I thought I had it made. Only problem: the writing wasn't really mine. I was ghost writing huge tomes on stuff like tax legislation and investment advice. It drove me bonkers. Each book got significantly more difficult to finish than the last, and I soon realized that I only have so many words in me each day. Once I'd finished my paying gig, there was no juice left for fiction. It was a thrill to see my words in print, but aside from developing the discipline to sit down and write every day—which is huge, admittedly—I learned nothing about fiction.

Bookseller. Once I realized that I'd rather beat myself to death with one of my books (they were heavy) than write another one, I got a job in a bookstore. I worked part time, and got health care. This was grand for a little while, and I got tons of writing and even more reading done. Only problem: no money. As splendid as the picture of the starving artist is, it isn't all that much fun in practice. Even worse, I started to see myself as a failure, some guy who dreams about publishing a novel, but works retail. My fiction became responsible for my happiness. On days when it went poorly—and there are always these days—my whole life was a shambles. My writing crumbled under the pressure, and what began as a productive phase ground to a halt.

Proofreader/Copyeditor. Following this, I entered the corporate world and got a gig as a web proofreader, then a copyeditor. My writing came screaming back. Yes, I was much busier working full time and writing, but who needs sleep? Only problem: I started to hate the work. I felt, maybe even correctly in a few cases, that the work I was copyediting was vastly inferior to my own. I could do so much better than this! How dare they treat me like an underling?! Ultimately I ended up making the same mistake I made right out of college, and got back into a writing gig—this time I wrote book and toy reviews for both online and print media. This would be different, I thought, since I would be writing about something fun. It was fun, but no different, still there were only so many words in me per day.

Mini Poobah. It was shortly after this that I gave up writing entirely. I moved up at the same company, got a gig managing a small team. My day job soon overflowed into nights and weekends. My cell phone rang whenever I wasn't in the office. My inbox always had a thousand unread mails waiting for me. I made decent money for the first time in my life. I bought a small house. All seemed grand. Only problem: I had nothing else. When I realized that I was screaming at the walls of my house for a half hour after coming home each night, I knew it was enough. I quit, and didn't come to understand how unhappy it all had made me until many months down the road. If you are indeed a writer, you can run away from writing, but it'll only come and find you.

I'm now hooked up with a day job that gives me a comfortable living, fantastic benefits, and my nights and weekends to myself. I write for work, but only a bit. Yes, my day job is sometimes boring, but it's not so boring that it tires me. It's also sometimes engaging, but not so engaging that it overpowers me. And I'm writing again, and happy with it. After a five year hiatus, I'm back at my computer each morning before work.

Who needs sleep?

For his day job, D.J. Morel currently manages a small slice of a big web site for an even bigger company. Prior to this, he published book reviews with The Seattle Times and ghostwrote tomes for a small press, the most notable of which was by a "longevity expert" who died before the book came out.


  1. I loved your post. I was a bookseller for awhile. I loved the job itself but the hours were brutal (not too many stores have the extensive hours that a major book retailer does!) and the pay was horrible (even as a Department Manager). These days I work from home. Sometimes the hours are just as brutal but I do have more flexibilitiy and it's allowed me the ability to focus more on succeeding as a writer.

  2. That's something I've had to come to grips with, too. I always thought that writing my first novel would make my living, and I know that if it sells, it won't. But it's a start to be a professional writer. I have a more realistic goal these days, and that goal includes keeping at least part of my current teaching load while the other half of my time can be devoted to writing. That's a lot more reasonable to shoot for, I think.

  3. by day i work for a university press. a friend there, an editor, recently told me that she took the job because she loved to read. now, 20+ years later, she's found she can only read so many words per day and no longer reads for pleasure.

  4. Teaching creative writing overseas has been very good for writing (and gaining a new insight into a new culture, the world at large, and all about home, too), the more you teach the writing stuff, the more you reinforce it into your own brain, and the more likely you'll apply it into your own writing. Plus I had to write the teaching materials for a new creative writing course and that was really beneficial--even sold some as spin-off articles (The Writer, May 2010, p24).

    In one of my first writing courses I taught I had to teach some advance grammar and that was a huge benefit because I actually had to learn it well enough so I could explain it to my students and I get to catch my own writing mistakes -- mistakes that I didn't know existed until then, like dangling modifiers, splitting infinitives. (I'm sure I was taught this back in school, but who paid attention back then? And I even had a book published and tons of short stories and articles!)

    But alas, after 13 years, it was all the other stuff that I had to teach to extremely weak students here in Malaysia and the marking that did me in. Now it's like, ok, can I survive without an official day job and do a little this, a little that, most of which so far has been freelance writing and writing workshops, but I've noticed that my fiction has taken a backseat until certain bills get paid.

    At least I can live a lot cheaper here in Borneo and we have a nice house...and I can always go back to teaching. As a published native speaker, I'm in huge demand.

  5. So true. I'm lucky that I got this advice from a professor before I graduated, so I knew (mostly) what to avoid. I applied to be a receptionist at a number of design firms, but one of them asked me to be a client relations manager instead. I ended up taking the job, and it didn't suck the words out of me, but it did take all my energy. So after a year, I made the very difficult decision of abandoning a career I was doing quite well in, and asking once again for the receptionist job. I've been doing that (part-time and now full-time) for 2 years, and it's so much better for my writing. I can actually work on my books during the day (although my time is very fractured) but I still have stability in terms of pay and benefits. I also have wonderful coworkers, which is a great thing that I never thought about before but totally value now.

    If you can swing it, this is definitely a "career" I recommend for aspiring writers. The one thing to be prepared for is that you're not going to make as much money as your peers who have "real" jobs, and sometimes that means you have to say no to things they invite you to. Still, it's a small sacrifice to make for your dreams.

  6. Thanks for all the comments! That's the most exciting thing about this post for me, seeing how others approach it all. Long term I'd love to get to the point where I can get by on a little of this, a little of that (is that what they mean by consulting?) but it's still far off. Oh, and if there was a fantastic beach nearby, I doubt I'd ever scribble so much as a word.

    Okay, now off to the day job. (It's 8 a.m. here on the Pacific coast.)

  7. I absolutely agree---there are only so many usable words in the day.

    I did the bookselling gig, the junior high teaching gig (there are marvelous born teachers out there who should be canonized, paid their weight in oil, and given footrubs every night, but I do not qualify) and finally found my place in library work.

    I'm surrounded by great books (which can be inspirational or depressing, depending), research resources, beta readers who know their stuff, and all aspects of the human condition, in air conditioning.

    Not bad.

  8. Oh, how I wish I'd read your post before I made a lot of not-so-smart decisions in my life, like becoming an attorney. Balance is HARD, but oh so worth it for your sanity and your writing.

    Right now. I'm working twenty hours a week retail, writing a magazine column and homeschooling my kid, but I've gotten more writing done in the last six months than I ever have before.

  9. This was a great post and I can now see why Eric chose to use it (and not mine :( Anyway, it made me feel positive in that I can see I'm not the only writer out there that still needs to 'work' (I'm a teacher) and also a bit sad that maybe this is the way things will remain. I guess balance really is the key - not overtaxing yourself at your day job so that you don't have anything left, as you said, but also finding enough enjoyment in what takes up a lot of your time so that you don't start to resent it. I'm sure most of us were naive enough to think that once our first book got published we could quit the day job... Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case. But thanks for the encouragement and sound advice.


  10. ALthough I write fiction and get a novel published here and there (next two books coming out from Forge), my day since I was 24, I'm now 47, has been a writer. I've been a journalist, an advertising copywriter, an editor, a ghostwriter and now a freelancer. These jobs have helped immensely with my fiction in many ways. The best part is that when I tell people I'm a writer, I don't have to qualify it but saying I do something else to make a living. Writing is my trade, my art, my life.

  11. There's a lot to what D.J. said. I worked as a reporter for many years and people were always telling me I should write a book. After pumping out sports stories or news articles all day, the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was jump back on the keyboard.

    Currently, I work in public procurement - about as far away from writing as you can get. So now when I sit down to write, it's really, really refreshing. It's nice not to have the two worlds mix.

  12. I started out as a high school teacher, but I've always been a writer since high school. Being a teacher led to being a writing consultant. Flexible hours, good pay, and I spend half my day writing my own stuff. I'm lucky to have found a day job I don't need to quit even after getting published. But, I'm still chasing the dream: writing full time. :-)

  13. I hadn't realized I wanted to be a writer when I was younger, so I was well into a career before I realized I was on the wrong track.

    Once I realized that, and punted round the idea of becoming a write, it took me a long time to also recognize that the day job was sucking my energy and words.

    Thankfully, I just just recently was able to negotiate a lifestyle contract with my company and start focusing on some abandoned/vaguely realized ambitions...and it's made me very happy, even if I haven't started earning from my writing yet.

  14. I currently work in a call center doing tech support. It's really mind numbing, and sometimes I come home and want to do nothing but veg.

    But I can write while I'm working, and that's how I got my novel done.

  15. I think the best day job, if you live frugally, would be that of security guard. In my case it was 12-hour days, 5:30 AM to 5:30 PM. But I had 4 days on, 3 days off, and then 3 days on, 4 days off. Pretty ideal.

  16. Very interesting post. I've been musing on the whole day job thing recently (I teach creative writing and tend to mention that before adding the 'and also I'm a writer!' bit) and it seems like so many people assume that publication = instantly being in a position where you have a steady stream of enough income to keep you going for the medium- to long-term. I think it's so important to find a day job that works for you and your writing - which is different for everyone (e.g. I know people for whom the bookseller and non-fiction writer gigs work really well).

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