The clickbait headline, “As celebrity books boom, professional authors are driven out of full time work“, isn’t an accurate portrayal of the article where novelist Donal Ryan explains why he is returning to a day job in the Irish Civil Service despite having three bestselling novels in five years. It’s not actually the fault of celebrities and the article does point out that the average earnings for writers is polarising – as with with most wages – the gap between the high earners and lower earners is getting wider. Nearly 10% of writers earn as much as an MP (£74692) and 50% earn less than £10500 (the average wage in the UK is £26500 to put those figures in context). In a world where celebrities can fall out of favour quickly, it’s hardly surprising that agents urge them to make money while they can and I’ve not seen anyone suggest that celebrity perfumes are putting perfumers out of business.
Consequently Donal Ryan isn’t the only writer with a day job. Ultimately, does it matter?
T S Eliot and Wallace Stevens are frequently trotted out as poets who held down day jobs whilst writing. Search engines will find reams of articles on “good” day jobs for writers. Some argue for a writing-related job such as teaching creative writing or working in advertising. Others suggest jobs should have as little to do with writing as possible but offer life experience such as customer-facing jobs (although most customer-facing jobs offer little time to interact with customers and, in some cases, penalise workers who deviate from a standard script). Others suggest physical work as a counter to time spent sitting and writing. Some writers like the structure offered by having to work around a day job. Others point out that applying for bursaries, grants, funding and writers-in-residence opportunities is almost a full-time job.
Let’s not forget that Wallace Stevens got his secretary to type out poems that were either dictated or scribbled on scraps of paper. T S Eliot had lengthy lunch breaks where he could organise literary meetings and didn’t have to work in an open plan office. These points are not insignificant. Writers who successfully combine day jobs and writing do so because:
- They have some control over the hours they work. Those who write in the morning negotiate a later start or pick a job that starts in the afternoon/evening. Those who write in the evening do the opposite.
- The job offers space to think either in breaks where a writer can find a quiet spot or in the commute.
- The job offers a regular salary that covers the bills. Freelancing or applying for frequent short-term jobs with all the associated insecurity creates stress and anxiety which are not conductive to writing. Short term stress, such as meeting a deadline, can be a useful counter to procrastination and help get the writing done, but prolonged, ongoing stress isn’t just bad to writing it creates ill-health.
- Their jobs offer the chance to meet people without having to stick to a script who might provide inspiration for writing.
- They operate strong boundaries between work and writing, albeit with some flexibility, so that one doesn’t overlap with or interfere with the other. That might still mean sacrificing some writing time to meet a work project deadline or being able to book time off work to attend a literature event.
The obvious disadvantage combining a day job and writing is less time to write, less time to research and less time to practice writing skills. There’s no time to spend an afternoon writing a sestina just so a poet can really understand the form. Research has to be disciplined and focused so there’s less time for interesting side lines and diversions. Time spent writing really has to be spent writing and not frittered away on cat videos (although cat videos are useful if they are a way of breaking through a tricky plot issue or figuring out whether the third stanza should really be the fourth stanza. Social media is not evil.)
When you’re juggling a day job and writing or struggling to make enough from writing to pay the bills, it’s easy to become envious of celebrities who have no writing experience yet manage to pick a book deal. But they are the wrong target. J K Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (UK title) was published in 1997 alongside Philip Pullman’s “The Subtle Knife”, Jacqueline Wilson’s “Girls in Love”, Rick Riordan’s “Big Red Tequila” and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York’s “Budgie the Little Helicopter”. Guess which of those writers isn’t writing today?