I cannot pretend to have the answer for any writer looking to make a living: not an answer that’s universal, and not an answer that’s consistently true, even for myself. What I can speak to is my own attempt to figure things out, and my openness to that path changing at any point.
The job I currently have is entirely unrelated to writing. I’m a client manager at a software company. We make benefits education software with a humorous, approachable tone. I work with the HR departments at various big companies to configure their benefits in our system, the end product being a tool that helps employees make the smartest choices with their benefits for both the immediate and distant future. As far as writing goes: concise emails and highly detailed bug tickets is the most I do.
Nine months of the year, this job is a great fit for my writing lifestyle, requiring a pretty regular 40 hour work week. I wake up at 6am and read and meditate for about an hour and then write for an hour. If I have a deadline or I’m feeling strong momentum on a piece, I’ll also write in the evenings. I usually dedicate several hours on Saturday or Sunday to writing as well. For nine months of the year, this is my writing regimen. Those other three months of the year, I’m working around the clock and absolutely no writing gets done. The lack of forward writing progress in these months, no doubt, has a bearing on my general mood: I feel frustrated, anxious, occasionally resentful. It’s tough to enforce a drought like this, but it does make me excited to get back to work when I again have the time, and the company I work for has benefits that do well to balance this busy time.
Image source: Flickr / kwarz
The company’s vacation policy works well for me, in that it provides no set number of vacation days, but instead allows employees to “take the time they need.” This requires a fair amount of self-management, expecting employees to get their work done in a way that allows them to take breaks. I’ve heard of similar situations where this policy can short employees on their time off, but I’ve found the policy to work really well, especially for a business that has such a defined busy season. People are welcome to work remotely, which has proven incredibly useful when I’ve had the opportunity to teach a workshop in another city or travel to do readings or speak on panels. If I want to adjust my work hours so that I start later and finish later, that’s often doable. As a trade-off for this flexibility, it’s rare that I disengage entirely. Even on vacation or on weekends, I’m usually reachable and make sure my clients have what they need. This took a bit of adjusting, but it’s a preferable arrangement for me now.
Beyond this very flexible policy, I recently made a special request I was nervous might be pushing my limits. I asked for permission to attend a month-long artist residency I’d been accepted into and after some internal discussion, my bosses approved the request. I’m thankful for the degree to which this company truly cares about its employees. They’re open to working with you on what it is you need to succeed.
All of this said, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about whether it would be a wiser use of my time to do something else.
Would I be happier teaching? I don’t know. Academia draws me; I like the idea of being a part of a learning institution and fostering other writers, but I recognize that those jobs have their flaws, too. I worry about the bureaucracy and administrative obligations, but my greatest worry is that the energy required to teach would need to be fed by the same well that supplies my drive for writing. I worry about my inability to turn off the teaching mind, and switch gears to focus on my own creative projects. I TA’ed for a semester of grad school and have since taught workshops that I’ve let take over my life (for the limited amount of time I worked on them). I imagine that teaching might get easier the more I do it, but worry I might remain distracted and unable to distinguish between the two endeavours. The line between work and writing is very clearly defined at the moment, and it’s hard to imagine a case in which that line were blurry.
Would I be happier trying to freelance? I don’t know. I know it takes a LOT of work to make that happen, and I worry that I might not be a conventional enough writer to take assignments well and write for a wide variety of publications. I also like that I am the one in charge of what it is I spend my writing energy on. If I started taking assignments, would I like writing less? Would I write less of what it is I want to write?
At the moment the way this job works for my writing career is by being completely separate, allowing me a foothold in a life that remains firmly in contact with people who know very little about firsthand artistic pursuits. I see it as a privilege that I’m permitted to straddle that line.
There’s a long history of writers who have jobs that are unrelated to their writing careers. Wallace Stevens practiced law for an insurance firm. T.S. Eliot was a banker. Franz Kafka was a legal clerk. This definition between my work life and my writing life makes sense for me right now, but I feel a responsibility to continually look at my choices and confirm that they feel right. I intend to question myself indefinitely. It is never too late to try something new. I will always be thinking about how to live better.
Jac Jemc's first story collection, A Different Bed Every Time, is newly out from Dzanc Books. Her novel, My Only Wife was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award. She is the poetry editor for decomP and nonfiction editor for Hobart.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.