Image source: StockSnap / Flenjoore
When I was in my early twenties an older artist gave me some advice on the subject of day jobs: “You’re never going to figure it out.”
She was trying to tell me that of course I could keep hunting for the perfect day job—something that would easily pay my bills, offer flexible hours, and steer far away from mental or physical exhaustion while also skirting pure drudgery—but if I expected to actually obtain the perfect day job, or if I behaved as though I deserved to obtain the perfect day job, this was akin to not just demanding a pony for one’s birthday, but a unicorn with giant wings, no plans, and an already broken-in saddle.
I have followed her advice over the last thirteen years, which is to say, I tried out new types of employment whenever they presented themselves, all the while without expecting that any of these jobs could cure the troubling arrangement my life has needed to be in: namely, that what I love to do doesn’t make enough money to live on, and probably never will.
BS in Molecular Environmental Biology, with a minor in Dance and Performance Studies
MFA in Creative Writing
Debt accrued from above education:
Let’s not talk about it.
An abbreviated list of day jobs so far:
Marketing Manager at a medical marijuana facility
Emergency Medical Technician
EMT Field Training Officer
Clinical Research Coordinator
Completely failed but attempted day jobs:
I’ve mostly lived in San Francisco, now one of the most expensive cities in America. In my early twenties it was fine to subsist on cheap food, sleep wearing a sweatshirt and wool hat so as not to pay for heat, and share a two-bedroom apartment with four roommates in a din of that-is-yours-this-is-mine. That was then. There was a trade-off for the awe I felt, living in a beautiful city and getting to make art.
I still feel that awe now. I’m just not as willing to make the same sacrifices.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve seen a lot of artists—performers, writers, photographers—quit. They quit for good reasons. They want to be able to have time off, to live in a real home and have offspring. Usually, the artists who haven’t quit rely on external financial help, coming in through family or marriage. An even slimmer portion of us are just way too stubborn to let go.
I’m of the opinion that the most impressive listing on my resume is Marketing Manager at a medical marijuana facility. It suggests I could sell feathers to a chicken farmer.
Most writers look at day jobs as a beginning to an end. But what if we started flipping this idea? What if we asked our day jobs to serve a larger purpose than that?
Often young writers are warned they need to have something to write about. They’re also told the two things that contribute to good writing are sitting down and doing the work, and sitting down and reading other people’s work. I would also argue that good writers are people who pay attention. I like to think they travel through the world, greedy and absorbent, ready to make any interesting moment a short story, any vision a poem, any conflict a novel.
Having a day job forces you to be around people who aren’t like you. This can be great.
“Have you seen the on-call pager? I left it right here and… God damn it. This is why I don’t play golf.”
Medical marijuana dispensary:
“Don’t you think you should tell me you’re about to fart when my face is right there?”
“I don’t understand the east coast. Ever heard of Place the States? It was a board game we had growing up; each state was a jigsaw puzzle. The east coast? A collection of choking hazards. Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York. Any one of them and you’d be saying bye-bye to this cruel world. Rhode Island wouldn’t even be recoverable by bronchoscopy.”
“No, I tried that. When it froze and my mouse wasn’t working, I opened—I don’t know all the shortcuts, are you kidding? No. No. What are you—but you’re supposed to know. Wait, now the computer is showing that thing—you know that thing? It’s going up and down and up and down and up and—what? I can’t move anything. Oh, wait, now I can log in again so I’ll do that. Now the mouse is working. I don’t see any icons. Where are my icons? Wait, are you doing this or am I?”
In some ways, my writing began with this, collecting small moments and snatches of dialogue. At the time I started writing my first novel, I had an interesting job and I knew it: I was working as an EMT on an ambulance in some of the most poverty-stricken, crime-ridden parts of Los Angeles, dealing with some of the biggest lows and highs of my life. The big stuff, the obvious life and death drama, was easy to remember and fictionalize, but in all honesty, the little slices of everyday life were what made me want to portray that crazy world.
If I were to give advice now to an artist struggling to make ends meet, I’d repeat the same adage said to me—you’re never going to figure it out—but I would also say: Plunder everything. Steal all the time. Steal from everywhere. Trick yourself into being inspired. Don’t be insular in your art.
Courtney Moreno's debut novel, In Case of Emergency, was named one of Fall 2014's Best Books by Huffington Post and Bustle. Her award-winning short stories have appeared in LA Weekly and Best American Nonrequired Reading.
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.