Does Having a Writing Day Job “Ruin” You for Fiction?

I’ve been working at my new day job for a few weeks now, and as my lack of constant twitter chatter will tell you – I’ve been very busy. I’m up early to work on novel writing, and engaged in pretty much 100% billable agency work all day.

I get asked, often, how it is that I manage to come home and still have a brain that can write novels after writing copy all day. But the truth is that I’m actually far less productive in my novel writing when I have nothing to do at work. Spending eight hours a day mindlessly checking email and cruising Twitter is bad for your brain.

The more grinding and uncertain and meaningless my day job, the more my novel writing suffers. Alas, I am not one of those people who finds it easy to write at work when nothing is going on. I suspect this has to do with the fact that I’m a binge writer, and I need larger chunks of time, which I don’t get at a day job that has hours of downtime because there are generally a lot of interruptions – phone calls, emails, people wandering by your cubicle.

It’s best to have a job that keeps my brain busy. Not just because my brain atrophies otherwise, but because it actively keeps me engaged and prepped for novel writing. For instance: within the course of a day, I’ll go from writing slick copy for a luxury car brand to warm, upbeat copy for a nonprofit. I’ll write up fun facts posts for cars up for auction, then pen something about retirement budgeting tips and “15 Reasons You Should Complete Your Bachelor’s Degree” and then round out the day with some chatty engineering shop talk about experimental aircraft propellers.

Ultimately, this incredibly varied voice-shifting and head-hopping encourages me to level up my own writing and research game. Far from burning me out, the challenge of it actually makes me feel like I’ve achieved something at the end of the day. If anything, my biggest challenge is not getting sucked into some Youtube research hole where I start with videos about how variable pitch propellers work and somehow end up watching a video about “10 historical encounters with time travelers.” In truth, digging into the juicy innards of these industries feeds the continually churning idea machine that chugs away in the back of my brain, fueling the novel writing for another day. When the logjam in my brain finally bursts, it spews words all over the place. I stayed up late one night writing an outline of every scene I had left to write in The Stars are Legion after a long day of connecting the dots at work. Active practice connecting the dots for work translates to connecting the dots for novels.

Being forced to use your brain in new ways, and encouraged to step outside of your comfort zone in order to eat, is a good exercise. I often think a lack of engagement can harm us in the long term. I know that I feel better with challenging, busy jobs that are just shy of being TOO busy. The slower things get, the more despondent I become (in part because I’m wondering how long it’s going to be before I’m laid off, when we’re not busy). So work that’s engaging is a must for both of my careers.

I hear the “burn out” question most often from folks who aren’t engaged in creative work, believe it or not. When you work a physically exhausting job, or one that’s not intellectually stimulating, it’s a lot tougher to marshal up the energy to attack a manuscript at night or on the weekends. When I was working those types of jobs, what worked for me was sheer, bloody-minded persistence. “Oh hell no am I going to be stuck doing this mindless job for ten hours a day my whole life.” That helped.

This is one reason why I got so annoyed with the episode in “Girls” where the aspiring writer quits her cozy day job writing up advertorials for a big slick magazine in NYC. In conversation with the other writers she finds that all of them eventually gave up their dreams of being published poets and novelists, because working a writing day job sapped their creativity. I wanted to throw something across the room, because let me tell you, wanna-be writers: the best thing that could happen to your writing is for you to get a day job in writing. Not only will you be way more financially stable and less anxious because of that, but learning how to write lean, and to deadline, and in the voices of different companies, individuals, magazine house styles, and brands, is going to teach you a lot about craft. You may despise writing about taxes and insurance all day, but let me tell you: writing about taxes and insurance all day at another job taught me a lot about how we use fear to motivate people – for better or worse. I learned how to personalize stories, how to tap into emotional responses tied to things, and realized for the first time that books and stories and products weren’t about selling things or ideas: they were about selling emotions and feelings.

In truth, many fiction writers you know and love started out as journalists, and nearly all of us cash checks for other types of writing besides fiction. Learning how to level up my craft at my day job has taught me a number of invaluable tricks that I wouldn’t have picked up by just concentrating on fiction, and having some financial stability while I pursued my craft hasn’t hurt.


So the next time somebody says that a writing day job will ruin you, remember that a writing day job is just that: writing. And though I’ll tell people all the time that I don’t write fiction every day, I still literally write thousands of works every day, and I do it with far more immediate feedback than fiction gives me. Sure, some of that feedback doesn’t make it any better (and some makes it worse) but learning how and when and why it does or doesn’t make it better is a good learning lesson in and of itself. That’s the kind of active practice that’s tough to achieve daily when you’re only writing fiction.

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