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 www.creativebarbwire.wordpress.com last year. )