Day jobs

Rebecca asks:

Got any suggestions for day jobs? What were yours?

Good question.

My jobs were: babysitter, sales assistant, receptionist, cleaner, waitress (very briefly), admin worker, IT support, academic.

Being an academic was my main day job and the one I held when I finished my first novel and countless short stories. I found that the research I did often fed into my fiction, but at the same time I found it very difficult to switch between scholarly and non-scholarly writing.

But I’ve heard many say that being an academic is perfect for a writer because you can get a lot of writing done during the long summer vacations. I’m not convinced. All the academics I know work their arses off over summer, teaching summer school, revising courses, and doing loads of other admin, not to mention writing all the scholarly articles and books they need to secure tenure and promotion.

I met this guy once who claimed that being a builder was perfect for a writer because there was nothing you took home from your job. At the end of the day when you were finiished you were finished and could throw yourself into writing your novel.

I open the question to all you writers:

What are (were) your day jobs to support your writing habit? What jobs do you think are the best for a writer to have? Rebecca needs your guidance.

37 comments

  1. cecil on #

    I liked the temporary jobs. Jobs I could get out of if i wanted to take a week to fuck off and write.

    So Temp receptionist. that’s important, the receptionist part. Sign for some fed ex packages, answer the phone, surf the web, read a book. Or write one.

    Also, Extra on movie sets. they give you lunch and also you have hours of doing nothing. I read so many books and also could jot down notes. Also I got some of my best ideas for characters for books. The dad in Boy Proof was inspired by the Planet of the Apes call I did where I went to special effects make up person Rick Bakers studio, with a bunch of little people, who inspired Tina in Queen of Cool.

    ok.

  2. Hannah on #

    I’m a vet tech at a university lab animal facility. It’s a good job. I think the reasoning on the builder is solid. It’s good not having to worry about whether I can pay the rent or what happens if I get sick. It’s good that I basically like what I do and take pride in doing it well, without it being the center of my life. I think these are all critical.

    For me. I know a couple of doctor/writers. I admire them very, very much. I think I’d feel torn into too many pieces with a job that took up that much of my life. (Sometimes. Other times I think about trying to get one.)

    I think being happy, liking what you do, is tops. I did the working-student-at-horse-farm thing for a while, worked 10, 12, 14+ hour days. And wrote a ton.

    I’ve tended to fall into things. I didn’t plan to have the job that I have now; I just happened to find it when I was looking for Boston-area things that I might be able to do. I’m not sure I’d recommend this, exactly, but I also don’t think that it hurts, and that a certain amount of flexibility and knack for liking what you do as well as for doing what you like can go a long way.

  3. Rebecca on #

    cecil, i just bought your book (boy proof) last night. :D i have read chapter one already and it is mas cool.

    i have actually tried the receptionist thing for a summer. it was okay, but i didn’t get to surf the web nearly as much as i’d hoped. :P maybe i can audition for a dead body….

  4. Rebecca on #

    yeah, liking what i do is a big issue. b/c i’ve had jobs that i absolutely couldn’t stand, and they made me crazy. i don’t know how long i could hold out doing something that i hated. might be good writing fodder, i dunno. lately i’ve really wondered about it because…. honestly, what does one do with a creative writing degree?

  5. Carol on #

    I’ve had a lot of mind-numbingly dull day jobs that, well, simply numbed my mind. The best day jobs I’ve had for fostering my creative side have been creative jobs that did keep me busy during the day: book editor, art director for a roleplaying-game company. Someone once expressed dubiousness that a writer would want to be an editor–on the idea that I’d somehow become tired of words, all used up from being battered by grammar and slush. Instead, I find that editing during “working hours” keeps the proper areas of my brain active and sparking, reinforcing the language centers and making creative connections in the background.

    Another good day job was [anything] in a foreign country. Sure, as receptionist/secretary I was making coffee for the press guys, answering phones, and typing letters, but YEGADS I WAS IN ANOTHER COUNTRY WOOO! Also, occasionally they let me write newspaper copy, on account of I knew how to work the danged computer, so there was a smidgen of creativity. And did I mention being in another country, and, like, able to go out at lunchtime and miraculously be in another country? Yeah, that was a good day job. I miss it.

  6. sherry on #

    I became an editor thinking that at least that was writing related–ha. But it does tend to eat up all of your time and energy for writing. I will say that I have learned A LOT about writing though, from editing and critiquing other people’s work. It is a lot easier to see the glaring holes in other people’s manuscripts, isn’t it? So it has its good and bad points.

    I often thought being a mail-carrier would be great work for a writer–all that walking would counter some of the inactive time spent sitting in front of the computer. And it would give you a lot of time to think your story through.

    I work in a factory for awhile making circuit boards for computers and telephones and that was fairly mindless work that let me concentrate on my stories–even gave me some extra writing time when it was slow.

    I think any job that you don’t have to take home and that doesn’t suck up your creative energy is good.

  7. Catherine Morris on #

    My former coffee-shop job was good in the way of the builder job–nothing to take home with you or obsess over between shifts. But it didn’t pay enough, so I was a po’ writer back then.

    Now I write for an astrology Web site for my current job, and I love astrology, love the writing, learn a lot, plus it pays well; but boy does an 8-hour shift suck it out of me. It’s hard to go on and write my own stuff after that. So, I whittled down my day-job work to 3 days/week. That’s perfect. I use the other 2 days for my own writing, and do what I can/feel like on the weekends.

    I don’t know what the perfect day job is for a writer. I think writing my books and selling them for a wage I can live on would be the perfect job for me.

  8. Elizabeth on #

    i was a reporter. for awhile it was great – learned all sorts of stuff i never even knew was out there to learn (though it’d be more useful if i wrote fiction set in this world). but unlike being a builder, i couldn’t put it down when i left, so it cut into fiction-writing too much.

    now i’m unemployed, which has other drawbacks.

  9. Edward Willett on #

    I was a weekly newspaper reporter/columnist/photographer/cartoonist, then added editor to that mix, then became communications officer for the Saskatchewan Science Centre, then went freelance (mixing in professional acting and singing, which I still do).

    In a way I was always a professional writer, but I have a feeling I might have made more progress on my fiction writing if my day jobs had not also involved sitting at keyboards and banging out words.

  10. Dawn on #

    Interesting day jobs. I may not be a published writer, but I certainly write a lot so I think that classifies me as a writer in the least. Perhaps not an excellent one, but I digress. I’m 20 and I’m not really set into a specific career yet. My life is EXTREMELY busy between my 18-credit hour college load (toward my major in Elementary Ed.), my 20+ hours a week part-time job, and my responsibilites within my church. Yet, my passion for writing is so incredibly strong that I make darn sure that no matter what I’m doing I make time to be creative and write whenever I can. I think as long as you can learn to be flexible in whatever you’re doing and have a passion that drives you to make time, then most jobs and situations will still allow for you to have time to write. Certainly there are some sarifices. Like…sleep. But hey, writing and (hopefully!) getting published would make the excessive amounts of sleep loss totally worth it. For me, anyway. There’s my two cents.

  11. tricia sullivan on #

    temp secretary, teacher, stable hand, dishwasher, artist’s model. best for writing was stable hand. fresh air, hard exercise, crappy country music (ok that was a downside). worst was secretarial–found the corporate environment too demoralizing and hated wearing pantyhose. but good pay. teacher was ok too because of the vacations but i wasn’t a very dedicated teacher and so feel guilty in retrospect.

  12. suzanne on #

    My academic writing sucks away all of my creative energy, which is one of the reasons I’m getting out of academia.

  13. Hannah on #

    >I often thought being a mail-carrier would be great work for a writer

    Ha! Me, too.

  14. sara z on #

    my job list looks a lot like yours. i like day jobs with finite tasks, checklists, beginnings and ends. because writing basically has none of those. in fact, i just took a temporary part-time admin job; a friend has a company and his admin is going out for 8 weeks maternity leave. i’m looking forward to the tasks, the people, and the money.

  15. jessiegirl on #

    I am a senior in college, in a non writing major, and find it incredibly draining. Come the end of the day i pretty much want to collapse and have no brain power left for writing.

    But since i graduate in december i can see the light at the end of the tunnel and have thrown myself into research so i can read, take in information and just take notes. Then when i graduate I’m going to be a substitute teacher which will give me the time i need to write. It is very much like a temp job because subs get hired on a per day basis, and the responsibility level is fairly low and the hours are fantabulous.

  16. Anne Ishii on #

    i soooo cannot picture you waitressing. or, actually i can, and it’s just really funny. most waitresses end up being pawns of the daily grind…you know, like me – i was a waitress for several years through college. good thing you got out quick, which explains why you have the best job now.

  17. marrije on #

    my favourite writer in the whole world used to be a night receptionist at a hospital. mostly quiet work that left him lots of time (and mindspace) to work in (plus a dry, warm, environment with good benefits, this was of course a dutch hospital), with the occasional good-material flare-up.

    whatever you do, don’t become a project manager/entrepreneuheur for a succesful web business. this eats all your time. and your braincells. motherhood eats the remaining few.

  18. Chris S. on #

    Working in a bookstore! Seriously, it’s great for writers. You’re surrounded by books, and authors, and you learn an enormous amount about the industry from a completely different angle.

  19. Sir Tessa on #

    I have a job that is really bad for writers. If ye be a writer, do not get a job that is shiftwork, because you’ll have no routine to build a writing routine around, and do not get a job doing data entry, because after 8 hours of staring at a screen typing, the last thing you’ll want to do when you get home is more.

  20. simmone on #

    the best writer-friendly job I had was working in a shop with no customers – the only drawback was having a boss who wanted me to “look busy” – felt like I was always slipping a trashy novel in between the covers of something schooly. Data entry was okay but hard on the wrists. I could never write when I did anything else full time. I dont know how people do it. I have to say I’ve never had a job I was happy with. I hate working. I always thought postie would be good … anything that you can get over and done with. Or maybe being a hand model or a voice artist! Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth is good for the work-uninspired …

  21. Diana on #

    Get a job with the following characteristics:

    1. Good hours
    2. Doesn’t require you to take work home.
    3. Something you can “turn off” when you clock out.
    4. Good benefits.
    5. Not evil. (Evil work is soul draining.)

  22. lili on #

    day-jobs i have done in the past: waitress, conservation telemarketer, bookseller, the chick who holds up the expensive paintings at art auctions (that’s a fun one, but exhausting) and stage manager.

    my current day-job is pretty much the best one a writer can have. i work at the australian centre for youth literature, which means it is my job to stay in touch with what’s going on in the industry, and i know lots of authors, publishers and (most importantly) librarians personally. i recommend it.

  23. benpeek on #

    the non-nine to five kind.

  24. glenda larke on #

    I reckon I have the perfect day job. I do environmental project work, which usually involves literature search, then fieldwork followed by analysis and report writing. Very intense while it lasts, but then nothing to do until the next project comes up – which is when I plunge into writing.

    Problem is money, because I freelance and often don’t know when the next job will be…

    However, getting out into the field is like a holiday after concentrated periods of book writing – even if it does mean dealing with leeches and mud and ticks and lleaking tents and …

    I think Ben Peek has said it best. The non 9 to 5 kind is best, where you can dovetail writing and the “real” job together to suit yourself.

  25. scott w on #

    my best day job was math textbook editor. i’d have all sorts of highly specific tasks thrown at me, like writing a hundred-word explanation of what a remainder is, using only 6th-grade vocabulary. these tasks required close, technical attention to language, and to space requirements, and were picked apart by educational experts.

    but at the same time, they were so specific that they didn’t burn me out for any other kind of writing. and i didn’t exactly bring the issues home. plus, i learned how to write at age level.

  26. Nicky on #

    Jobs that you don’t take home work is very helpful for writing. Having said that I’ve recently resumed numeracy teaching for adults. Certainly gets back to basics.

    Also work as a mentor – kinda like teaching but no responsibility (& can walk away). Having said that, hard to write ‘big’ words (more than three letters) after a day of basic phonics/numeracy etc.

    Other jobs been library work – working in document delivery/interlibrary loans at a uni certainly had a lot of perks and exposure to books from all walks of life.

    Justine the whole academia v non-academia writing is an issue for me (why I’m avoiding any more…for now). Hard to switch heads. I can always tell when I’ve been doing academic stuff in my creative as the characters (YA) sound like they are reading an essay to the class type deal :)

  27. claire on #

    i’m trying to make a fundraising coordinator job work with writing but i haven’t been doing much of the writing until this week. of course, i’ve just started.

    i really like diana’s list. it was my list, too, and why i picked the job. i think making writing work with a job is a matter of making it work. but the list helps.

  28. Rebecca on #

    ya’lls are awesome. :) i am liking the list. also the bookstore idea. provided i can find one that isn’t insane. i’ve heard bad things about working at borders. but then, that probably varies with each store too. currently i work for the student newspaper, but i don’t think i can take that any further. our little biweekly is stressful enough.

  29. jenny d on #

    a few thoughts. i’m an academic, it’s sort of my day job, and yet it’s my passion also, so in that sense it’s not a day job at all. i do think that academia can be hospitable to fiction-writing–you certainly have a great deal of flexible time–but to make it really work you have to be a workaholic maniac. which i am, so that’s all good… really once you’re teaching full-time there’s no time to write anything of substance during term anyway, and then you just need to make choices about what order to write things in in the rest of your time. but the sabbatical time is an extraordinary luxury–and you still have the reassurance of benefits and paycheck.

    pre-academia days, my main source of sustenance was temping. i know it’s not for everyone, but i really thrived on doing office work. it taught me a lot of skills i find quite useful as a writer & professor (technical stuff to do with transcribing and typing and editing documents, but more generally with working steadily & responsibly & pushing projects through to completion etc.). temping is awful if you’re only getting short-term assignments and have to find your way to a new evil office building every day and learn the ropes. but if you’re reasonably sensible and competent you do a bit of that and then you get a longer-term assignment that often isn’t really very onerous, and it’s pretty great. paid my way through senior year of college with a really cushy 30-hour-a-week gig at an engineering firm in cambridge, most of the time i could really just sit there and read, it was quite decadent & paid for all rent and living expenses!

    i had a year of real day-jobbing it before i went to grad school, it was the perfect day job but i say that only with the caveat that i was bored out of my mind & realized i’m not the day-job type! it was a half-time administrative position in an academic department at a medical school, and it came with full health and other benefits (including library privileges at the university & taking a class or two for free).

    and in fact for usians this really is what i recommend. you need to have health insurance! not so much for regular stuff, but one broken limb and you could be tens of thousands of dollars in the hole. it’s just not responsible not to have it, you at least need some kind of catastrophic coverage even if it’s with a very high multi-thousand-dollar deductible. so if you can find a 20-30-hour a week job that comes with benefits (and that provides enough money to supply rent and bare minimum living expenses), you’re in some ways better off even than working freelance for much higher hourly rates.

    one more thing: when you are young and starting out it really is pretty hard to get enough money! i remember the days (they lasted till pretty recently in fact!) of being totally broke. but as you go further along in your work life & things start coming together, time really comes to have a premium on it. so don’t be regretful if you’re young and poor, just really carve out the time to write now & you’ll be glad of it later, you’re developing good habits but also really this is the time to read a lot and properly learn what you’re doing to prepare for the next stage of life when there will likely be many more sorts of demands on your time! (i.e. children if you want em, or work demands as you advance in a profession, or what have you.)

  30. Maggie on #

    Working part-time in a book store!

  31. cynthia petricko on #

    I’ve only published essays and such so far, but I’m writing my second novel. My day job is computer tech support. (If you don’t have a tech background, substitute customer service type call center.)

    It has pretty nice hours, doesn’t often require homework or on-call work, and gives me the opportunity to chat with lots of people throughout the day. I get social contact to counter the solitude of writing, and I get lots of vocal cadences and manners of speaking to work with. Also, it’s been helpful to me in getting sensory detail into my stories–you’d be surprised what you can guess about a person sight-unseen on the phone.

  32. Sarah M on #

    one of my full-time day jobs is being a library media specialist in a middle school–that is a librarian for us old-time folks. my other full-time day job is being a mother. both jobs are good for the creative writing side of me, but both can be big energy sucks too. still, i can’t imagine life without either of those jobs (one because it provides enough money and benefits that i don’t have to stress, and the other because, well, they are my kids!)

    oddly enough, i find i get more writing done during the school year than i do during vacations. i have a set routine of going into school early and writing before work starts–vacation is all hectic, no schedule and lots of sleeping in!

    oh, and the good thing about being a library media specialist in comparison to a teacher is that the take-home work is reading, and that works out perfectly since i write YA fiction.

  33. Heloise on #

    I’m only an amateur writer, but I found that interesting and challenging jobs were always better for creativity than boring ones.
    I worked in a bank during two summers – in front of a computer (without word processor or the internet) all day, entering datas, not allowed to read or draw when there was nothing to do (if the boss was to come into the office!). All that in a big open space with uninteresting or obnoxious colleagues (one was drunk every afternoon, another swore *all the time*). Granted, I had nothing to take home, but it was absolutely and literaly mind-numbing. When I got home, I collapsed with a silly book and couldn’t do anything creative.
    On the other side, being an intern in publishing houses was very stimulating, tough it was a demanding job. Being around interesting things and people was very inspiring. And reading bad manuscripts you learned what not to do! I also liked having real work hours: it’s when I’m busy that I tend to do creative things in my spare time; when I have all the time in the world I’m the laziest girl in the world: there will always be time for writing later.

    So I guess there’s no True Ideal Writer Day Job; what works for me won’t necessarily work for you, just find what does.

  34. Tim Pratt on #

    The best one was working at an antique store. I was usually the only one there, and while it was busy in the summer and on weekends, it tended to be dead slow during most weekdays, so I just sat behind the counter and wrote in my notebook and earned my $6 an hour. Too bad it didn’t really pay enough for me to live on. It also made me want to write a lot of stories about magical little junk shops.

    Worst job was advertising copywriter. The last thing I wanted to do when I came home was write fiction after using words to manipulate people for marketing purposes all day. I think it was just the fact that I was ambivalent about working in marketing that got me down, though, because working full-time at a magazine doesn’t seem to hurt my fiction writing. Producing fiction and non-fiction seem to come from different parts of my brain.

  35. Penni on #

    I consider myself lucky, really. I’m a freelance editor but I only do structural reports – not proofreading or anything like that. I also can ring the publishers I work for and ask for more work when we need more money. For me, I think it’s extremely compatible because it constantly teaches me about problem solving, novel structure, characterisation etc. I also like the fact that the whole publishing world is demystified. I started out doing work experience and they offered me more work through that.

    Working in a bookshop is definitely a good companion job because it gives you the opportunity to see the way people interact with books, gives you a sense of books as a marketable commodity (something some writers think of as kinda dirty, but I think it keeps it all real too) and you get discounts!! In bigger bookshops there’s the chance to move into more interesting specialist roles like children’s bookseller or buyer. You won’t make a huge amount of money, but I personally
    think a bit of poverty helps motivate me to write!!

    I know quite a few professional artists (the writers I know well are lucky enough to live off their writing or grants or husbands – my husband lives off me!!). A friend of mine is a postie and he’s finished by 1-3pm most days. He’s on a little motorbike, though we have bicycle posties round her too – I think that would be a good match. Another friend of mine does life modelling (yes in the rudey nudey) and teaches yoga part time. Another does more life modelling and runs a few drawing classes of her own through a local community centre and makes the rest of her living doing professional illustration. I guess it’s being creative and flexible about your approach to working.

    Jobs I think I would like to do for a day: real estate agent (I love walking round other people’s houses), book indexer (sounds soothingly ordered), travel agent (for the discounts), academic, curator of ancient relics (I want to be alone in a museum, and again with the soothingly ordered), book reviewer, teacher (because kids and teenagers are so interesting)…

    I don’t know anyone who lives as a practicing artist who makes much money from their dayjob. If you want that kind of flexibility and you’re not really looking for a career, if you don’t want to take work home etc…then probably you won’t get paid much. SO you have to write harder!

  36. John Scalzi on #

    Professionally speaking, I’ve never not been a writer. It happens from time to time.

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