Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Keep Your Day Job - Heather Dyer

copyright Fountain_Head

“If only I had more time,” we often say, “I’d be able to finish my novel.” We feel that if only we could live the ideal ‘writer’s life’ (alone in an isolated cottage overlooking the sea, perhaps) we could write our masterpiece. But how many writers actually live this sort of life? And is it really helpful?

The truth is that not many writers can be productive for an eight-hour day. Personally, I can only manage two hours at most before I have to do some admin or run an errand. I might go back to my book later in the day, but I can’t write all day, every day. In fact, I have come to believe that pushing on before your work is ready can actually be counterproductive. It can mean taking your story down the wrong track, or not going deep enough.

Having a day job (or other responsibilities) means we have to do our writing in short bursts when we get the chance. But this has some advantages.

1. Being committed to non-writing activities frees up our unconscious, so that it can find solutions while our thinking brains are otherwise engaged. Trying to think our way out of a plot problem is rarely successful. Answers seem to come in the form of images or ideas that occur to us while we’re in the middle of doing something else

2. Something else that a day job can do for our writing is to help us take it less seriously. Having a day job means that writing can remain a labour of love; something that you do for fun, as opposed to something that you do because you have to. As Frank Cottrell Boyce says: "real creativity should feel like a game, not a career..."

3. A day job also means that we have to interact with the sort of people we might never otherwise meet – and since it is primarily through our interactions with others that we develop and mature, a day job can often provide our richest life experience and some of our best material.

Carol Lloyd, in her insightful book Creating a Life Worth Living, classifies day jobs into ‘No Contest’ jobs, ‘Wellspring’ jobs and ‘Big Tent’ jobs. Wellspring jobs (like copywriting or journalism) use the same skills you use in your own writing. These jobs may improve your technique, but can if too demanding they can sap your creativity, leaving none left for your own work. The No Contest job (working in a bookshop or gardening, for example) typically don’t require you to invest too much mental energy, but may not pay very well. Big Tent jobs involve working in the industry (like teaching creative writing or working in publishing) and can be useful for networking.

So, although we may dream about living the ‘writer’s life’, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the first requirement of being a writer is to live fully. The writer who cuts themselves off from the rest of the world may be limiting the source of their inspiration. A day job or family responsibilities can give us a sense of belonging and make us feel part of the world. And when you stop thinking about your writing, you allow unconscious to get to work on it. Most importantly a day job leaves our writing where it’s meant to be: somewhere we can escape to – a place where we can play. Perhaps having to fit our writing in around a day job isn’t such a bad thing after all?

Heather Dyer - children's author and Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow


Jon M said...

Interesting post and very pertinent for me as I've just given up the day job. I agree with you up to a point that day jobs can be a source of inspiration but many (even when they're part time)demand all your time and concentration. I've been a teacher and writer for 3 or 4 years now but when the chance came to write full time, I took it. I do school visits and travel all over the country meeting all kinds of people. As my time is freed up, the prospect of events abroad is very realistic. These are things I'd never have been able to do if I had a day job. Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a lovely man and he's right it SHOULD feel like fun. But he's made a career out of writing.

Elen C said...

I've just changed my day job to working as an usher in an arts cinema - I watch films and occasionally tell people to hush. Very much a No Contest job, but more than that, it's actually very inspiring. I consider myself very lucky indeed!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Nice to know that two hours is the limit for 'real' work for others too. When revising for university exams a looooong time ago I would see people sitting in front of books in the library for hours and hours on end, but knew very well that didn't work for me. I'd do a couple of hours, then get outside and walk. Two hours of creative writing is very much my limit, but there are so many other related things that fill the rest of the day.

Penny Dolan said...

Wise words, Heather, and an interesting analysis of different jobs.

However, I think that full time teaching (especially plus family stuff, etc) leaves almost no space for writing time. So good luck, Jon M!

A nice solution, Elen.

Sue Bursztynski said...

It must be nice to have the *option* of giving up your day job, even if it's not a good idea. I haven't had that option. I don't have a partner to pay the bills while I work from home. So I will have to take your word for it. I have one of those jobs that does, indeed, sap my creativity in other areas - teaching. And not running writers' workshops either. Humdrum daily ordinary teaching of teenagers in the school system. The one time I had a term off, I wrote a book. I guess I valued that precious time before returning to the classroom. So, Heather, planning to take your own advice, then? ;-)

Heather Dyer said...

Ha! Thanks for the comments. And good luck Jon M. I suppose in all honesty, who wouldn't give up an exhausting day job to write, if that's what they really want to do? But I suppose it's all about balance in the end - and retaining that sense of 'play' and freedom, and not getting too stressed or too focussed on the writing as though you're a production line - as I feel I probably did. When I finally gave up the 'job' of writing, because I felt I was forcing it too much, I started writing again... Good luck finding a balance everyone. H

Heather Dyer said...

...and yes, I have a day job! But not an all-consuming one.