Writing for a Living

by Darlene Cah

My “art” has changed a few times over the years, from visual art to music to improv theater. Through all these creative endeavors, I had a day job—as a writer. Go figure! I started out in traditional advertising as a copywriter, bounced over to publishing, then to interactive advertising, and now television in the digital media department of an independent network.

My desk at work.

My desk at work.

Now that writing fiction is my “art,” how do I deal with writing all day at work and writing for myself? Oh, I wish I could say I get up at 5 am and write for two hours before driving to the office or I spend my lunch hour hunkered down over my laptop at my desk with a Do Not Disturb sign on my door. Unfortunately, I’m not that disciplined, though I’m sure I could be. I meet all my project deadlines, no matter what.

Sometimes, I think I should work at a job totally unrelated to words. Stock shelves in a supermarket. Answer phones at a retirement home. Do clerical work at a drug rehab center. These are all jobs, among other similar positions, I applied for before taking my current writing job. Actually, I love what I do. It’s fun. It’s creative. And, meetings aside, it’s not a bad way to spend the day. I have to admit, though, that story ideas and bits of prose or dialogue popped into my head a lot easier when I was freelancing as a writer, and always at odd times, like when I was mucking my horse’s stall or driving to CVS.

Some writers support their writing by working at pretty unusual occupations. Often those odd jobs feed their personal projects.

  • Stephen King was a janitor at a high school. The environment inspired the opening scene of his novel Carrie.
  • J.D. Salinger was once an entertainment director aboard a luxury cruise ship.
  • Jeanette Winterson was a funeral home makeup artist.
  • Kurt Vonnegut managed a Saab car dealership.
  • Harper Lee was a reservations clerk at an airline.
  • Nicholas Sparks sold dental products by phone. Nicholas Sparks, a telemarketer!

Even my oddest jobs didn’t compare to funeral home makeup artist or janitor. The best I can do is part-time writing tutor at a community college. Can’t get away from words!

When I do a mental survey of all my writer friends, I’d say they’re pretty evenly split between those who have day jobs that entail some sort of writing, editing or design work and those who teach writing or English, either on the high school or college level. A few of my friends are retired or have the means, one way or another, to devote all their time to writing.

Having a job as a writer or similar capacity has its pros and cons.

Pro: It keeps me sharp. I may not be writing my own stories, but I have to employ many of the elements of fiction when composing copy: varied sentence length, building a story arc, writing in a particular voice, painting pictures with words, etc. I have a limited character count, so I’m forced to choose my words carefully, be concise. Also, I have to be ruthless about editing, be willing to cut out chunks of writing I may like. So when I do return to my own writing, I might be a bit rusty, but I’ve still been practicing many of the skills I need to create my vision.
Con: I’m less likely to want to spend even more time writing when I get home from work.

Pro: Sitting at a computer writing all day, every day encourages discipline.
Con: By the time I get home, make dinner, complete chores, all I want to do is sleep.

Pro: I like my job.
Con: I like my job.

Does that mean if I won PowerBall tomorrow, I would ditch the day job, wake up every day at 11 (as if the cats would let me!) and park myself, clad in PJs, in front of my computer and bang out a future best seller?

Of course not! I’d get up at 10, have coffee, and walk the dog first.

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  1. #1 by wordimprovisor177 on August 12, 2014 - 1:27 pm

    One of my improv/comedy friends Katina Corrao just wrote on the same topic for the Huff Post. I thought you’d enjoy her take on the odd jobs she’s had to support her acting career:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/katina-corrao/8-things-i-did-for-money_b_5669609.html

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