writers, day jobs, and a ruptured heart

woman wears yellow hard hat holding vehicle part

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I caught up with a friend last week, and she spoke about the juggle of work and writing. She has a great idea for her second novel and it’s pouring onto the page, whenever she can write. But work gets in the way, and she’s tempted to give her job the flick. She knows she’s fortunate—her husband is supportive, and their finances could allow it. I asked how she’d feel if she didn’t go to work—if she couldn’t watch the body language in the staffroom, didn’t witness the everyday life of her colleagues, playing out in front of her. She said she’d considered that. She said if she didn’t work, she’d have to deliberately go out more, to get her fill of ‘people time’. For now, she plans to stay at work and get paid!

It seems most writers have a day job. They don’t have a choice. Unless they’ve reached retirement age, they work so they can pay the bills, since writing rarely generates a decent income.

But sometimes writers leave their day jobs behind. They don’t just downscale their hours or change jobs—they stop non-writing work altogether. They may support themselves with writing earnings—from publication payments, running courses, editing, lecturing and more. Or if a writer has a partner who can become the main breadwinner, the writer may then work solely on creative projects.

For some writers, being at home fulltime works well, as the rest of their life takes them out and about. But for other writers, having a day job doesn’t just pay the bills, it helps them get ideas by exposing them to different places, people and situations.

My day job is not rocket science, but I love it. As a surgical assistant, I often find my eyes goggling, my ears straining, even my fingers fascinated by the texture of different tissue (gross but true). I often chat to patients beforehand to distract them. We may talk about their dog’s weird habits in the minutes before they have their breast removed. I watch the ways other staff interact with patients—some briskly, some politely, some with the deepest kindness and care. None of these work details have featured in my stories, but I suspect the emotion permeates my fiction.

The other day, I sat in the tea room between cases, sipping a lukewarm coffee. A bloke strode through with a phone to his head, barking, Can you come to (redacted)? There’s a man here with a ruptured heart.’ And right away, though I know it’s not logical, I pictured a plump, balding man, standing in a hallway. His wife on the footpath, loading bags into a taxi. And the man growing pale, his hand to his chest, as blood rushed out through the tear in his heart.

I know writers who work a variety of day jobs—cleaning and accounting, sales and social work. Each of those occupations must give a window into the lives of others, helping to enrich the writer’s work. And for those who don’t work outside the home, I’m sure there are many ways to achieve the same goal, too. People-watching in cafes. Writing group, volunteering, family functions.

I guess the main thing is, except in special circumstances, it’s probably not ideal to sit at our desks day in, day out. Whether through paid work or via other means, it’s great to get out into that big, wide world.

8 thoughts on “writers, day jobs, and a ruptured heart

  1. All so very true, Fi. At the time I quit work, my four kids were still young and that was more than enough of a day job. But now they’re older and I could probably return to work and still have enough energy in the tank to write during my time off. It’s probably too late now, though.

    I’m one of those people in danger of hiding away and living in my fictional world and barely speaking to anyone, including my immediate family—that is my bliss! Consequently, I made a rule that I must get out of the house and mix with other people IRL at least twice a week, so I don’t lose touch with the real world. Still, as the weather cools, it’s very tempting to stay tucked away in my nice, warm attic!

    • Being tucked away in a nice, warm attic sounds heavenly!
      I totally understand why you left your job – clinical medicine is so all-consuming, it’s hard enough to manage parenting/household/other relationships, let alone get any writing done. At least, that’s how it was for me, as you know.
      I’d never go back to working as a GP & I’m lucky to be able to do the surgical assisting. I plan to keep it up as long as my arms and hands (and legs!) hold out!
      Hope your writing is going well. Enjoy that desk in the warmth! x

  2. I feel like I should have paid more attention to people during my day job for more writing fodder! I’m the most unobservant writer of all time. Although, I have picked up a few things from sitting in cafes with baby while on maternity leave. Also, if I decide to write more gruesome crime fiction, I now know who to ask about the feel of tissue.

  3. Even people who’ve retired from paid employment often find they have too little time to write as they’d like, Fiona. Sometimes the responsibilities, including caring for others, change as we age. But in the ever-changing situation we find ourselves in, there is enough stimulation to feed another article, another story, perhaps, even one day, another book.

    • That’s a good point Maureen. Most of the retired people I know are really busy, like yourself! But as you say, all those activities in themselves can bring fresh ideas for stories and books.
      Thanks so much for your comment.

  4. When I first pictured a ruptured heart, I pictured the chest split open and the heart itself bursting out. I suppose what I’m picturing is more like an exploded heart. Reality is not quite as dramatic as it is in my head … which is probably a good thing!

    • Well you never know – in trauma cases that could happen I suppose.
      An exploded heart – now that’s a very sad person, surely more sad than my man in the hall. 😢
      Good to know your mind works in overdrive just like mine!

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