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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Coping with the day job

Reading Scalzi’s great posts on making a living as a writer got me to thinking about the worst piece of career advice I ever got:

“Take some brainless low-paying job just to make ends meet so you can devote all your creative energy to work on your writing.”

Do me a favor, next time someone utters this, or something similar, to you, slap them. Hard.

The people making this asinine comment are either justifying their slacker attitude at their 7-11 gig, or are just in love with the image of the artist struggling for their art.


First off, if you undervalue yourself for a third of every day, you’re going to undervalue yourself as a writer. Also, nothing saps writing energy as much as stress about money, food and shelter. Dreading waking up to go to the daily grind will not make you excited or give you more energy for the writing. Also, if you’re placed in the position of relying too much on a low income writing (voice of experience here) you can severely sabotage your writing career. If you have a decent income at a decent job, one you enjoy, you are in a much better position to see the merits of any offers that do come in.

Say someone offers you two grand for world rights and a film option on your 150,000 word epic fantasy. It’s a lot harder to say "no" to a horrid offer like that if your paychecks come from Burger King, rather than Google. (See prior comment about undervaluing yourself.)

You want to be a successful writer? Get a day job you like and that you’re good at. The worst that could happen is that you’re a bigger success at that. So what? If you make more money in IT, or sales, or real estate, than you do with your novel, it doesn’t make you a lesser writer.

To paraphrase General Patton, “Your job isn’t to suffer for your art. It’s to make the other guy suffer for his.” Or, ah, something like that.


RaveBomb said...

The other option is to find a spouse willing (and able) to support you.

After much number crunching, that's what my wife did.

White_Stix said...

I agree, though it is nice to have a brainless but busy job where your mind can wander down all sorts of interesting avenues for plot/character ideas. It's nice to be able to say that you assembled 4000 widgets AND finally found a way out of the corner you wrote yourself into....

S Andrew Swann said...

It's nice to be able to say that you assembled 4000 widgets AND finally found a way out of the corner you wrote yourself into.

I've done the brainless job thing, and while YMMV, I think it actually dulled my writing muscle. Most often, when I hear writers complain about the day job sucking the life out of their writing, it is not because the job was too interesting and engaging. It's because the day job was a soul-sucking pit of the living dead that was sapping their will to do anything in their free time but sit in a corner and wimper.

Puttywad said...

I've two novels under my belt. I have always been 'poor', and prefer it that way.

You're wrong, Swann. Crap jobs inspire. They lend a sense of continuity and realism that can't be had by dodging muggings and SUVs. And I'm mid 30s. Not a baby.

Don't come to Portland. *nod*

This isn't Cleveland. Nor is it convention central, Ursula and a hundred other ghosts aside.

S Andrew Swann said...

Crap jobs inspire.

So do bad movies, your aunt Zelda's drinking problem, the kid with blue hair and the weird face tats that works the counter at Starbucks, the latest issue of Wired, or the old Mimiographed conspiracy tract plastered to the bus shelter itemizing how Ron Paul is going to expose the alien conspiracy. . .

Life inspires. A day-job is means to support your life, not your art. If you have a job that actually supports you, at whatever income level, great. But if you're structuring your work life into something unpleasant simply because of the writing you're punishing yourself for a myth.

Steve Buchheit said...

Well, in my last job search I did take a job that I felt was more conducive to writing than to continuing my career in graphic design. However, it does pay better than many of the jobs in GD (although we won't see a raise for another two years with our current contract, didn't see a raise last year either as we were in negotiations). It's not exactly brainless, this past week I "wrote" two automator scripts to complete the job in less time. But the end result is that my mind doesn't feel like a limp dishrag at the end of the day because I've been fretting over the exact shade of yellow to use for a client's brochure.

Unknown to me, however, was how much time (or actually overtime) I would need to work, and how much time the second job (Councilman) would gobble up. So now I feel better able to write, and have been jotting down reams of notes and partials, now I just need some time back.

I do agree, however, that one shouldn't take just a crappy job that doesn't pay well. It does very little for the self-esteem.

Michelle said...

Wasn't John Grisham a Lawyer? Oh wait - that IS a crap job....