Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Finding the Right Day Job

By Karen Pon

©2002, Karen Pon

Author's note:  This article stemmed from a discussion within the Holly Lisle Forward Motion Writer's Community and members' quotes are anonymous unless requested otherwise. 

It has been described as life-sucking, and accused of draining a writer's energy and creativity, and many writers dream of leaving it behind forever.  But it pays the bills.  It's the Day Job.  Many writers long to write full time but, for the moment at least, need the financial security of a steady income.  So what kinds of day job do writers have? 

First, let's look at what sort of jobs writers hold before going full time.  Read the author bios on book covers and you'll often find that a full-time writer has worked a number of diverse jobs.  Holly Lisle is a prime example, having “...sung in restaurants, sold newspaper advertising, taught beginning guitar, done commercial artwork, sold burgers at McDonald's, and worked as a registered nurse...”1  Of course not every writer has held such a varied progression of jobs.  Terry Pratchett's bio states, “He has managed to avoid all the really interesting jobs authors take in order to look good in this kind of biography.”2  Garth Nix worked as a PR consultant, and his bio states, “This career was forced upon him after every other writer took the lumberjack, prospector, deep sea diver and short order cook jobs.”3 

Conversely, many successful writers who maintain full-time jobs are in careers that stimulate their writing.  Gregory Benford “is a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine”4 as well as being the author of a number of successful science fiction novels.  Greg Egan is a computer programmer, and Carl Sagan was an astronomy professor at Cornell University right up to his death in 1996.  

Many professionals also eventually quit their day jobs to write full time.  Isaac Asimov was an associate professor at the Boston University School of Medicine for many years, retaining his title at the university even after giving up teaching and research duties (and the salary) to write full time.  James P. Hogan was an electronics engineer and later sales training consultant, and L. Sprague De Camp was an aeronautical engineer before turning to writing full time.  On the fantasy side of the fence, Sara Douglass was a university professor in medieval history before leaving to write fantasy.   

Don't worry, you don't have to have a Ph.D. in physics or history to write science fiction and fantasy.  Many writers studied English or creative writing and worked as teachers or journalists or in publishing before writing full time.  Melanie Rawn, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Neil Gaiman are all examples of this group.  J.R.R. Tolkein was an English language and literature professor when he wrote the Middle Earth books.  Susan Shwartz is a financial writer and editor and is also an assistant vice president of a Wall Street Investment firm.  Guy Gavriel Kay studied law, although never actually practised.  Matthew Reilly practised briefly as a lawyer before achieving success with his writing. 

So what's the right day job for you?  Will it be a passion that you can not only work with but also write about?  Or perhaps a career to help hone your writing skills and maybe get some industry contacts?  Just something to keep food on the table and a roof over your head while you get your writing career off the ground? 

I'm one of the lucky ones who fall into the first category.  At university I studied a double major of environmental science and maths and then acquired a graduate diploma of meteorology.  This gives me a good background for the physical aspects of worldbuilding, one of my favourite parts of fantasy and science fiction writing.  At present I work as a meteorologist and find that the shift work, for the most part, suits my writing life.   The work itself is mentally stimulating and fun, as are (most of) my colleagues.  I love my job and I love my writing and right now, I wouldn't give either of them up.   

A couple of the community members who also love their day jobs had this to say: 

I'm a fourth generation cattle rancher, and when you're raised doing this it really gets in your blood. Yeah, the hours are lousy and it doesn't pay, but I really love what I do. In fact, I'm not certain I could continue writing if I was to leave the ranch, as it's the source of my creativity. - Justin Stanchfield

I get a lot of ideas from working, and even if I could write full time, I'd probably still have a part time job. Actually, I'd love to be able to just work part time.

Here's how I cope: I went through a succession of jobs until I found one that was interesting, flexible, and where I had a boss that didn't care what I did in my downtime. I have an hour for lunch, and I usually stay at my desk and write. This is the highlight of my day. If I have to work at my desk, I usually write while I work. I have both Internet and email access, so I can email things to and from work. That's pretty much it. When I get stuck writing, I leave my desk go do some work and come back with ideas. (Forward Motion Writer's Community Member)

Some jobs are more suited to the writing life than others.  A transcript of a panel discussion from Chicon 2000 (World Science Fiction Convention) themed “If I shouldn't quit my day job, what day job should I not quit? can be found here  (courtesy of Jim Mills).  Following are some suggestions from the Forward Motion Writer's Community: 

I make sure my job is one that I can write down my ideas when I get them, and email myself notes and snippets of scenes throughout the day. I also make sure that my job doesn't require me to "give my all" to it and it alone. My day job is not my career. Writing is my career.  

If I had straight back and even length legs and normal strength...I'd be working as a night shift security guard riding up and down the elevator, staying awake, working on novels while training myself to notice sounds, motion, anything outside my post while writing. Probably by working the least building creaks into the story imaginatively. Knew a fellow in San Francisco who did just that, was published and working on his fourth detective novel.  -  Robert A. Sloan, author of Raven Dance 

One alternative is to find a low stress day job that's compatible with writing. Night security is one, toll collector might be another.

Another alternative is to try to find a day job that involves writing in some way. That's what I did before I went solo this summer. The good news is that such jobs can be very interesting and enjoyable. The bad news is that you might use up all your writing energy working on things other than your WIP. (Forward Motion Writer's Community Member)

If you're stuck in a day job or life situation you can't escape, make the most of it in your writing.  Here is how some writers chose to cope with their situations:

I've recently attached this whole scenario to a fantasy idea and - stand back folks, it's a gusher!  It's an idea for an urban fantasy. I decided it was important to be urban as that way the main character doesn't actually 'escape' his situation, as he would in a cross-over: he's still trapped in his job by day and needs to figure out the solution to this before he can solve the fantasy issue.  In a way, I suppose that is how I cope with the day job... (Forward Motion Writer's Community Member)

I took my worldbuilding notebook to work with me, and in between doing CPR and starting IVs and dealing with trauma and drunks and pregnant women and frantic families, I'd do a bit of worldbuilding or quiz doctors on the best way to kill people or bounce ideas back and forth on how to develop an intelligent life form with a high internal pressure but no well-defined circulatory system .

I kept a sheet of paper tucked in one pocket for ideas. I used my co-workers and patients as characters. (Forward Motion Writer's Community Member)

1. Turn co-workers into characters. I worked for this one woman who hated me.  She treated me like dirt, but instead of retaliating and getting fired, I modelled a villain after her. All the snide remarks she threw at me went right into dialogue. At the end of the novel, I killed her character in a particularly gruesome way.

2. Commute roleplay (this one is for working mothers and fathers.) I had a problem driving with my kids in the car; they were always fighting and distracting me, and by the time I got to work I was a bundle of nerves myself. One morning I got a bright idea, and announced our van was a spaceship;  I was the Captain, my daughter the ship's engineer, and my son the weapons officer. On the drive to school, I ordered my new "crew" to report, fire, recommend evasive manoeuvres, etc. All the other cars were either friendly allies or alien raiders. They got totally into it and the drive to school became an adventure. I found a Star Trek keychain that makes the photon torpedoes sound and the laser sounds and that's what we use to zap all those other mini-van raiders. (If you can do this with your boss, I want to know about it.)

3. Translate work into fiction. I thought bids and contracts were boring, until I actually read them one day, and found the flow and presentation of the legal wording helped me compose an authentic treaty dialogue between two characters in a story. I started observing the hierarchy at work, how people related to and regarded each other, and drew out character maps based on those relationships. Even learning about commercial air conditioning equipment bailed me out of a fictional situation where I need my characters to escape a small room, and had them go through the air ducts and into an equipment room.

4. Carry your dreams with you. I am in love with my Palm Pilot and its folding keyboard. I wish I'd had this back when I was working for other people. I would have typed my way through every lunch hour. I did work a few jobs where my bosses gave me permission to use the company computer at lunch or after hours to work on writing; if applicable, why not ask your boss about the same? I also carried a journal with me in my purse to make notes, and a small tape recorder to dictate ideas into when I was stuck in traffic.  (Forward Motion Writer's Community Member)

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to the Forward Motion Writer's Community Member who, both on the discussion board and in chat, contributed to this article.  Much of the author biographical information was obtained from the author bios in their books and through links to author websites from the author and fan tribute sites listing at www.sfsite.com.  

References

http://hollylisle.com/author/bio1c.html (Back)

2 Pratchett, Terry and Gaiman, Neil. Good Omens, Corgi, 1990. (Back)

3 http://members.ozemail.com.au/~garthnix/garthnix.html (Back)

4 http://www.authorcafe.com/benford/bio.html (Back)