I accepted long ago that first novels don’t vanquish the day job. With average first advances coming in at $5,000, they’re financial successes if they pay the rent for a few months. But it still surprises me when I hear of authors with multiple titles out, even those who win awards, who still have day jobs. They’re here to stay, it seems, so we had best find something that works.
I’m in a good spot now, but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about what not to get for a day job. I’ve had a few:
Writer. After a brief stint waiting tables, my first real job was as a writer. I thought I had it made. Only problem: the writing wasn’t really mine. I was ghosting huge tomes on stuff like international citizenship, tax legislation, and investment advice. It drove me bonkers. Each book got significantly more difficult to finish than the last, and I soon realized that I only have so many words in me each day. Once I’d finished my paying gig, there was no juice left for fiction. It was a thrill to see my words in print, but aside from developing the discipline to sit down and write every day–which is huge, admittedly–I learned nothing about fiction.
Bookseller. Once I realized that I’d rather beat myself to death with one of my books (they were heavy) than write another one, I got a job in a bookstore. I worked part time, and got health care. This was grand for a little while, and I got tons of writing and even more reading done. Only problem: no money. As splendid as the picture of the starving artist is, it isn’t all that much fun in practice. Even worse, I started to see myself as a failure, some guy who dreams about publishing a novel, but works retail. My fiction became responsible for my happiness. On days when it went poorly–and there are always these days–my whole life was a shambles. My writing crumbled under the pressure, and what began as a productive phase ground to a halt.
Proofreader/Copyeditor. Following this, I entered the corporate world and got a gig as a web proofreader, then a copyeditor. My writing came screaming back. Yes, I was much busier working full time and writing, but who needs sleep? Only problem: I started to hate the work. I felt, maybe even correctly in a few cases, that the people whose work I was copyediting was vastly inferior to my own. I could do so much better than this! How dare they treat me like I’m nothing more than an underling? Ultimately I ended up making the same mistake I made right out of college, and got back into a writing gig. This time it would be different, I thought, since I would be writing about something fun. It was fun, but no different, still there were only so many words in me per day.
Mini Poobah. It was shortly after this that I decided to give up on writing entirely. I got a gig managing a team, and my day job soon overflowed into nights and weekends. My cell phone rang whenever I wasn’t, and even often when I was, in the office. My inbox always had a thousand unread mails waiting for me. Though I did make decent money for the first time in my life. I had stock options. Only problem: I had nothing else. I knew I needed help when I was heading into work on a Monday, and thought that I had better put in for the vacation day I took the day before. I hadn’t worked that Sunday, the first day in weeks. It took me a while to realize that Sunday wasn’t a vacation, it was just a Sunday. I quit a few weeks later, and really didn’t come to understand how unhappy it all had made me until many months down the road.
I’m now hooked up with a day job that gives me a comfortable living, fantastic benefits, and my nights and weekends to myself. I write for work, but only a bit. Yes, my day job is sometimes boring, but it’s not so boring that it tires me. It’s also sometimes engaging, but not so engaging that it overpowers me. And I’m writing again, after a five year hiatus, I’m back at my desk each morning before work.
Who needs sleep?