Don’t give up the day job ~ but not for the reasons you’d think

Why the day job might just save your creative expression.

I sometimes read about writers( and other artists) bewailing the fact that they have to do a day job to support themselves and wishing that they could just jack in said day job and just write all day. The internal conflict between what they wish to do and what they have to do seems to cause much distress and discontent and I thought it might be a good idea to examine this concept in some detail and perhaps place the day job in a different light.
I have two jobs. Neither pays enormously well and they certainly don’t pay all the bills. One has caused me a massive amount of grief over the three and a half years I have been doing it but I won’t whinge about that now. The fact of the matter is that the events of the last few years of that job are such that if I wrote them as a key part of a novel, they would never be believed. My other job takes me all over Europe, I get to meet interesting people, eat occasionally rather challenging food and see places that I’d never have seen. I’m a borderline agoraphobic so ending up with a job that involves traveling seems a pretty huge cosmic joke at times. But it’s pushed me out of my comfort zone, a space which was threatening at one time to become smaller and smaller every year, and testing and enlarging the comfort zone is a vital part of growth.
Each of my job brings me insights and refreshment for my mental landscape that staying home all the time might never do. There comes a time when you need to feed the animal that is your imagination and both of my jobs do just that. It’s not a question of spotting a curious looking chap in a coffee shop and playing at inventing a life story for him: that’s just an exercise. It’s about the feeding of the deep and often unconscious processes going on inside the mind. I get to chat to the strange people in coffee shops and actually ask them their life stories and believe me, wild though my imagination is, there are plenty of times when the stories people tell me are far wilder and more unpredictable than the ones I can invent. I have a knack, a gift if you like, of being approachable and people tell me things. I mean total strangers tell me things they probably wouldn’t tell their families or friends. It would be an easy matter to hijack these tales and use them unadulterated but that’s cheating. Those wild tales, the sights and sounds and sensations all sink deep and are left to ferment. I am fermenting the work stories of the last couple of years and I am not sure yet if the resulting brew is a rough West Country scrumpy or something more refined. Give it time and it becomes something smooth and intoxicating.
I can hear you thinking, well that’s all very well for her but I do a desk job and that never happens to me. Really? I wonder. I’ve done my share of tedious jobs and the teaching job is one that I find tedious at the moment because it’s so full on when there’s work and dead when there’s not. But every day there’s a few gems to be stored away and worked upon. The travel job has its down side: long hours, unpredictable food, being away from home.( I wrote this in a Premier Inn just outside of Leicester because I was to start my working day that night at 11.30pm. I didn’t get to bed before 11pm the next day. I was basically hanging around reading and conning up on my notes for the next day. That side of my job is far from glamorous.)
So, imagine I have the chance to write full time….what would I do? Well, in all probability, I’d probably carry on with both jobs too and there’s good reason for this. In both jobs I often have great gaps between assignments; last winter I had about 7 weeks without any work at all. This year I had no work all March. Even when I am working, I have time at evenings and weekends to write. I have found that my output when I have all the time to write is actually about the same as when I have a limited time. A thousand words a day makes a decent size novel in around three months. A thousand words takes me about an hour. The long hours on coaches and sitting waiting for students also give me a lot of mental space where I can dream and plan and even sit and write if I want to. I seldom write while on a coach because I end up feeling sick and writing by hand is often unreadable when the road is not perfectly smooth(which is all roads!)
The logistics of finding time to write while doing a full or part time job is tricky, especially if you have a family or an active social life, or if your job spills over into your private time in some way. But it’s worth remembering that a whole load of famous writers did just that; few ever earned enoughfrom their writing to live on. Trollope was a postmaster and wrote his daily thousand words before he opened his post office for the day; his output was steady and his work of high quality. Being able to write all day every day guarantees neither high output nor quality. Sometimes the sheer guilty pleasure of getting to write means that like any stolen time, it’s both sweeter in terms of personal satisfaction and in terms of the beauty of what you do with it. If you get up every morning and write, there will come a morning where you wake and think, “Do I have to?” Those mornings start to cluster and before you know where you are the dreaded writer’s block has its claws in you. Waking on a day you have carved out for yourself to do with as you will is a different feeling.
If writing becomes your job, then all the other negative aspects of a job come along too, sooner or later. If writing is your vocation, your calling, your passion, then it will retain its joy, even when you are tearing your hair out over it.
That’s where a real job can save your creative life. You get to do something outside your own inner world, you get to connect with ordinary people as well as the extraordinary ones in your head. It means that those extraordinary ones gain some grounding in reality which in turn leads to greater realism and the ability to capture your readers’ attention and keep it. Imagination is a great tool when blended with experience and when it is blended with experience that is share and understood by your readers then you have a hold on their minds that pure imagination can never give. We need a handhold of the familiar to be able to climb mental mountains. And that’s one of the things an ordinary job can give you.

(A version of this article appeared at last year. )

8 thoughts on “Don’t give up the day job ~ but not for the reasons you’d think

  1. I’m exhausted after reading all that. It’s 5:42am and I have to go to work. 🙂
    Fortunately I’m already here(at home ).

    When Steve Miller hit the big money he was very excited. Now he finally had the money/time to make a great record. He worked on Fly like an eagle everyday for a year or so and he loved it.
    It is his best work but I wonder if his crazy touring year that preceded the creative year is the thing that made it possible. Maybe that rough year
    was responsible for more than the money.
    Maybe it made him reach deep within itself and certainly it gave him the desire to fly,like an eagle.

    Thanks Viv


    • It could well be.
      The thing is, if it was down to having a rough time making you reach deep into the self, I ought to be a bestseller by now!!
      But I’m not and maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it’s not. I don’t know. I just have to keep on keeping on.
      Have a super day!!


  2. Hi Viv

    I agree that sitting at home twiddling fingers inbetween bouts of writing will do nothing for the imagination or a storyline. I suppose what I’d really like to happen, is to make enough money writing, to be able to turn my back on the rat race. I’m not talking lots of money here. I’m talking about enough to write from a little house in Charente, growing fruit and veg, having enough to buy the odd baguette and bottle of wine, having the septic tank emptied every so often and having enough to fly Ryan Air back home for visits 4 times a year.

    I’m sure I could find stimulus for my storylines through cycling through the villages, meeting people, practising the language in cafes/market places, visiting different towns/houses/churches/museums. At my age, there’s quite a lot upstairs stashed away in the old grey matter to draw on if needs be. There’s the internet, other books, conversation – so many other places to find new characters and plots.

    I suppose we all have a dream, and for a lucky few they come true. Meanwhile, the rest of us continue on in their day jobs, actually feeling lucky to have one in this day and age. Imagine if you wanted to write and couldn’t afford a computer? Or God forbid – food to put in your mouth, let alone stationery to send off your submission.

    So all in all, I consider myself blessed – but will keep on dreaming nevertheless.

    Ange xx


    • Oh I understand that.
      I think it’s about being pushed a bit, or a lot psychologically and being taken within. The last month I have had no outside work at all and therefore no money, so have stayed at home lest my wallet run away with me.
      I’ve got a great deal of stuff to draw upon in terms plots but after a while, if you read some novellists, themes get revisited and reworked and get tired.
      I dream too, but I think I am likely to die long before any of my dreams become even close to reality.
      Lovely to see you here, Ange xx


    • I went away and peeled potatoes and parsnips and came back to add something.
      In some ways, whatever FEEDS you and your imagination, is what is important, as well as keeping you in touch with life. What you describe in your dream of moving to France is going to do both.
      Money is a neccessary of life. I have enough. But not the satisfaction and emotional fulfillment of writing and getting paid a decent sum for that writing.
      Cake, and eat it, anyone???


  3. Hi Viv
    A couple thoughts around your piece which I enjoyed – one is you having a travelling job when you’re borderline agoraphobic is about your work offering you the chance to explore your shadow side. I am part of a discussion group where there have been a lot of interesting comments around life giving these opportunities. It seems you have responded wholeheartedly and so you are reaping the benefits.
    The other thought is, there isn’t a good or bad about whether someone makes the thing they love most (writing or whatever) their life’s work or whether they work around it. It depends on the person and what works out for them. As long as it is working for you, that’s what counts. That’s cake and eating it too. Longings and regrets are empty calories.
    Karin x


    • Hi Karin,
      sorry if it came across as being proscriptive- you MUST do this or that. People are all very different and what works for one won’t always work for another.
      I’d noticed a great deal of matter at the time I wrote this from writers who were on the one hand aiming to focus solely on their writing while not engaging with experiences, and then feeling as if they were getting blocked. It’s complicated to explain. In essence, they’d set out to just write and yet found once they did so, they found they couldn’t.
      I’m not sure about responing wholeheartedly. I’m quaking in my boots at the prospect of the trip I begin next week.
      I’m not sure whether longings and regrets are empty calories; at what point do we declare a dream dead and start regretting its demise?


  4. I am looking forward to leaving my full-time job and seeking something part time. Between a full-time job, housework, and kids, there just is no time to write with any kind of consistency. Something had to give and I decided to cut back on the day job or else I’d always regret not taking the opportunity.

    I do agree that writers need outside activity or they may grow stagnant in their isolation. Even volunteering may help get the writer out of the house and exploring avenues they may not otherwise have had. Volunteering at a library, taking a class or two from a local college, working part-time at a coffee shop all offer “something to do” when someone isn’t sitting down and writing. 🙂


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