On Keeping the Day Job

We’ve all got to make a living somehow. Some of us have to write, too. We can’t help it.  It’s a kind of compulsion. It would be great to have all day to create, to edit, to do some social media duties and never have to worry about paying the bills. But if you’re likoffice-spacee me and weren’t born independently wealthy, you’ve got to work.

So what to do? How should you make a living? And how do you square making a living with pursuing your creative avocation? Here’s a few things I’ve learned along the way. Most apply to writing, but they could apply to any creative line of work.

Rethink that Super-High-Stress Career
Maybe becoming a lawyer or a surgeon isn’t the best path for you. If you’re really dedicated to becoming a writer or an artist, you might want to consider putting away that LSAT, MCAT or GMAT test book. There’s nothing wrong with being a lawyer, doctor, etc., but you have to think realistically about work-life balance. Sure, those are fine ways to make a living, but you have to put in a lot of time (measured in years) and money (measured in the $100,000s) to get a career in those fields. And even when you get there, being a top-notch lawyer, doctor, or business manager will probably not give you lots of free time to write.

Sure, there are people who have “shot the moon” in those professions, making a lot of money and cashing out. But this is unlikely and a risky proposition. And it requires incredible self-discipline and a long wait for the payoff.

Consider a Job that Pay the Bills, but Is Flexible
Instead, you might want to consider the middle path. Not a job that’s a dead end or meaningless for you, but something that pays the bill and allows for the max time for other pursuits.

One of my best writing gigs (and realistically, probably a relic of the 90s) was as freelance ad copywriter. It paid well and left me a decent amount of time to write. On those days when I wasn’t writing ads for money, I could have a long breakfast, a couple of cups of coffee and go for a walk along the beach. Around 11 a.m., I’d hunker down and start writing for the day. It was epic.

Or take my friend, Daniel. He’s a neo-natal nurse. It can be stressful, no doubt. But the great thing? It’s three-days on, three days off. You get three solid days to recuperate and write. A nice writing gig.

I’ve heard teaching can also be a great writing gig: lots of time off in the summer and a stable income. A great combo for writing. I always personally thought that being a security guard at a car park or a warehouse down by the docks or some other low-priority target, would be a great gig for a writer. There are other great gigs out there too. Anything that lets you turn off completely, is stable and gives you the flexibility and energy to write is ideal.

Consider a Day Job that Includes Writing (or art, music, etc.)
Also, don’t forget to consider a job that makes use of your talents. If you’re a writer, consider a  writing gig. If you’re artistic, consider something artistic.

For example, Mario Vargas Llosa worked for years as a journalist, before writing his first novel. If you’re someone who’s considered writing fiction seriously, it’s probably because you have some talent at writing to begin with. Why not take advantage of that talent and look for a job in that field?

For years, I’ve made a living off of writing. Not fiction writing, mind you. But writing for companies and clients. If you get some experience you can actually make some decent money at it.

The same thing goes for artists: consider working as a graphic artist at an ad agency or company. Or for a musician: consider being a session musician or teaching. There might be a way to make a living at what you love to do though you’ve never considered it.

When to Make the Jump
Of course, there may come a time when you decide to ditch your real job. A time when you feel you’re close to success or have already achieved it. It’s hard to say when the right time will come.

But, for a writer, it’s probably when you’ve got the contract for your first novel signed, if not later than that. After all, it’s your life here and it seems to be getting harder and harder for writers to make it these days…which brings us to our last point.

Don’t Forget: Jobs Can Give You Great Material
Sure, it would be great to move to Europe, get bankrolled by your parents and write the great novel we’re all waiting for. Though it’s usually glossed over, that’s what Hemingway did when he wrote The Sun Also Rises. I can’t not support this. Hey, man, if you find a sustainable way to bankroll your creativity (parents, lovers, a sponsor) I’m all for it. You just have to make sure that it’s sustainable or that you have an escape plan for when the funding dries up.

But don’t forget one important point: you need something to write about. Some of the greatest books ever written came from experience out there working. Would Melville have written Moby Dick if he had stayed at home in Nantucket? Would Dashiell Hammett have written The Maltese Falcon if he had only read stories about detectives? Would Chekhov ever have been able to capture the despondent ennui of provincial Russia if he hadn’t been a village doctor in the same? If Ken Kesey hadn’t worked at a mental hospital, would he ever have written the brilliant One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

Conversely, would Lovecraft have kept writing longer if he had a sustainable career outside of writing? And would Hemingway have written a broader, more interesting set of novels, if he had not struck the jackpot in his mid-20s?

Of course, we’ll never know. But  it’s something to think about while you’re slaving away at that day job. Just remember: keep going.

Until next time,


What else could it be for the musical conclusion today than “God Bless the Child” by Billie Holiday?

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Sing it, Girl.

1 thought on “On Keeping the Day Job

  1. I work to pay my bills, and I write to unwind. Cheers.


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