November 10, 2009

Career options for fiction writers

I've been getting a bit restless working from home all day, every day, and I've started to think about day jobs versus career matches for professional fiction writers.

I'm familiar with the concept of a day job: employment, unrelated to writing, that pays the bills. I've worked at a video store, a community centre, for the police, and as a university administrator, all while pursuing writing as a calling --- in my spare time. And I thoroughly enjoyed all of those jobs and the different skill sets they entailed. I wouldn't hesitate to do any of them again, either. Part of me really thinks that it might actually be better in a writing life to have a job that gives you a break from writing.

But part of me is a little bit envious of my peers who are developing careers as professionals in other, non-artistic fields. I've never let myself consider anything (e.g. educational choices that might lead to practical career options) that might derail myself from "becoming a writer." I didn't go to law school, or library school, or even do a Ph.D. because it seemed to me that I could probably only productively pursue one goal, the only one which has ever had real ambition behind it. (What's the point of going to law school if you don't *really* want to be a lawyer? What's the point of doing a Ph.D if you don't *really* want to be a professor?)

But with a certain (admittedly modest) amount of credibility as a writer established, I've been wondering if there's anything else I'm suited for, beyond the solely administrative-type jobs I tend to gravitate towards, given my undying love of a nice spreadsheet. What do other writers do to pay the bills (besides writing gigs of varying kinds)? What should fiction writers naturally be good at? Here's what I've come up with so far:

Teaching (literature, language, writing), library sciences (I've been thinking seriously about this), journalism, publishing, editing, communications. And what about more overtly creative communications jobs? Advertising? Marketing? These seem like they would be good fits, too.

What am I leaving out? I'm remembering now that T.S. Eliot worked for a bank.


Jenny said...

It's interesting to me how different "day jobs" work for different people. For instance, a friend of mine found that when she started working at a major daily newspaper, she had no brainspace left for writing at all.

Other people I know have worked in marketing-type fields and either found that it drained their creativity or that their work-related output drew from a different well than their personal creative writing.

Overall, I think that day jobs where one has to do a lot of writing tends to sap creative energy for extra-curricular writing. Better to be a bricklayer or a treeplanter.

Jonathan Ball said...

One of the reasons I decided to go into university teaching is that my writing would be part of my career, not a distraction -- my poetry book has already helped to advance not only my career as a writer, by my career as a teacher.

nichole mcgill said...

The trick is to have a "day job" that allows you to grow and doesn't interfere with your creative process.

I worked as a journalist for about eight years. This is not a profession I'd recommend for fiction writers since it involves story creation but in a mode and stream completely divergent from fiction writing. Ergo, it dries up the well and confuses one's writing process and voice. (Creative non-fiction writing is another animal which may have a tie-in.)

Currently, I work in the e-communications field which feeds me but doesn't drain my creative sources.

Now let's look at you: you're creative, an author and you're intrinsically wired. "Social media consultant" seems to me to be an easy fit for you. You're already doing naturally what doesn't come naturally to a lot of people. And not all writers can navigate the digital waters.

And on that topic, being a wired author, do you have any suggestions for who you'd like to see speak at The Writer's Union of Canada's May 2010 conference. We'll be tackling "guide to the e-world of authors" and "the future of the word" - interested in helping or just pitching ideas? I'm sitting on the committee and helping to guide these workshops.

(This call out goes to anyone with a vested interest and opinion including other commentators on this post. All will be considered. :)

dkemper said...

I would suggest a job that does not tax your creative mind too much and one that does fuel your creativity. You mentioned library science, which I think would be a good fit for a fiction writer like yourself. You could work in a library or information/documentation center, where you'd come in contact with plenty of information to stimulate your creativity.

Avoid mindless work or stuff that essentially drains you physically and mentally by the time you return home.

Good luck.

Vanessa said...

Yes, yes, library science! My best bud out here just finished a MLIS (master of library and information sciences) degree and I was constantly jealous of all the fun stuff she was learning. It seems like it would be such an ideal part-time job.

terki said...

wallace stevens sold insurance! and cavafy was a government clerk!

sometimes i think accounting as a day job has been awesome for my writing (working with numbers keeps my mind sharp but doesn't drain it of creativity) and sometimes i think it's been awful (my brain gets tired, many bouts of overtime). library science sounds like a really happy medium.

saleema said...

Thanks everyone for the feedback and perspective. I'm grateful for any wisdom I can get. You've given me lots to keep thinking (and thinking and thinking...) about.

@Jonathan It's terrific that you're so prolific and can manage a steady critical & creative output and have both bolster your CV in meaningful ways. I recently saw a career consultant at a youth employment centre who suggested considering removing my writing credentials from future resumes where they might tend to make me seem overqualified (depending on the position). I saw her point, though it made me a little sad to think it could come to that.

@nichole I really like this suggestion -- I just put in an application for a social media-type job and I got some good feedback, though I don't know if anything will come of it. And thanks so much for putting out feelers re: the WUC 2010 conference. I will definitely give it some thought.

@Jenny and @dkemper and @Vanessa and @terki Thanks for weighing in! I think it's probably always a challenge to find a balance between writing and any day job, under normal circumstances. I still have some time before the MLIS program deadline -- hoping a dream career materializes before then.

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Andrew M. said...

I almost fell prey to law school. This close. A good chunk of my friends in went down that route. Then I read Anabel Lyon's sassy little piece in The Writing Life anthology and came to my senses.

Right now I do court reporting and transcription, which can be pretty taxing. A plus is that I make my own hours and work from home. Or maybe that's a con? At any rate, I do my writing first thing in the morning, just to get it done before my brain melts.

Word Verification of the Day: Sallas!

Helen A Smith said...

I just wanted to thank you for this post.

I have been drowning in a career crisis for over a year, closer to four I guess, and still question myself daily as to whether or not I am doing the right thing, trying to follow this "long hard road" of being a writer. But in the end, like Garisson Keeler said the other day, "we realize that we are unfit for anything else."
Best of luck to you and I hope you find a day job that helps to to follow your bliss!It's off to grad. school for me!

Shannon said...

Saleema: just wanted to weigh in here. You've published a novel, won a Journey Prize award, and have taught a creative writing course. You're actively writing and publishing: Now that's in place, opportunities for professional work as a writer will come.

Speaking as one who went to Creative Writing school, then promptly panicked and made sure I got a professional day job, I'm now faced with the following: a teaching and instructional design career (K-12 and post-sec), an editing business, and experience as a library clerk (don't let the mls fool you: it's a job in administration that has the potential to suck your soul... don't romanticize the library!) But guess where I am in the writing world? Just starting out... still... 12 years later. That little voice that tells you to go get a dayjob? It's a wee devil. Whack it off your shoulder, and fast.

--Shannon (who will appear with you in that father/daughter anthology later this year. Nice to "meet" you.)

saleema said...

@Shannon nice to "meet" you, too! I can't wait to read the rest of the anthology. Well, I did cave and go back to my day job (resisted the siren song of the library...for now!). I'll have to take stock at the end of a year and see where I'm at. The job is light on the soul-sucking, but it can only go so light on the time-taking. In terms of your situation, it sounds like you've got a lot really interesting stuff on the go, career-wise, in addition to writing, so it's hard to see that as a bad thing.

@Helen (so belatedly...ack!) I love the Garrison Keeler quotation! And I hope grad school is going well.

@Andrew court reporting!! I am totally intrigued.

Shiju Chacko said...

I have been going thru ur views and suggestions of keeping up with the day job and flaring ur creative writing.Am thankful for such posts. As colleagues under the same umbrella, I request you all to suggest something suitable for me. Am an engineer at one of the reputed firms, but wish to completely focus on nurturing my creative talent.....Thanks in advance