The Writing Life: Writing with a Day Job by Shannon Fandler, Guest Columnist

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Hippocampus invites guest columnists to contribute to The Writing Life; submit a query through our Contact page.

Shannon FandlerMy goal after graduating college was to make a living as a writer. I did for a while, writing freelance SEO articles (and the occasional fake Yelp review) at my parents’ dining room table. You may have read some of them by mistake, and here’s how you’ll know: they sounded like they were written by an English major disillusioned beyond the point of caring. Each piece had to rewritten as three different versions that were later morphed and multiplied into hundreds of “unique” articles, so it was hard to be proud of the results.

This is a line from one of them: Beautiful Japan, known as the Land of the Rising Sun, is a beautiful place to visit.

I realized calling myself a professional writer didn’t matter as much as I had thought, and that was actually a good thing. It knocked the pedestal out from under this career choice. Regardless of whether I was writing crappy filler content or something carefully crafted and meaningful to me, writing wasn’t a lit candle, a decorative notebook, and a freshly uncapped uni-ball gel roller. It could be grim and even embarrassing. It could make you want to do almost anything else.

The good part about my stint as an SEO hack (the ONLY good part) was that I could write those stupid articles in my sleep. I could write them in front of the TV and in a house full of people. The dog barked. A bird flew into the window and died, and still, I churned out articles about Japan and associate’s degrees and careers in medical billing and coding. So when I eventually got an office job, I was confident that I could come home from work and still fill pages in a hurry, only this time on my own terms.

“…all jobs drain your mental resources – like goldfish, they have a way of growing to fill their container.”

One of my college professors had suggested that if I wanted to be serious about a writing career, I should get a “dumb job” and write at night. I knew what he meant: a job that wouldn’t drain my mental resources. But all jobs drain your mental resources – like goldfish, they have a way of growing to fill their container. Also, I needed to be honest with myself: I’m not the hand-to-mouth, instant-ramen-eating type who truly doesn’t worry if she hasn’t saved up enough to pay her taxes. I know a few young creative people who are like this, and maybe they have a better handle on what matters. But I actually like paying my taxes, especially that feeling of instant government approval when you submit your return electronically, a whole month early. And I like writing fearlessly, knowing I have a fairly stable life to fall back on.

So I ended up with a “regular” job, and to my surprise, I was not miserable. I got my own licensed copy of Microsoft Excel, which was admittedly a little depressing, but I also got structure and a new sense of urgency. Between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day, I know exactly what I’m doing. The rest of the time, I have to scramble to accomplish my personal writing. In the morning, when I drive to work, I write in my head and then make notes on my phone at the red lights. At night, I rush home to write, and the notes serve as instructions in case I’m too burned out to create. I even edit essays in the bathtub in order to accomplish three goals at the same time: edit the essays, soothe sore muscles from poor computer posture, get clean.

I’m always interested to hear what others do to squeeze writing into their lives.

But what about blank space and time, which is almost as important? When you examine the work routines of successful writers from the past, what’s noticeable is that they took time in the middle of the day to go for a walk, to swim, to cook meals, to sit and think. They reflected on what they had written, and they often walked away when they had put in a good day’s work. Henry Miller famously prescribed, “Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets.”

Writing with a full-time job means that I choose not to visit museums or sketch in cafés (I can’t draw anyway) or participate in flash mobs or go to the beach or attend music festivals. I choose to be boring. White walls, black clothes, and no-I-haven’t-seen-that-TV-show boring. I’m sure there are exceptional people who can work full time AND write AND be interesting AND not neglect their children, if they have any. But I’m not exceptional. Instead, I ask a lot of questions when non-writing friends with full-time jobs do things like take art classes, attend K-pop concerts, get married, go kayaking, see The Book of Mormon on Broadway, and change their sheets. It’s given me a sense of wonder, like I’m a tourist in a commonplace world.

There’s also freedom in editing your life to give up what you consider to be nonessential, like shopping – I never enjoyed that anyway, and I couldn’t handle the confusion of choices. Deciding not to care what I wear or own means I can care harder and longer about an essay that I’m writing.

I am going on vacation this year, a vacation I can afford because I have taken a path that is squarely in the middle. Not brave, romantic, or headed straight for greatness, but a path that is good enough – like the vacation, which is more than good enough. It’s to Canada, not beautiful, beautiful Japan.

[boxer set=”fandler”]

Share a Comment