Working writer

The idea for this post was put into my head by a recent post (and the subsequent comments conversation) by Laura Maylene Walter. It’s a subject that has interested me for a long time, and her post helped me focus my thoughts enough to let me make a post as well.

Like most writers I know, I have a day job that I work at to pay the bills. It’s not my life’s ambition, it’s not how I define myself or find my self worth. It’s merely the thing I have to do for 40+ hours a week in order to pay those insistent and recurring bills. I don’t draw any creative satisfaction from it, but, then, I don’t ask my job for that kind of thing either. It is just one part of my life, and at the end of each work day, I walk away from it easily. (Not so easily; when the workload is tremendous, I can’t help letting worries about it invade my personal life.)

My writing life is something separate. This is where I take a measure of self worth. This is where I have more personal ambitions. And I keep my writing life separate from my day-job life. I guard the wall I’ve erected between the two jealously too.

I don’t share the fact of my writing with my coworkers. I’m sure they have suspicions. I’m the one the come to when they can’t spell a word or when they want a bit of rephrasing in an email. I don’t know that lastest celebrity gossip and I didn’t see that episode of whatever last night, so I must have “loftier” interests. But in any case, I try not to draw attention to my personal life while at the office, and I certainly do not share the fact that I write. I could probably collect a small group of avid readers of my few published bits of fiction (and my more-than-a-few bits of published nonfiction) if I let slip my writing efforts among my coworkers.

But I don’t, and I feel I have good reason. The few times in the past when I had done so, I was beset with people giving me advice or offering guidance or volunteering to “edit” my work or making pronouncements on my ability and my prospects or giving me their own story ideas I ought to write. (They say that everyone has a novel in their head, and for most people that’s where the novel ought to remain.) I realize that most people are well meaning when they give their advice, but some are not, and most really aren’t qualified when speaking outside of their area of expertise, creative writing being far outside most people’s areas of expertise. Most of the writing advice I’ve received from coworkers has been the painful, freshman-comp type of thing: “you should be showing, not telling,” “avoid adverbs,” “I need to care about your characters.” They’re parroting the buzzwords and phrases they’ve heard somewhere, and in nearly ever case when I received this sage advice, I could see they had no more than a superficial understanding of what they were saying. And then, when I don’t enact their suggestions or pursue their story ideas, they are disappointed and even scornful, as though I didn’t appreciate the worth of their gems or hold myself above them. (That latter bit being somewhat correct, but only because I must consider myself the best authority on the creative part of my mind.)

My aversion goes deeper than that though. I worry that if my mere employer were aware of my creative writing life, it would believe it had authority over it. At the very least, I could see my employer (a multi-national corporation) claiming the right to “sanction” my stories, to review them to determine that they do no reflect poorly on the company or the industry (an industry that has many critics, though I’ll leave that alone). Of course, I do not write about my company or its industry — geez, why would I want to? I’m eager to wash my hands of it every day at quitting time! But I think it is part of human nature to want to control and direct others. And I think given a toehold in this area, my employer (or at least certain individuals within the company) would eagerly grasp the role (did I just mix a metaphor?) and find ways to object to my creative writing. Or to be worried about the potential for offense as to claim authority to watch out for it. I imagine that such a “corporate” influence on my writing would snuff my creative flame utterly. I barely understand my creative process as it is; what if I had to “explain” it to someone else or give an accounting of the genesis and development of a story?

Perhaps I overstate my fears, but regardless, the day job I have is really unimportant to my writing life, beyond providing the cash I need day to day. In a way, though, it is important because it provides something for me to react to. My job being mundane and soul killing gives me an incentive to have an active and inventive creative life. I can be completely elsewhere when I am in the swells and eddies of story creation, a place that while confusing and frustrating sometimes is still not at the office. When I write, I am in control of my time and my thoughts and my productivity. (Well, as much as one can claim to control creativity.) I can be doing something that provides a deep and different kind of satisfaction, something that is wholly mine. It really is where I can define myself and take a measure of self worth.

And perhaps I take this a step too far as well. I am shy about my writing ambitions in nearly all aspects of my life. I hide behind a pen name. I don’t talk about my writing with my friends (not even with the reading group I’m in), and when I do tell anyone about my latest story it’s usually because my wife has told them about it first. I’m uncomfortable with self promotion in general.

Why is this? I don’t know, and I probably shouldn’t know. I suppose it is because I consider my creative life to be wholly my own property. Sure, I want to see my stories published; I’d be happy to have adoring fans — but fans of my work, not of me. But the process, the long, early morning hours, the little epiphanies that come to me when I’m not expecting them, the pleasing development of a character or the solving of a perplexing plot problem, all of these are my private satisfactions, my private pleasures, things of my own creation and understanding. They are bits and pieces of me, of what I am. I want to hold them close to my chest and cherish them. Does that make sense?

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4 Comments on “Working writer”

  1. Pete Says:

    I’m a working stiff too, have no real commitment to my job (finance industry) and also refrain from sharing my writing life with my co-workers. But only because I don’t think they’d appreciate my writing very much anyway, and not because I fear my employer would take control like you suggested. Frankly, there’s really no reason for my employer to care about what I write. Or at least not right now – I recently decided to start compiling notes on the idiots and sociopaths I work with, as material for a future satirical novel to be written long after I leave this infernal industry.

  2. Brian Keaney Says:

    Writing is my full-time job but I still don’t like talking about it with friends. I never discuss works in progress with anyone except my wife and daughters. I always feel that if I let the daylight in too soon the whole thing will be spoiled.

  3. Laura Says:

    Thank you for the shout-out! Almost no one at work knew I wrote creatively (save for, like, one person) until I learned my collection would be published. Then I told a few people, emails were passed around, and suddenly people were stopping by my desk to ask what my book was about. And I found I had no simple way to explain to them what my collection of 13 unlinked literary fiction stories were about and thus looked like a moron. (“Um…relationships? But not romantic ones? You know, people finding themselves and their place in the world. Uh. Want to go over that TPS report now?”)

    In a previous job, someone found out I was a writer and starting bringing me ads for vanity presses. “Here, you can get your book published!” she’d say, ever so helpful and cheerful. I smiled blankly and she left wondering what the hell was taking me so long to get published. Good times.

    Your company can’t control your writing in the slightest. It’s none of their damn business. Just make sure you don’t write on the company’s computers or, obviously, write and then try to publish anything blatantly about the company itself. Most likely, if they found out you write, they’d just think a little less of you for having a “hobby” that isn’t likely to be financially lucrative. 🙂

  4. Annam Says:

    Paul – did you read last month’s issue of Poets & Writers? There was an article about working and writing called, “After-Hours Author.” Michael Klein makes the case that working actually gives him an advantage in writing by forcing him to use his spare time more efficiently and passionately.


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