May 25th, 2010

Jobs for writers, part 1 of ?

You may have been wondering about what happened to that whole “jobs for writers” post I promised to write  (so long ago it was on a whole different site). What happened was I attended that UofT graduating students careers event and was really humbled by the breadth of skills, ambitions, backgrounds, and lifestyles the students had. They all came from and were going to wildly different places, both from each other and from me, and the idea that I could give them much in the way of advice seemed pretty perposterous.

And yet they were really open to hearing what had worked for me and what hadn’t, so I hope I at least saved them some false starts and offerened some good ideas (and some laughs). For me, it was a reminder that however modest (or infuriating) my accomplishments may seem, they would have been inconceivable to me ten years ago and so I should be proud. However, I’ve been reading the advice to myself 10 years ago posts around the web inspired by Steven Heighton’s 10 Year Memoranda. There’s a lot of good advice in these, like “12   Because you want your work to have a teeming subconscious.  In your early drafts, write everything that occurs to you, then cut ferociously.  The material you cut—the rich or jagged silences you create—are the textual subconscious.” But I think this sort of thing is a rhetorical exericse that, if taken literally, might overestimate a human being’s ability to actually follow advice.* Because when I was 22, you could have told me 1000 times that rough drafts are the block of wood out of which one hews a final sculpted story–I would still have thought a rough draft that sucked was a story that couldn’t be saved. It took individual stories that I couldn’t bear to see die, and friends and teachers who knew how to edit and did it to me against my will, plus lots and lots of agony before I could believe what Heighton says–actually, I forget this lesson pretty much every week and have to reteach myself. Just because someone knows and is will to share his knowledge doesn’t mean anyone can gain it by reading/hearing it.

So what, then–no advice for people younger or less experienced than us? We should just leave’em to flounder? Of course not–I’ve had a lot of help and, yes, advice in my life and it has helped me. But more the practical stuff–write at least two drafts of any story you love before you give up, save versions and you’ll be less precious about deleting, never ever count the hours the work has taken–helped me more than anything.
So with regard to jobs…well, when you get into practical details it gets personal. If there was an obvious good-better-best job hierarchy, we would all be going after the one at the top of the pyramind (shepherd on a kitten farm) and that would be that. But everyone wants and needs to do something different with their days, and even if the principal thing you want/need to do is write, your personality, experience, tastes, and abilities still matter when choosing what else you are going to do.
The thing I told the students is, you can have some vague idea what you want in a job (to contribute to the community, to drive innovation, to work as part of a dynamic team) but you will have zero concept of how the practical application of that idea will look until you get a job. Even if it is not your dream job, even if you loathe every minute of it, you still learn what makes a job loathesome in your eyes. Me, I’ve had jobs where I had to work alone for a few hours at a time and been fine with it, and jobs where I’d had to work alone all day and I lost my mind. As it turns out, I need a certain amount of companionship whether I’m drying plates or formatting invoices. It took a really long time to figure out exactly how much companionship I need. Customer service was initially awesome for me–so much talking–but eventually I burnt out. I need a certain amount of silent work time, too. In the end, it’s at about 75 % silent, 25% interactive work that I’m happiest.
Who cares about happiness in your “day job”, is some artists’ viewpoint, and it does seem to work for them. However, I would strongly advise young people starting out on a “hybrid career” not to assume they can tolerate a job they hate all day, even if it is in the cause of artistic freedom at night. Some people can apparently turn that part of their brains right off as soon as they leave the buildings, but some of us, emerging ketchup-soaked and exhausted from a day of being abused for incorrect crouton allocation, will simply not have the fire to embark upon a second career.

So, fine, maybe you can cope with anything, in which case this whole post is irrelevant to you and you should just take the first thing that pays decently. But some of us need the decent pay plus social interaction and/physical activity to make up for writing’s silence and inertia. And some people need excitement and change and other people need stability. Unchallenging vs. overtaxing? Overstimulating vs. boring? And I’m not even going to touch what constitutes “pays decently”–even this one is personal. I know people getting by on way less than I make, and on way more too (and they still consider it getting by). Some people need to pay off debt, to own a home, to care for children, or simply to maintain a certain standard of fun so they don’t hate their lives. Who am I to tell them what’s necessary and what’s frivolous?

At the careers event, the only thing I could really tell people is what worked for me and what didn’t (many things in that latter category). So that will be part 2 of this series.


* Although, one piece of concrete advice I would have given 10-years-ago me and think I might well have taken is, “Why don’t you give AMT a little heads-up that you’ll be staying with her on your last night in Montreal? Your ceiling really is going to collapse, after all.”

Also, it would have been great if 10-years-in-the-future me had come back while I was writing this post and stopped me from chewing on the wrong end of my pen and getting blue ink all over the roof of my mouth.

4 Responses to “Jobs for writers, part 1 of ?”

  • Scott Watson says:

    If Star Trek has taught me anything, your choice of chewing the wrong end of your pen was a key component in the grand design that saved the 23rd century from some cosmic threat. :)

    I’m curious, when you mention writing multiple drafts, do you:
    1.Re-write/type the draft from scratch each time as a fresh take on your notes
    2.Transpose what you have already written as though you were your own 1950’s secretary
    3. Edit the first draft, renaming second draft at the end of the writing process.

    The logistical madness of a kitten farm is quite terrifying.

  • Rebecca says:

    Hey Scott,

    It’s number 3, due mainly to laziness. I know a number of people who retype each draft, and they say it is amazingly freeing–you no longer feel stuck with what you have. I should try that, one of these days. But I do change a lot, even with my incomplete transfer of text.

    Someday, I will invite you to visit my kitten farm.

  • Amy says:

    The thought of starting a new draft from scratch basically makes me break out in hives. Even the thought of renaming a draft after editing makes me itch mildly. I’m going to writer’s hell I know it.

  • Rebecca says:

    Amy, seriously? I do not trust myself not to save the previous version before I start editing just in case, upon reflection, I decide the edited version is worse. Doesn’t happen to often that it is, but I can’t say never, unfortunately.

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