Working the Double Shift

By posted at 7:05 am on October 6, 2009 30

coverMost novelists have day jobs, even the published ones whose books get good reviews. Writing is my second career, and one of the very few things that it has in common with my first career—contemporary dance—is the necessity of maintaining secondary employment. I’ve been supporting myself since I was eighteen years old: I’ve made sandwiches and cocktails and uncountable lattés, put price stickers on wine glasses, supervised the unloading of trucks at 7am on Montreal winter mornings, sold everything from clothing to furniture to vases in three cities, run errands for architects, scheduled meetings, designed and coded websites, written reports and managed offices; all the strangely varied occupations that a person accumulates when the primary objective is not to establish a career, per se, but just to pay the rent while they’re working on a novel.

Some of these jobs have been quite pleasant, and it’s nice to able to afford rent and groceries; but the phrase “day job,” of course, implies that one’s passions lie elsewhere.

Striking a balance between writing literary fiction and paying the rent is a constant struggle, and I thought it might be interesting to speak with other writers about it. I approached two novelists who I’m friendly with, Elise Blackwell and Jason Quinn Malott, and they very graciously agreed to talk about their experiences with work for this piece. (I know them in part because we’re all published by Unbridled Books: Elise’s fourth novel, An Unfinished Score, is forthcoming this spring, and Jason’s debut, The Evolution of Shadows, was just published this month.) Hardly a large sample size, but I was interested in getting the perspectives of other writers; I wanted to know if they experienced their day jobs as an impediment, as I generally have, or if they’ve managed to find jobs that have fueled their writing.

Elise wrote:

Work has most often been an impediment to my writing for the simple reason that it usurps time, but some jobs in my life have been helped by getting me out in the world during periods of introversion, requiring me to interact with—and in some cases know well—people I wouldn’t have added to my life on my own. The best jobs for my writing have been the more social ones (bartending or working in a store) or ones in which I learned a great deal (translating or writing about scholarship). Yet office work and even professional writing/journalism can be deadly, using up a writer’s energy with similar but less creative tasks. It’s hard to stare at a computer screen for 8 or 9 hours and then go home and compose on computer (which is how I mostly write). Perhaps the best job for a writer involves outdoor physical labor with some social interaction: gardening.

My experience has dovetailed with Elise’s to some extent: I think the jobs I’ve liked best have been the ones that had absolutely nothing to do with writing, or with staring at computer screens. In other words, the menial labor: unloading trucks at 7am, unpacking and shelving boxes of merchandise in retail stock rooms, putting price stickers on martini glasses all day. Meditative, repetitive tasks performed in the company of pleasant coworkers; jobs that leave enough of my brain free that I can think all day about the book I’m writing.

Jason had the opposite preference. “The best jobs for me,” he wrote, “have something in common with writing full-time: self-discipline and inner motivation.”

He went on to make an excellent point:

[An] element to the way we all think about the conflict between a day job and writing full-time is that even us writers sometimes fall into the fallacy of thinking of writing as a romantic hobby. A hobby isn’t a job, it’s not work – it’s “recreation.” This is why when we say, “I’m going to quit my job and write full-time,” it sounds so romantic and idyllic. It carries images of getting out of bed late, drinking large mugs of tea or coffee, sitting at a desk in your pj’s, staring at the trees through the window, and playing with your muse… But if we match the language to the reality, the phrase would actually read this way:

“I’m going to quit working and work full-time.”

That doesn’t sound romantic at all does it? And, if you talk to full-time, un-famous writers they’ll confirm just how unromantic writing full-time is.

He’s right, of course. Writing is hard labor, and there’s nothing romantic about it.

At a dinner some months ago, I found myself discussing the problem of earning a living with a couple of other writers. One of them—a mystery writer who writes full time—said something that surprised me: when he wrote his fiction, he said, he felt that he was drawing on experiences that he’d had before he’d quit his day job thirty-five years earlier.

There was a note of wistfulness in his voice that struck me. My sense was that his life as a writer was somewhat isolated. It was interesting to think of work as something that might help one’s writing, rather than as an uncomfortable but unavoidable impediment to it. What secret purposes might our day jobs serve, aside from the obvious advantages of being able to put dinner on the table?

Franz Kafka was a bureaucrat, and his professed hatred of his job has been well documented. But what’s more interesting about him, at least to me, was the way he used his job as an alibi.

When he began his career at the Assicurazioni Generali, Kafka worked twelve-hour shifts and found it almost impossible to write. But two years later, after a promotion at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, he was put on a one-shift system that required him to work only from 8:30am to 2:30pm each day. And yet even with that enviable schedule, he somehow managed to avoid writing till 11pm—he frittered away the late afternoon and early evening hours with exercises, lunch, a nap, dinner with his parents, an hour or two or more of writing letters or writing in his diary. In his biography of Kafka, Louis Begley wrote that “[h]aving the Institute and the conditions at his parents’ apartment to blame for the long fallow periods when he couldn’t write gave Kafka cover: it enabled him to preserve some of his self-esteem.”

Awful to not have time to write because of your job. We’ve all been there. But how much worse would it be to have time to write, and yet not be able to? It’s easy to argue that Kafka’s day job was part of what made his writing possible. I suspect that any number of writers depend on their day jobs in this manner, whether we’re conscious of it or not: it’s true that your job prevents you from writing, by virtue of the fact that it takes up your time, but it’s also something to hide behind when the writing isn’t going well.

“I would quit my day job,” Jason Quinn Malott wrote, “if I had the economic security to pay my bills, pay for health insurance, and own a home all while going to work writing novels full-time. But the days of that happening to a literary writer are long gone, if they ever existed at all.”

I don’t think the days of that happening to a literary writer are gone, exactly: I think it’s more a matter of the odds having spectacularly decreased. That is, for all my longing to write full-time, I have every expectation that I’ll need to hold a day job for the duration of my life. I imagine most of my writer friends with will have to work forever too, except for that one guy with the trust fund.

covercoverBut at the same time, the paradox is that every book we write is a lottery ticket: the strange alchemy that turns a well-written book into a well-written runaway commercial success on the level of Fugitive Pieces or The Lovely Bones—in other words, a book with sales numbers on a scale that might possibly allow a writer to quit a day job—is somewhat mysterious. It might happen to anyone. If there were a formula that explained exactly how one book generates buzz while another slips quickly into obscurity, all our books would be blockbusters.

So we all come home tired from our days at the office, sit down in front of the blinking cursors on our screens, and allow ourselves to daydream for a moment about being struck by commercial lightning: a film deal, a surprise bestseller, a call from the organizer of Oprah’s book club. We’re all perfectly aware that it will likely never happen. We all keep writing anyway.

[Image credit: The U.S. National Archives]

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30 Responses to “Working the Double Shift”

  1. Edan Lepucki
    at 10:52 am on October 6, 2009

    I loved this post, Emily. I have allotted myself three hours of writing-time before I must prepare for my upcoming classes (my day job). I feel inspired–and I won’t blame my day job if I fritter it away!

  2. James Black
    at 11:26 am on October 6, 2009

    Thanks for this terrific essay. I’ve been wondering why I keep writing. Like so many other writers, I can’t not do it, despite the poor odds of, as you put it, winning the lottery. It’s obviously about a lot more than winning the numbers game.

  3. Anna
    at 3:36 pm on October 6, 2009

    I think maybe the idea of day job keeps the ‘writing job’ going, not in the inspirational sense by providing with material, but by providing a kind of counterweight. How many of us would be as inspired to write, and would have this idyllic conception of it, if in the other odd hours of the day we were not carrying lunch specials to people with day jobs that are their jobs, or loading trucks, etc etc.

  4. Steve
    at 4:32 pm on October 6, 2009

    It has been stated that university Creative Writing programs were created so that published writers could actually earn a living – as teachers.

  5. FWIW: Can’t Not Write. « Quota
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    […] a friend tweeted the link to an essay by Emily St. John Mandel that speaks to all of this. It provides no answers, but I feel better. […]

  6. Karen
    at 10:33 am on October 7, 2009

    Thanks for this essay. With this economy and the fact that I even have a day job is a blessing in these times. Yet, it is still hard to carve out that time to dedicate to writing. It’s a precarious balance that a writer faces daily.

    However slow and steady wins the race, and so whatever time I can dedicate to my writing is small win.

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  9. Emily St. John Mandel
    at 10:54 pm on October 9, 2009

    Thanks to everyone for their kind and thoughtful comments.

  10. Lindsay Price
    at 2:25 pm on October 12, 2009

    Temping for me was the best writer day job because often I was in a cubicle, or at a reception desk where it was more important to look busy than necessarily to be busy. I wrote many plays at many various temp jobs. Mostly with the government. The government was the best place to look busy.

    Temps, are meant to be invisible and not bother others with questions like ‘isn’t there more for me to do?’ Which begs the question, why hire them in the first place – unless your a writer and you don’t want that question answered. You want to be invisible, quietly working on greatness on government time….

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  13. Eliashib
    at 12:50 pm on October 14, 2009

    Vowing to take my time back from the various business in my life, including the ‘day job,’ became a second job. Now, with the real estate market moving at “a glacial pace” I’m able to research blogging, read great posts like Emily’s, and actually write during business hours so that I, like Lindsay Price, can look busy, although I’m far from being a temp.

    Emily your essay and everyone’s comments have encouraged me to keep on pushing, keep on writing, and keep on realizing that i’m not alone at my desk.

  14. Sonya Feher
    at 6:41 pm on October 14, 2009

    Your example of Kafka reminded me of the years in college or working as a teacher when I had three weeks off at Christmas and two+ months in summer. They were my least productive writing times. Now that I’m a stay-at-home mom to a toddler and have almost no time to myself, I’m getting more writing done than I ever have, including the years I was pursuing my MFA in poetry. You just reframed my perception of the first shift as a way to fuel the second. Thank you!

  15. The Day Job: Friend Or Foe? | Lit Drift: Storytelling in the 21st Century
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    […] poured far more energy into my “support job” than I have into my writing. I recently ran across a great article by Emily St. John Mandel on The Millions that explores this very […]

  16. Meredith
    at 5:58 am on October 31, 2009

    Thank you for the wonderful post, which is both consoling and inspiring. The comments from other people who live the way I do help. I often wondered if I was the only person in the world who works 50 hours a week at a busy day job, and then comes home to spend several more hours following the blinking cursor. Who gets up at 5:00 a.m. on weekends to invent worlds and work on make believe stories? Evidently lots of people!

    At least we’re all in good company.

    BTW, I think I fall into the category of people whose writing actually benefits from their day job. I love taking vacation days to stay home and have 14 hour writing marathons. But, I couldn’t do that every day. I need to be forced out into the world where I meet interesting people, any and all of whom are potential characters!

    I have to go now. It’s time to get to work.

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  21. A.S. Clarke
    at 8:21 pm on January 17, 2013

    Great piece. My feeling is that Elise’s comments about the benefits of having a job that force you to interact with people you otherwise wouldn’t is important. How can you write about the world if you’ve never lived there?

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  27. Janelle
    at 9:25 am on September 18, 2014

    I think the fact that we write despite the odds of financial success show that writing is our passion. Life coaches and guidance counselors ask, “What would you do if money weren’t an issue?” Write and read. It sounds like we are all in good company, and that’s encouraging, too. Thanks for the great post!

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