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.