Every one knows that you’re not in it for the money. The money might come, but it’ll come later, years later, after you’ve amassed a small library of classics. Or it might come biweekly if you work in media or journalism.
For everyone else, there’s the Joe Job, the daily necessity of labor and exertion to fuel your creative career. For a lot of us who were trained academically to write, this is also a necessity to improve value of our work.
When I was taking fiction courses in college, I mostly spoke with people in my own age bracket. After college, I was unemployed for quite a while. And you know what? I didn’t get much writing done. There was very little stimuli, outside of media. I wrote one piece that I’m horrified to revisit. It’s flat. It works as a cerebral exercise and only that, as there are few things in the story that resemble real life interactions or motivations. Once I was brought into the fold of the workin’ Joe, I couldn’t stop writing. I figured I could use my daily experiences to aid my creative process. It worked. Because, hell, you have to work a job, right? That much in life is certain until Robots replace us all. So until then, you may as well utilize your 9-5 the best you can.
One aspect of trying to create a career out of fiction writing that not a lot of people consider is what kind of job you need to have to make it work. I’ve watched a few of my fellow creative minded friends walk into a demanding (sometimes satisfying) career and hang up their paint brushes. Now, this could be irrational, but I admit that I’m afraid to lose that freedom, so I stick to employment that allows my writing life to exist– staying out of offices and school rooms and maintaining flexible schedules (At least that’s how I frame it. You could also say, poor job market, Millenial work ethic, yada yada. Clam it). These jobs might not pay as well as I’d like, but there are lessons inherent in any professional capacity. Let’s take a look at some that I’ve learned:
When I was employed before college, I wasn’t looking for anything I could use. I wasn’t writing then. NEXT.
My first job out of college was as a barista. It was a seasonal job and I was terminated after three months. I didn’t get much out of it writing wise, other than a sense of schedule. I slowly became more consistent with the time I set aside to write because, well, I had to. Simple lesson, but an important one. Now that I wasn’t writing for a publication or for classes, I had to motivate myself to get things done. During my period of unemployment, however, I didn’t value my time as effectively as I did while holding a position somewhere. Once scarcity was established, I began to value my personal time exponentially– and began understanding how to use it effectively to start and complete writing projects.
The next job I got was at a home improvement warehouse. I liked it. It required a lot of physical labor, a few tasks that required quiet concentration and a lot of talking to people. And people get chatty at those stores. It helped me connect with blue collar Americans. My co-workers and customers fed my imagination and gave me grounded details of their rural lives. It was stuff that I could take back to my desk and fold into scenes, enriching the sense of realism. One of my supervisors found out that I was a writer and joked that I was going to make him a villain in one of my books. And then I did, as I could perfectly account for how he’d react in any given situation. That job also helped my dialogue immensely. More on that in a bit.
Third job? Makin’ sandwiches. Everyone should hold a job wherein they don’t give a single, solitary doo-doo about at least once in their lives. And then they should quit. I’m not sure I learned a writing lesson at this one, but I did learn how far I could push my writing schedule while phoning in a work performance. At the frenzied height of one of my novel revisions, the daily schedule looked like this:
3 PM – 9 PM: Make sandwiches, go home
9 PM -4 AM: Write
4 AM – 8 AM: Lucid dream about writing
8 AM – 10 AM: Write down the passages I wrote while asleep
10 AM – 2 PM: Nap
And repeat for nearly two weeks. Then I got sick and had to tone it down a little. Maybe I learned a lesson about my own boundaries and limits. Maybe not. NEXT.
I did tech support for Apple products at a call center. Not only did I get an education in pacifying aggravated customers, I got the opportunity to chat with every geographic region in the USA. It not only gave me a crash course in regional dialect, but also how different communication methods provide insight into how people think. I came into that job with the bias that New Yorkers were a pissed off, curmudgeonly people and that Southerners were a simple folk. I was delightfully proven wrong. New Yorkers speak fast. They live in a fast-paced world, even when they aren’t in a hurry. There’s no reason to take offense to that. They’re also probably the most generous people I spoke with– I’ve been invited to dinner no less than five times by New Yorkers and Jerseryans, every time in an aggressively friendly manner. Meanwhile I learned that while Southerners speak at a slow pace, they’re not slow witted. I held that bias longer than I’d like to admit. Then I had a call where I was walking someone step by step through a reboot process, and usually by step 3 or 4, I let the customer take it from there. He didn’t. I asked him if he knew the next steps in the process and he said that he did but was waiting until I told him to do so. It wasn’t that he, or Southerners generally, was a dum-dum, he just respected my authority on iPhones. How this relates to writing (you may have wondered 200 words ago) is the dynamic of effective dialogue. It’s my opinion that dialogue, in addition to any narrative information conveyed, should reflect an attitude. In that respect, this job was a goldmine. I figured if how a person asked for help with iMessage could sketch a small portrait, then every tiny line out of a character’s mouth should be another brush stroke of a mural.
I’m going to skip all the other jobs, the gigs, crawling back to previous employers, and other months of unemployment and go straight to my currently held position:
It’s pretty great. It’s physical, so I don’t resent sitting at a computer for hours at a time at night, provides enough critical problem solving so I don’t go completely insane, and since it requires following procedures, I have the opportunity to day dream and mentally review what I’m working on creatively, fix logical issues, revisit character relationships and figure out the next step, all while performing my daily paid duties. Or, I listen to podcasts (some about writing, some not) to keep myself up to date in the goings on in the world without that biting into time after work so that I’m prepared to dig into my projects in a creative mindset when I get home.
The point is, you shouldn’t despair at your job. There are opportunities to expand your creative life everywhere. Keep your mental note pad open and figure out a way to keep writing, even when you’re not writing.