Paying the Bills by Brad Windhauser
I’m fortunate enough to have a full-time teaching job, one that affords me a flexible schedule conducive to writing and a decent paycheck. But I wasn’t always so fortunate.
Working in restaurants put me through undergrad (1994-1997) and then my Master’s degree (2000-2002) until I retired from the service industry in 2004. I started as a busser, worked my way up to food runner, then, eventually, serving. This 10-year career earned me more money than I ever would have working retail. I also had a schedule around which I could write. In my early 20s, I could not have imagined a better job for a budding writer, and I strongly recommend any person in a similar position at least entertain a job in the service industry.
This career, however, is not without its downsides, and for someone who struggles with discipline, the upside might not pay off as much as it can.
Why? Having fun is the best impediment to discipline.
What could be better than rolling into work at 4:30 for a dinner shift, scarf down food, sit through a quick pre-meal meeting that tells you what you need to know for that shift, work with cool people all night as you do your best to entertain guests, avoid getting in the weeds, and, after all is said and done, leave with over a hundred dollars cash at the end of the night?
Then, nothing, for I loved the schedule, the cash, and the idea that my job allowed me to write and, on some level, feed my creativity: food and drink often bring out the strange in people, most of whom would make fun characters. And I did write; the problem was how little I wrote.
Sure, the late start time is great if you’re not a morning person, and so is the cash you make, but after the shift, who wants to rush home? Every restaurant I worked encouraged co-worker bonding that involved after-shift drinks and food, which meant that I blew through a decent amount of that cash in my pocket, and after getting home late, I plopped into bed and roused in the morning (okay, late-morning, early afternoon) a bit foggy in the head and not thinking all that clearly. Not the best recipe for creativity. The time I did spend in front of the computer mostly involved finding distractions online rather than drafting.
I had a great opportunity, but I didn’t have the discipline to maximize what it could do for my writing life.
Sensing this, I eventually put myself on a strict schedule (forced myself out of bed by 10 a.m.), a strict budget (anything over $100 a shift I could spend, the rest deposited directly into the ATM on my way home each night), and curtailed my after-work activates (post-shift drinks on weekends only). This allowed me to pay down that pesky credit card debt, adopt a better sleeping routine, and, yes, write more. Once this routine set in, I had three hours of time to write in the morning. I didn’t always write well, but I did write, providing me ample material to revise later. The real benefit: I finally felt like a writer.
When I realized I wanted something different in life (and an outlet for my degrees), I entered teaching, and when I did, I was able to use the discipline I cultivated to get me through the financially lean times of adjuncting at three schools simultaneously.
In my 20s, I could have chosen a more traditional (i.e. 9-5 job) career path, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy, in part because of how difficult it would be to carve out writing time in a 40+ hour work week. Instead, I chose a career that a lot of people don’t stay in forever, but while there, I maximized (eventually) the benefits (money and time), and in so doing, this kept me on my toes: I can’t do this job forever, so how do I make it work for me?
The last thing you want to do is squander any point in your life, forcing you to plateau where your routine becomes so set it’s very difficult to alter (financial commitments, etc.). Being a writer—particularly early on—means giving up a lot, usually in the form of financial security and free time. I didn’t want to give up too much of my free time, so I waited tables. Although I eventually got burned out, I’m glad I worked a job that paid my bills so that when I changed careers, I wasn’t strapped with a lot of debt that would have forced me to take a job that would have made writing virtually impossible.