I’ve spent a lot of my adult life fretting about jobs, having job openings called to my attention, feeling a reflexive jolt of recognition at the sight of any “Help Wanted” sign.
I’ve often felt I was re-inventing the wheel and constantly redefining what I wanted to be when I grew up. That’s a sad state of affairs for someone with a guiding passion — writing — that is as well-defined, and that I’ve followed as faithfully, as the life’s work of anyone I know.
I’ve always said writers have to have two jobs. A doctor or engineer or school teacher find that their self-realization and bread-winning vocation are one in the same.
Writers have to toil at our craft for the love of that craft alone and have to commit our energies elsewhere to pay the bills. We all know that our friends and family think we’re fools or under-achievers or foolish under-achievers.
In any case, the Internet is now making it easier than ever to earn some money as a writer. But many working writers have part-time jobs as well.
If you’re thinking of making a switch in your other job — or having a switch forced up you — or are finishing college and weighing options, here, from a veteran of more than forty jobs, is a look at the various sorts of work out there and how they fit into one’s writing life.
Before I launch into the list, though, I’ll share an anecdote about what it’s like to write seriously around a job. A former professor of mine, tenured, with a great gig at a well-known university, told me she often thought of how cool it would be to work as a hostess at a restaurant and thus reserve her mental energies for writing, being free from grading and reading and critiquing.
To me this underscores something I’ve experienced myself, that there is no job or career that makes it easy to seriously write poetry or fiction or anything similar. They are all poor fits for writing in different ways. That same professor would close letters with “Yours in struggle.”
Full-time Office Work
I always mentally describe this category of work with a line from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs: “a regular, job-type, job-job.” I recently closed out six years working as a professional-level reference librarian at an academic library. Great pay, full benefits, fixed nine-to-five schedule.
PROS: Stability is, in some ways, good for a writer. Constantly applying for freelance writing gigs, searching for adjunct work and combing Craigslist are all time-consuming, if not soul-crushing, activities.
Worrying about money may or may not help the creative process, but it’s not my idea of a good time. Knowing you have from five to bedtime every night — plus weekends — to work is good.
CONS: I myself wasn’t terribly mentally exhausted at the end of a day’s work, but on the whole, my mind and body did feel off the clock at night, entitled to a nice long walk with the iPod and some television.
I didn’t feel the sort of urgency or desperation I’ve felt while working part-time. I felt I was in the middle of a vast sea of time in which one week was like the next and the novel would always be there. My productivity was probably no higher or lower with this job than with any other.
Driving a Taxi
I drove a cab for a while and learned a few things. There’s no gratitude like that of a sloppy-drunk person being dropped off at home, and people don’t make “confessions” in taxi cabs, but they want to know if everyone else does.
PROS: A gold mine for stories? You bet. A way of meeting colorful people and learning a lot about what goes on in your city? Doubtless. A great job to tell people you have? Much better than you’d expect.
If you never drive a cab, at least tell people you do. People love it when you tell them you’re a cab-driver-slash-novelist. (Cab-driver-slash-short-story-writer, not so much.)
CONS: This job is absolutely exhausting. Have you ever made an eight or nine-hour drive? Have you ever done it six days in a row? It will not leave you energy to write, though there are idle times just parked and you can daydream and plan.
If you have a master’s degree, there’s work for you at your local community college (and even at large universities) as a part-time instructor. Everyone has to take basic composition, so the schools are always trying to fill positions for sections of these classes.
PROS: If you’re half as sensitive as I’d hope any writer would be, you’ll have this kind of moment as an instructor: You’re overlooking the quad, waiting for your next student to arrive for conferences.
You breathe in the air and think This is what I’m doing right now. This is my life. I’m helping people organize paragraphs. I’m talking about tone and diction. It’s one of the best feelings ever.
Teaching is nice because it’s work with language and fighting the good fight without actually producing text — getting to rest those muscles. I always found the stop and start nature of this work and the flexibility of the schedule to leave me energized, feeling dragged down and spent only at the end of grading binges.
CONS: Again, you can struggle to find time to write Way X or Way Y. Teaching can make you feel as though you’re taking time to write by grading faster or spending less time on lesson-planning.
It’s the kind of job that you can always be working on if you choose. It doesn’t leave you with big blocks of time for writing, but smaller intervals good for some freelance work or little bursts of line-editing, etc.
As for the interesting scholastic habits of your students and the pedagogical values you may encounter among department chairs, etc., I’ll just say, people really love it when you say you’re a cab driver.
Miscellaneous Retail Work
This is the kind of work to avoid like the plague it is, unless you get the kind of job at which you can write on the clock. I once had a job that essentially required me to sit idly for six out of eight hours each day, and it was very cool until the owners told me they were selling the company to a guy affiliated with the mafia.
Regular retail work doesn’t leave energy for writing, destroys the soul and pays poorly.
So get out there and work hard, but not too hard, and know you’re not alone. Yours in struggle!