Working the Double Shift

October 6, 2009 | 30 5 min read

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]

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.