Are you one of those many writers who dream of writing full-time? (Yes!)
Do you sometimes resent the time at your paid work that takes you away from what feels like your real work, i.e. writing? (Yes! Often!)
Do you nonetheless need to keep working because of, you know, the fact that writing doesn’t pay, and you need food and somewhere to live and money for coffee and to occasionally splurge on books? (Also, yes!)
I’ve been thinking about all the jobs I’ve had as an adult, and some of the myriad ways they have benefited me as a writer. I’ve concluded that having a day job is not such a bad thing for a writer. So long as you can still scrape together time to write, there are many, many writerly benefits to a non-writing job that go way beyond simply not starving.
To start with, here’s my list of jobs.
I have worked as:
– A bakery assistant
– A telemarketer
– A domestic cleaner
– A receptionist in a small start-up web design company in the mid-90s.
– An admin assistant in an IT training company
– A uni tutor (tutoring history, communications and writing)
– A PHD student (if that counts as work, which it should, because it’s bloody hard)
– A yoga teacher
– A researcher/writer on a feature-length documentary film
– A freelance researcher/writer
– A public servant for a Commonwealth Government department
This list accounts for about two decades of my life. I have wanted to be a writer that whole time, and have made attempts to write novels, short stories, and poetry, with varying degrees of success.
The main thing I’ve collected from my years of work has been characters. A few I’ve already lifted directly from real life and used in stories.
These include an amazing Filipino guy who I worked with as a telemarketer, who had about two other jobs and barely slept because he was sending money back to his family in the Philippines, and was still always the most cheerful and friendly person on the floor, and who features in my novel This Skin.
In that same novel, the main character’s sister is loosely based on a girl I currently work with, (I haven’t told her!), who fairly asks to be memorialised in a book because she’s so many kinds of awesome.
Others people I’ve worked with over the years I haven’t used yet as characters, but fully intend to. I have them in storage, on call, in my brain, ready for whenever they are needed.
The physical/sensory experiences of work have also fuelled my writing.
From the bakery, I learned a lot about early mornings, the importance of coffee, the physical experience of the work itself. I’ve learned a lot about donuts, and that kind of knowledge never gets old. I have learned to recognise the markers that are shared by people who have to heft huge trays into large ovens (e.g. a very particular pattern of burns on the inner arm). I spotted a fellow bakery employee on a train once and felt immensely proud; it was my maximum Sherlock Holmes moment.
For a number of years, I lived around the corner from the bakery I worked in, and felt interwoven with that neighbourhood in a way that has stayed with me – I saw my customers while I was lugging my bags of dirty washing down to the laundromat. I snuck into the competing bakery a block down to try their Danishes (their pear Danish was the best thing in the entire universe). I once accepted a ride from a customer who stopped at the bus stop because it was raining and he had a car and I got in it, and was completely terrified for ten minutes until he dropped me off, though he was nothing but friendly and polite. I’m going to write about that one day.
If I ever want to write a thriller or spy novel, or possibly a murder mystery, I have also been party to serious bakery espionage.
My boss signed up to a franchise but then kinda liked doing things his own way. He made his own spinach rolls and fruit buns and didn’t mind too much how we wore our uniform. Head office sent spies around in the guise of customers to check if we were wearing our hats with the logos and if we were using the correct greetings and what kind of pies were on offer. Then it all got heavy for a while, and there were angry phone calls and lawyers involved and lots of back rooms whispering. It was all very exciting and dramatic.
As a writer, I got so much from the years I spent working in bakeries, and not just free food and an extra few kilos around the waist.
Working as a domestic cleaner and as a yoga teacher were both jobs that had a kind of purity about them. The exchange was simple. I turned up and did my thing and people gave me cash. I was allowed into intimate spaces – as a cleaner, people’s bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens. (I never snooped, I was completely professional, but I did observe). As a yoga teacher, into people’s moments of struggle and repose. You learn a lot from those experiences, if you watch and listen.
Funnily, the jobs that look to an external observer as being closest to the aim of ‘writer’ in my CV, in many ways felt like they took me farthest from my real goals and purpose.
Working on a PhD, working on a documentary, and working as a freelance writer/researcher were all-engulfing, stressful and consuming. I had to read a lot of non-fiction. I had to follow other people’s rules and chase other people’s visions. And dammit I had to use footnotes.
I certainly learned a lot about the discipline of writing – I can paste my butt in a chair and work at the slightest provocation.
But I couldn’t do that work, and read fiction or – more importantly – write fiction, and that was why I knew I had to stop.
My current work is as a public servant for a government department. It sounds stifling and dull but it mostly isn’t.
I’ve been able to do some amazing things and have worked with some really smart, dedicated and passionate people. And the best thing about it is, it’s (mostly) contained. I can do my job, and leave it behind at the end of the day, and have myself clear for writing. I can drink in novels on the bus on the way to and from work like they were some kind of creative energy-drink.
My colleagues have been supportive and enthusiastic about my writing. When I finished my first novel they brought champagne in to celebrate. (It still makes me tear up to remember it!) They knew how hard I’d worked and what it meant to me.
Even though I can’t write about the specifics of what I do, I’ve tried to weave some of the flavour of my own experiences of bureaucracy and international relations into the fantasy series I’m writing. It’s actually pretty relevant, as it turns out.
My latest, and biggest, and best job is as a parent. Since my son has been born, I’ve worked harder than ever as a writer.
He’s taught me the value of time – I have hardly any!
He’s also motivated me to embrace my dreams and work hard to try and do the things I feel like I’m meant to be doing in my life. I want to show him that it’s possible.
He’s taught me about joy and heartbreak and terror and all of those things that are the pulsing heart of fiction. And that makes up for all the hours that I spend wiping up poo and cooking food that doesn’t get eaten when I might, in an alternate life, have just been writing.
So tell me, how does your day job help your writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below…