5 Silver Linings of Having A Day Job

Let's face it: having a day job sucks. But sometimes life puts us in a position where we have to work outside our writing career, and we can either waste time bemoaning this fact, or we can make the best of it.

By "day job," I'm not talking about freelance journalism gigs (like the one I have here at LitReactor), which are obviously separate from your fiction writing. To me, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, it's a part of your writing life. No, what I'm referring to are jobs that either have nothing to do with writing—ones that solely provide money for rent, food, and other necessities of life—or jobs that overlap with writing to some degree (like teaching, editing, proofreading, being a librarian, etc.) but which are not, strictly speaking, writing gigs. Do we want these jobs? Yes, not really, depends on what it is, hell no, get me out of here, etc., etc., etc.

Take me, for example. I've done my share of bemoaning, it's true (just ask my fiancé). But lately, I've tried to look at my day job in as positive a light as I can. No, I'm not always successful, but trying to stay upbeat about the necessity of the job is the key here.

This notion of positivity relates not just to the maintenance of one's sanity—there actually are benefits to having a day job. I remind myself of these benefits (or at least I try to) every time I feel antsy and want to quit. And if you can find the silver lining in your day job, you'll be a healthier, less stressed individual overall, which means your writing will be better too (see Robbie Blair's column How Stress Assassinates Creativity for a broader discussion of this topic).

Here are five ways you can stay positive in your day job.

1. Your Day Job Doesn't Have To Suck

But...Wait, what?

Yes, I understand I just got through saying that day jobs suck. And it's true, but only to a degree. It sucks that we writers (or painters, musicians, actors, etc.) have to have them. It would be nice and swell if we could just get paid to do what we love and never have to do anything else.

Unfortunately, that's not how the world works. We humans have to do things we don't want to do all the time. I mean, even something as simple as going to the bathroom—who really LOVES going to the bathroom? If we had the option of not going, I'm pretty sure we would. I would anyway. It's such a waste of time.

If you can find the silver lining in your day job, you'll be a healthier, less stressed individual overall, which means your writing will be better too.

Now, I'm not saying because life is sometimes unfair, we should simply roll over and take whatever shit it has to throw at us. Quite the opposite, in fact. What I'm saying is, if you have to have a day job, get the best day job available to you. Yes, it will take more effort, and it will take more time away from your writing, but if you get a job that you enjoy doing and that you feel compelled to excel at, then you'll have more time to write in the long run.

Consider the alternative (and I've done this too): bouncing around from odd job to temp job, making just enough to pay your rent and bills, then quitting. It sounds nice and free in theory—you're never attached to any one shit job for very long. But, the problem is, once you've left your current shit job, you have to go out and find another one. That takes time and effort, which you could be allocating for your writing. See what I'm getting at here?

Lots of writers also teach. They spend years in school getting degrees so they can get good teaching jobs. Our own Jessica Meddows does lawyerly things when she isn't writing. Rob W. Hart has his gig with mysteriouspress.com. Here's a Slate article that lists numerous famous authors who also held down jobs unrelated to their writing. These are all jobs they include in their writer bios, so they must enjoy doing them in addition to their writing, yeah?

As for myself, well, I don't mention my day job in my author bio, but it's not because I don't enjoy it (I have a very specific reason for my secrecy, which I won't get into here). I will say that I'm on an inventory team, which means I get to dwell in a stockroom and be antisocial. This works out for me since I'm a big introvert. We work extremely hard, my teammates and I, but we also listen to whatever music we choose all day long, and I get to apply my natural-born organizational abilities and engage in creative problem solving. 

Do I want to quit this job and write exclusively? You're damn right I do. Would I trade this day job for something that intersects with my writing life? Given the right opportunity, sure. Do I hate my job? I hate the stress that comes with it from time to time, but no, overall, I don't hate my job.

And that's the point here: find a day job you like, and stick with it until you don't have to/want to anymore.

2. Literal Benefits

One nice thing about the company I work for: they offer a solid benefits package. It's a hell of a thing, being comfortably insured, particularly since I have to see the chiropractor a lot. Moreover, my insurance covers my fiancé as well. Right now, she has her own coverage, but in the past I've put her on my plan, which was extremely helpful, since she has a serious case of fibromyalgia, and thus has to see the doctor regularly.

Apart from insurance, my company also offers way-above-average pay, stipends for public transport and various other discounts, both internally and externally. My life is made significantly easier by the benefits my company offers, and they are benefits my writing life simply doesn't offer. So even if I start getting more freelance opportunities or if my fiction takes off, I'll probably still be with this company for a while, even in a part-time setting (yes, my benefits don't change, even if I'm part time).

3. The IRS Gets Their Pound of Flesh From Your Day Job, Not From Your Writing

If you've ever been paid for your writing, you're probably familiar with the good ole 1099 contract form, which is basically just like the W2 you fill out for hourly/salaried jobs, but with one key difference: taxes are not automatically withdrawn from your paycheck. This of course means that, come tax season, you'll be responsible for paying all the back taxes that have accrued throughout the year. Instead of receiving a tax return, you'll likely owe the IRS a good chunk of change.

It's hard to make a living exclusively as a writer. Even authors who have "made it" don't exclusively crank out novels these days; with a few exceptions, a novelist is also a journalist is also a screenwriter is also a comic author is also a playwright, and so on. They spread themselves far and wide like this primarily because they love to write (one assumes), but also because they have to pay bills too. But for every payment they receive, unless there's some kind of tax arrangement already made, they're likely saving some of that income for later, when it's time to pony up to the government.

However, if you have a steady paying day job, IRS woes are less of a worry. I actually overpay on my taxes each paycheck (by ticking zero exemptions on my W4 form). It means less income every two weeks, but it also means that when I submit my 1099 form alongside my W2 in January, I'll either break even or get some of that money back. 

So again, while it would be nice to write and only write for a living, my day job takes away this financial headache.

4. A Set Schedule Can Help You Set Your Schedule

Many people have this romanticized view of the writer's life as this lazy, carefree existence, in which the writer wakes whenever s/he pleases and scribbles out brilliant prose whenever the fancy strikes him or her. 

People want fiction that resonates with every-day life, that has some kind of grounding with reality...So even if your day job totally sucks, don't just bitch about it, bitch about it in a story.

Of course this isn't true. Most writers establish a workflow, and do their work at specific times in the day/week. I'll again turn you to Robbie Blair and his article 6 Ways To Fall In Love With Writing for a discussion on the benefits of ritualizing your writing habits. Simply put, Blair argues your work will improve if you stick to your schedule. Other authors have echoed this sentiment, and it's a view I agree with whole-heartedly.

However, if you have nothing but time on your hands to write, it can be very easy to stray. "Eh," you say, "I'll work in a bit. Right now, I'm looking at Twitter/cats on the internet/porn, etc." And you probably will get around to writing, eventually, but maybe not. In any case, your rhythm gets disrupted, and your writing suffers.

This changes when you have a day job. Why? Because you only have one window of writing time per day, so if you don't write then, you won't write at all. There's no room for dilly-dallying this way, and the system works pretty well for me. I work 1-10 pm, five days a week. I typically get up somewhere between 8 or 9 am, which gives me a solid two to three hours to write. Some days, I need to sleep later, or I have doctor's appointments or other errands to run, or I just want to take the morning off and relax, but the point is, those hours are mine to do with as I please, and most often I use them to write. After all, if I don't write then, I'll likely not have time (or the energy) to do it later.

Bonus time management nugget as a result of my day job: I get two 15 minute breaks and a one hour lunch during the course of my 9 hour shifts. That makes for a guaranteed hour and a half of reading time. What else am I going to do, other than eat? Sometimes I nap or I just sit quietly and let my mind unwind, but most often, my face is buried in a book.

I'm not saying everyone is as bad with time management as I am, and if you don't struggle with getting your writing and reading done, this may not apply to you. But scheduling my writing/reading time around a day job has actually made me more productive over all, and you can't argue with results. 

5. The Classic "Every-Day Life Experiences Enhance Your Writing" Reason

Charles Bukowski based his novel Post Office on his own experiences working in a post office.

The "normal" details in Pet Sematary—a man moving his family to Maine and taking on a university job, a dangerous highway and the titular burial ground near the family's new home—are apparently very close to Stephen King's real life.

In Jonathan Lethem's novel Chronic City, Perkus Tooth writes essays for Criterion. Jonathan Lethem also writes essays for Criterion.

Jim Thompson's day jobs appear in his fiction all the time: bellhop, factory worker, file clerk, and so on.

I think you see what I'm getting at here. People want fiction that resonates with every-day life, that has some kind of grounding with reality, no matter how fantastic the story itself becomes. This is why, in part, writers borrow from their personal lives: to give their stories that smack of authenticity. 

So even if your day job totally sucks, don't just bitch about it, bitch about it in a story. Pull a Bukowski and find the absurdity in it, and turn it into something humorous and truthful. You'll be giving readers a realistic, behind-the-scenes look at a job they know little about, and you'll be releasing your own demons in the process. The same is true of jobs you really like, but instead of releasing demons, you're getting to nerd out about something you love. 

Either way, your day job is actively improving your writing. Can't take issue with that, right?

What sort of day jobs do you work? Do these jobs have a positive impact on your writing life? Are there any silver linings not mentioned here that you'd like to share? Tell us all about it in the comments section.

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Christine J. Schmidt's picture
Christine J. Schmidt from Los Angeles, CA July 18, 2014 - 12:26pm

This column was a great reminder to appreciate the good in my day job. I work at a coffee shop and I actually have a lot of time to read and write when it's slow. I am VERY thankful for this. Occasionally, I have interesting conversations with customers that work their way into my writing. Thankful again!

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami July 18, 2014 - 3:00pm

Freelance stuff is all I have till I can move up north.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list July 19, 2014 - 2:24am

Yes, yes, yes. This is a great article. I agree with all of this. I've mentioned my day job a lot. Probably to the point that most people want to tell me to shut the fuck up about it lol. Anyway, I teach high school English 11 (regular, honors, and AP Literature & Comp). When I was trying to decide on a degree, I told my parents I wanted to major in English because I wanted to write. My father suggested that I get my degree in English with an emphasis in high school education. It is a great gig because I constantly read with/to the kids and teach them grammar and writing. We even delve into creative writing from time to time, and I help them with pacing and eliminating redunancy in their sentences. The other benefit is the kids and staff. They constantly inspire me. I pick up ideas for characters, stories, and dialogue all the time.

Where it gets tricky is the schedule. I have a set schedule, but my free time gets messy when there are papers and projects to grade. Grading can take away entire weeks worth of free time. Planning lessons for three subjects can also cut into my writing time. It takes around two hours to write lesson plans and prepare materials for three subjects. Our admin is really strict on the level of detail we have to include in our lesson plans. I have to break mine into time increments and explain what we will do for every minute in the class period. Bottom line, I love having insurance, and I love my job most days.

Sorry this is long. I am terrible at posting online! I always fall into the tl;dr category :)

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami July 19, 2014 - 7:00pm

Actually I envy the ability to be so verbose, I don't see how others can do it with twitter feeds of millions of lol cat videos.O_o

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list July 20, 2014 - 12:09am

Haha, Sarah, I know what you mean. Twitter isn't nearly enough characters!

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer July 20, 2014 - 6:50pm

I am a TLDR'r myself, but I am learning how to keep it short. I just hate having to sacrifice grammatical structure to fit my thoughts in 140 characters. My day job has extremely good benefits and I get paid pretty well for what I do. On the other hand, it is very time-consuming and my life revolves around it, which can make writing time a bit eratic. One thing I have learned from being in grad school the last couple of years is that I can always find time to work around my work schedule. Hopefully that translates well to writing. I have the sort of job that provides interesting and sometimes rewarding experiences, but ultimately, the insurance and the steady paycheck are two very big aspects of what I like about it. I would have to be doing pretty well with writing to justify giving all that up.

Raina Schell's picture
Raina Schell from San Rafael, California is reading Anansi Boys, Crazy, Lords of the Underworld July 22, 2014 - 1:56pm

I really needed this, thank you. I've gotten to the point of absolutely hating my day job which is pretty ridiculous since I'm the boss/owner. I am an acupuncturist with a large, busy clinic and 5 employees. I have become annoyed with the pain in the a$$ patients who complain incessantly about issues I deem to be "1st world problems". I can definietely write about it instead! I love the saying: "if you can't change your circumstances, change your perspective." :)