June 1st, 2010

Jobs for Writers, part 2 of ?

Every time I try to write about this subject, I get uncomfortable–so much as just what works for the individual writer. Some people really need to have a job they love a lot, even it it’s just a “day job,” or they can’t be motivated to get up in the morning. Some writers would rather not like their jobs all that much, or they “day job” winds up distracting from the writing. Some would rather work part time and have half of every day to write; some people will work nonstop for part of the year and not even touch their manuscripts, then have a big block of time to write and do nothing else (teachers!)

Whatever is functional for you, do that. But, as I told the students at that careers event that sparked all this ages ago, I’ve had a lot of jobs and some were more functional for me than others, so maybe there’s something people could learn from that! I mean, as Ms. Difranco says, “Nobody likes their job / nobody got enough sleep” but below are some things that let me write and even helped with some projects, as well as helping me to be reasonably happy with my life and lifestyle while I was working there.

Bookstore salesperson was the first job I ever had that I didn’t utterly loathe; it was shocking. What did I like about it? The obvious, first off: getting to hang out with books, seeing the new stuff first, the world’s most useful-to-me employee discount and other book-related bonuses. I sometimes liked chatting with customers about what they might like to read, though you still do get your jerks and your people who want “the thing that was on the radio this morning, about that dog? What do you mean you don’t listen to the radio?” I found the running around of the job, and all the chitter-chat with customers was a good balance to the sedentary silence of writing.

Less obvious perks were that, unlike most minimum-wage retail jobs, this one drew a wider range than after-school teenagers. Lots of bookish adults (including other writers) worked there and were fun to talk to–actually, even the after-school teenagers were pretty bright and well-read.

Most of the downsides of this gig may have come from the fact that I worked for a couple big chain stores. I’ve never had an indie bookstore job, unfortunately, but since I’ve known a lot of folks who did, I can make a reasonably educated guess that those jobs are more fun, though not much better paid. One issue was that the stores were mamoth, and floor staff and cashiers were forbidden to sit or, heaven forbid, read. There was always something to run to the back for, something to dust or scrub or carry–and books are heavy. After 8.5 hours darting about on concrete floors, I often had little energy left for writing. And no matter how literate, retail is retail–you can’t really live on minimum wage unless you are working a bloody lot of hours, you likely won’t have benefits, customers feel free to treat you like a moron and (sometimes) so do managers. Low points of my bookstore career include being berated by a customer for getting a mystery author’s name wrong, being berated by a manager for wearing a candy necklace, and being berated by everyone once I started working at the special orders desk because it, despite the big sign, apparently looked like a complaints desk.

Library clerk was basically a less capitalistic, more relaxed, better paid version of the bookstore job. You occasionally got to do some fun cool book-tracking-down, occasionally got screeched by a crazy person, but mainly as long as you got your work done, you were allowed to do what you wanted (ie., read). I guess I can’t vouch for every library (this was an academic one), but there was no “keeping up appearances” busywork, which was really nice. Downsides? Well, it could get a bit dull on some days, and on others, because it is a public place, a library attracts the sorts of people who get chased out of malls (teenaged hooligans, the homeless, the ranting, unsupervised children) and the staff has to deal with them as best they can. From what I hear, most library jobs have a strong hiking-around-carrying-books component as exhausting as at a bookstore, but I actually had a desk-sitting gig. Once again, this was a desk that people frequently mistook for the complaints area, despite another big sign, so I came in for more than my share of yelling, but at least I had a comfy chair. The real trouble with library gigs is that they are limited in scope, hard to come by and rarely full-time–I left the one I had because I was graduating and it was a student position. If you are seriously interested in being an actual librarian, you need a degree in library science–fascinating, but surely not easy.

Teaching is, as judged by per-hour strain, the hardest job I have ever had. I have tutored ESL, TA’d essay writing and literature, and taught high school students how to write short-stories, and all were fall-on-the-couch exhausting. Deeply rewarding, mind, but exhausting. And of course, the biggest danger with teaching is that, unlike waiting tables (the second-hardest job I’ve ever had), you can’t just eventually say “Screw it, it doesn’t matter,” with a given class, student, semester, etc. Because it does matter, so much, what you teach kids (or anyone, really) so the temptation exists to put in the overtime, do the extra projects, come out for the sports teams, and put everything you can into it, because the kids will get so much (or at least something) out of it. This is, of course, deadly if you are trying to write in your “off” hours.

This post was original going to include some of the silly things people say about jobs for writers (“You should just do a little journalism to make money!” Last time I checked, journalism was a four-year degree and a competitive field, and also not overflowing with money) but I am (mainly) not doing that because it’s too annoying. One thing that I will put in is that I once read a writer profile that said that once one had published a relatively successful book, one could get creative-writing teaching jobs and “make a living as a writer.” I am sure any teacher reading this will recognize this as offensive–if one is teaching, one is making a living as a teacher. Which is actually still amazing for one’s writing–students will challenge so many standard assumptions about writing and bring you all kinds of new energy and ideas, so it is totally worth the exhaustion if you can figure out how to teach briefly or temporarily or somehow not have it overrun all your time. But if you take a teaching gig under the impression that it is basically a grant with a bunch of annoying students hanging around, said students will become incredibly embittered and if they are lucky, hate only you and not actually writing. Just sayin’.

You may have noticed here that none of these jobs are incredibly well-paid and my standards of “fun” are pretty low (ie., not getting yelled at). That is because I have left out of here all the jobs I had that didn’t work out at all, including the fast food restaurant where hooligans regularly stole the mirrors out of the bathroom, the factory that turned out was actually some guy’s bedroom, and the fancy restaurant where the enormous wall-mounted ketchup dispenser exploded. And the time one of my fellow chambermaids seemed to be considering taking a swing at me with the carpet sweeper. So possibly I am not the best person to be getting career advice from–please chime in if you have other jobs to suggest to writers, or would like to contradict anything I’ve said (nicely).

I’ll do another post on the wonderful world of publishing soon, and that will pretty much be the sum of my knowledge.

2 Responses to “Jobs for Writers, part 2 of ?”

  • Kerry Clare says:

    Being a stay at home mom is an all right job for a writer, provided you have a husband who never asks you why he always has to do the housework. Just like any dayjob, however, it means that writing must be saved for the evening and “leisure” doesn’t happen. Or rather, that you really have to *like* writing, because it’s what you do for fun.


  • Rebecca says:

    This is what I suspected (my own mom stayed at home and wrote occasionally when I was a whippersnapper). You are right that a writer has to like writing (most days) or it is just to much bloody work to have two jobs.


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