Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Career Chat: Day Job

“Don’t quit your day job until you have contracts to support you for the next 2 years…” or “Don’t quit your day job period.” I’ve heard variations of this advice – applicable to musicians, dancers, and visual artists as well as writers – many times over the years. But what is a day job and which one should you choose?

Assuming you are serious about a writing career, a day job is a source of reliable income that does not impair your ability to write. Some of us come to writing with an established occupation; others, especially young writers, are beginning both their writing careers and their other occupations at the same time. Some begin writing once they have retired, for one reason or another, from their previous occupations. All face the uncomfortable reality that very few writers, even seasoned professionals, can support themselves, let alone their families, on their writing income alone.

Of course, some writers can and do. Some get up in the morning and churn out words for 8 to 10 hours a day. They write three or four novels a year. Others have attracted such enthusiastic readers that even one or two novels a year generate enough sales (or sufficient advances, if sold on contract) to pay the bills. Although once upon a time, it was possible to earn a meager living with short fiction (a story a week, with lots of markets), I know of no writer today who can do that.

So the reality is that, one way or another, you are going to need a second source of income, whether you are starting out or you’ve been doing this for decades. What sort of work should you look for, assuming you have a choice? There is no one answer that is right for everyone.

The most import characteristics of a writer’s day job are that it generate sufficient minimal income, which will vary from person to person and the cost of living in various areas, plus whatever other resources the writer has; and that it leave sufficient time and creative energy so that the writer can actually write.

The obvious choice of day job may not be the best one. Writing other sorts of material may seem like a good solution, but should be approached with caution. For example, I know a number of writers who decided to move into technical, sales, or marketing writing because the money was good and they already had many of the requisite prose skills. At the end of the day, they were so tired of writing, most of them had great difficulty sitting down for yet more hours at the computer; they felt drained of words.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all solution or the notion that there is only one day job suitable for every writer, I think it’s wise to look at individual differences.

  • Cost of living and other ways of managing expenses: can you relocate to a less expensive area, share housing or other costs?
  • Training and educational opportunities: what programs does your local community college offer?
  • Need for physical movement: does a physically demanding job, or one on your feet, help or hinder your ability to sit still and write?
  • Need for day job flexibility: do you write consistently at the same time of day? Can you squeeze your writing into weekend marathons, so a regular work week is feasible? Or do you need larger blocks of time, not necessarily on schedule?
  • Job location: is it better for you to work from home or does that risk mixing writing and day job too much?
  • Benefits: do you need a day job that gives you (and your family) health insurance, paid vacation, etc.? Or are these available in some other way (through a spouse)?

Think outside the box. Do an internet search for “high paying part time jobs.” Obviously, these vary in educational requirements and for some you will have to build up a clientele, and not every writer is temperamentally suited for every job.

  • Speech pathologist
  • School bus driver
  • Hair stylist
  • Dental hygienist
  • Makeup artist
  • Personal fitness trainer
  • Phlebotomist
  • Radiology technician
  • Physical therapist
  • Barista/bartender
  • Life coach
  • Accountant/bookkeeper
  • Massage therapist
  • Flight attendant
  • Yoga/Pilates/martial arts instructor
  • Field inspector (for real estate firms)
  • Dumpster painter (for waste management firms)
  • Pharmacy technician

What’s been your experience with your day job? Has it helped or hindered your writing career? If you had to do it over again, would you choose the same type of work? Would you recommend your day job to a beginning writer?

The painting is by Wladyslaw Skoczylas, 1925.

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