(or The Adulterer's Guide to Writing)
Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?
- Philip Larkin
Medicine is my wife, but writing is my mistress.
- Anton Chekov
In my own more black-humored moments, I'm prone to joke that I'm a
two-career family. I've been a research scientist, a medical resident, and now a
medical writer -- and I've been a part-time professional SF writer (hey, I've
earned enough to pay tax!) for six years. I
have four novels published, one submitted, a second nearly finished, and a third
embarked upon. Plus I have a list
of wanna-writes as long as my arm and representing about three times my present
life expectancy. I have had my years of yearning to write full time. For one
year, between years in University, I tried it. I didn't like it. I was broke,
trying to live on a modest advance, I was bored, and I was alternately lonely
and misanthropic. My ferment-and-gush working method did not lend itself to a
daily shift in the word-factory. On
the other hand, I don't think I could give up writing if I tried, and I like
being published. So I've had, perforce, to come to terms with the toad.
So this is an article about not writing for a living. About
doing things the hard way -- or, depending upon your perspective, maybe the easy
way. For me at least, there was a fair learning curve as I worked out what did
and did not work, and why. I admit that I'm writing from a bias, as I've been
spoiled: I was born into a family where education was valued and money for
schooling was readily available. It was never assumed that I would just make do
until marriage. So I've been often overworked, sometimes underpaid, but never
undereducated or underemployed. I'm
also single, with neither kid nor cat. That said, I'd like to go into the pluses
and minuses of the one-person-two-career lifestyle, the characteristics of an
ideal writer's job, and a handful of survival tips that are the legacy of bitter
Plusses of Having a Job
1. Money. The
average first novel earns a few thousand dollars and the average fiction
writer's yearly income comes out to about that. The "day job" buys
secure and quiet space, equipment and resources ranging from reference books to
Internet access to travel. It gives the writer a respectable front for dealing
with banks and mortgage lenders. It also buys eventual retirement, though no
writer should ever put off writing until retirement. Life is not that
2. Expertise and
experience. Someone -- I cannot
remember who -- once observed that, unlike mainstream fiction, SF was about
work. It's true. Even the unemployed or dropout protagonists in SF (and fantasy,
too) will be participants in an underground economy. It's often through their
work that trouble finds them, when they take on a fraught, dangerous, or dubious
job. The experience of work is useful to a genre writer on several levels.
Practical knowledge of a field can be tapped for speculation or translated into
a different form. Awareness of the culture and socialization process at work can
be exploited to build societies and organizations. People, personalities, and
politics can be borrowed, adapted, caricatured, and extrapolated. You'll have a
sense of the power of economics over human lives and the ability to speak with
authority about one or more areas of human endeavor.
The month my UK publisher dumped me, I was the ICU resident during the worst
'flu/pneumonia season for a decade. I opened the letter, shrugged, and headed
out the door for another 28-hour shift of trying to keep people alive until
their lungs healed up. All things in perspective. Work can buffer you against
the reversals of your writing fortunes, and writing can buffer you from the
reversals of your work fortunes.
4. Structure. I
was not born organized. I compensate obsessively and fake it well at times, but
without some kind of external structure to my life I waste an inordinate amount
of time. Working makes my writing time efficient. It also suits my rather
peculiar rhythm. I write in bursts, as scenes come clear. In between -- for a
day or several -- I need something to keep me occupied while things ferment! One
of the attractions of my present job is the twenty-minute walk to work. Walking
shakes up the fermentate most effectively and all kinds of things bubble up.
whether mental or social. Some writers have tried the full-time freelance route
and bailed because they missed the social life of work, the human contact and
stimulation. For myself, it's the mental stimulation I feed on. When I'm running
on a deadline and going a little bit zany, that's when my characters really want
to come out and play.
freedom. Pat Murphy argued for this -- at the time she was working in the
Exploratorium in San Francisco. If you're not relying on your writing for an
income, you can take more risks, work farther into ideas before you present
them, and are not tied to the whims of the market. You can do what Marie Jakober
does and routinely put aside a first draft until your mind is clear of what Le
Guin called "the book in the head" and you can edit what's actually on
the paper and not what's in your mind.
Minuses of Having a Job
1. The time
crunch. There is no escaping the brutal truth: There's only a set number of
hours in the week. Whatever kind of writer you are, you will have less time and
energy available to research and write. You
will almost certainly take longer to perfect your craft, your overall output
will be smaller, and you will have less time to participate in the fan and
writing community, so you will be at a disadvantage for receiving recognition
early in your career. Social activities will compete with writing time. Exercise
time will complete with writing time. Sleep will compete with writing time. Life
will compete with writing time. You won't be able to set your own schedule, and
you'll go into work with scenes bubbling over in your head, hoping they don't go
flat before you get them out. A flat scene is like a flat beer.
2. Energy, ditto
(and see below).
3. The Moral
Majority Attitude. This is the one that says that if you're not doing one thing
and one thing alone, you're not "committed" and not
"dedicated" enough. It's the one that said to women that they couldn't
be writers and mothers. I've met it in research science, and I've met it among
writers. It's more an irritant than a minus, but there are bosses -- and writers
-- who seem to have a "forsaking all others" expectation, and they
will be at best unhelpful and at worst, obstructive. Avoid 'em, if possible.
Writer's Best Job
Writers have held every job known and have probably invented
a few in their ceaseless quest for the truly writing-friendly job. In Toads:
Australian Writers: Other Work, Other Lives (yes, that's where the title
comes from), Andrew Sant collected contributions from writers on their working
life which ranged from recognizable single-career tracks to random walks across
the employment roster: clerical work, social work, teaching, dog-walking,
stevedoring, construction, furniture removal, scientific research, delivering
post, selling door to door -- whatever was needed and on hand at the time.
Stirring around in my memory, I turned up Kathy Page, who trained as a carpenter
to support her writing, P.D. James, who wrote her first novels from six to eight
in the morning before going on to her civil service job, Dorothy L. Sayers, who
started out as an advertising copywriter, computer-boffins like Greg Egan, and
various scientist-writers, like David Brin and Gregory Benford .
There is also a clutch of physician-writers starting at least as far back
as the fourteenth century and including William Carlos Williams and Sir Arthur
What makes a good job for a writer? The basic answer is a job that
the writer can do and still produce the writing they wish to produce. Beyond
that, it depends almost entirely on the person, although to me there are those
two general factors in the equation: time and energy.
First, time. How much time does the job claim -- really?
Consider the expectation of unpaid overtime, work-related socializing,
commuting, travel (evenings spent in hotel rooms), time 'on call', hours worked
to pay for a work wardrobe, breakfasts, lunches, car for commuting, other
expenses. A 'good job' leaves you enough time after work and other commitments
to produce written material, given your work style. Keep in mind whether a good
day's work is 200 words or 4000, whether the first draft is a
straight-to-copy-edit-gem (I hate you!) or a dog's breakfast, whether you feel
compelled to look up every bit of detail in a textbook or wing it on sheer
imaginative brio -- in other words, how long you will take to produce each
manuscript. A 'good job' also gives you useful time to write.
It doesn't require you to be at your desk at the crack of dawn if you
only work well in the mornings -- to stay late
if you work in the evenings. My ideal job -- which I don't have yet -- involves
flextime, so that I could bank time while things are fermenting, and catch the
flow when the cork pops!
Second, energy. Writing requires emotional, physical and mental
energy, and a 'good job' for a writer is one that does not suck any one of those
tanks dry. People's tanks have different capacities. My mental-energy tank is
the largest; I have very seldom been mentally exhausted, or even mentally
fatigued. My emotional-energy tank is shallowest. Work that requires sustained
"emotional labour" leaves me depleted. Hence I have gravitated towards work that draws most heavily
on the nearly-bottomless mental-energy tank, but spares my shallower tank, so
that after nine hours at work I usually have the resources left for another two
to four hours writing. Your mileage may vary: if you're an extravert, you may
need to work around people to keep you stimulated and your energy up. You may
find that you cannot sustain day-and-night intellectual effort, and need to seek
out a job that makes physical but not mental demands.
On a related tack, should a writer do a writing job, or a job as
far removed from writing as possible? It's possible to make a writing-based
living in journalism, technical, scientific, or medical writing, or in academia.
Some writers have dug themselves comfortable niches in these fields; others
would rather work construction, move furniture, clean houses, or wait tables.
Having started as a medical writer a mere two months ago, I've noticed that the
words come more easily, my typing speed has notched up some more -- and that my
eyes feel like they've been rolled in sand. It may be allergies, but more likely
it's that eight plus one to five hours a day of computer work. You win some, you
1. Keep your skills current. If your employer is parsimonious about
education and skills training, seek out your own. If the job goes sour,
up-to-date skills will help you you find another job in short order.
2. Stay out of
(needless) debt. Consumer culture promotes the belief that buying is a creative
act. It is perilously easy to succumb at any time, but particularly so when your
writing's in a slump, your self-esteem is at subbasement level, and your novel
has all the appeal of 5-day-old potato peelings. Occasional mall-therapy and a
month or so in the red is okay; however, a habit of buying could land you in a
cycle of working at a job that's killing your writing to pay the bills incurred
from spending to make you feel creative.
3. As early as is
possible, build up an escape fund of six months' or so living expenses. This is
your take-this-job-and-shove-it money, for when you need to get out for your
sanity or your writing's sake. If need be, hide it even from your nearest and
dearest. Break it only for frank emergencies, and then make it a priority to
replenish it. (And should I have failed to persuade you of the joys of the
adulterous life, the lack of debt coupled with the savings could buy you that
precious year of revision and writing the next novel when you get a contract.)
Sant, Andrew. Toads:
Australian Writers: Other Work, Other Lives. Allen and Unwin Ltd, Sydney,
1992. ISBN 1-86373-183-0