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
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