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Don’t quit your day job, eh?

I’ve often wished I had a generous benefactress who would financially support my writing habit. Alas, as this is not the case, I work. These days I teach. In the spring I will return again to teaching adults, although I will also have one class of college freshmen. Previously, I taught the GED to post-incarcerated men and women in a halfway house. Prior to that, I worked simultaneously in a coffee shop and in a head shop (the photograph above is from the head shop, on my last day. Look at all those rolling papers! Yowsa!). Before Hemptations (and might I say: best job ever! I mean, I never got so much writing done; had never, in fact, been encouraged to get so much writing done while on the clock), I was a student and worked as a grad assistant. Prior to that, I tended bar for many, many years. And before that, I waited tables. Lots and lots of tables. God, I hate tables.

What’s your day job? What’s your dream job? What day jobs have you held? Favorites? Worsts? Spare no detail now, hear?

65 thoughts on “Don’t quit your day job, eh?

  1. I work as a freelance copywriter, which allows me to work from home, and make enough money to live on by working around 10 – 15 hours a week, on average. The downside is, well, I have to write copy, which feels vaguely evil. And freelance means no healthcare unless I buy it, which I don’t, because then I’d have to work more to afford it.

    I complain a lot about it, but really it’s a pretty sweet gig.

    Before doing this, I’d worked the standard assortment of restaurant and “social work” jobs that I feel like many writers end up doing if they don’t want to teach.

    Which brings up another point: I don’t want to teach. I suppose I could–my MFA teaching experience and a couple books out next year would probably put me in decent standing for a teaching gig–but I think of that as a back-up plan only. It’s too draining, and reading so much bad (inexperienced) work really gets to me.

    That’s college level, though. I suppose teaching grad workshops would be better, so long as you got to help decide who gets in.

    1. Someone should write a post about people who apply to MFA programs just to have time to write without having to work. I feel like this is becoming more common–you, for instance, are not going to “learn” anything from going to X (I don’t know if you want people to know where you’ve applied). You’ll of course benefit from all the time to focus on writing, but that’s different.

      I feel like this is something writers are doing, but which the academy hasn’t quite caught up with. Which is to say, I don’t know of any programs which explicitly seek to serve this subcategory of applicants. What would a program that didn’t aim to “teach” look like? Well, for one thing, there would be no course requirements. Workshops, too, might be structured differently. And perhaps the resources would be set up differently, with more of a “what can we help you with” approach, instead of a “here’s what you need to know” approach.

      1. I’m not an expert on this at all, but I feel like, “What can we help you with?” (or at least, “How can we facilitate your development,” which I think is different than “How can we teach you?”) is already the approach many programs claim to take.

  2. Well, that’s not exactly true. I feel like where I’ve applied (yes, secret, please) is the best place for me right now because my current interests have to do with play and the limits and possibilities of what control over sentence mechanics can and cannot accomplish in terms of what has or has not yet been done with text. This place is a place where others have engaged with this sort of thing. I’m embarrassingly under-read when it comes to hybrid genres and/or non-genre-specific writing. I do intend to learn, and read, and have access to amazing world-class libraries (with any luck, obviously). And, of course, I want to not have to work. Of course, the non-teaching stipend would be a Godsend. I’m rambling.

    1. Well, okay, let me put it a different way. You’re not going somewhere to be “taught” in the traditional sense, but to be provided a safe and supportive context for your own invention and exploration.

      You may be under-read (though I think you’re probably being modest), but you could easily access all the kinds of material you’ll get in an MFA program on your own, through your own research, and through dialogue with writers interested in similar possibilities.

      I’ll admit that I’m projecting a little, here. I don’t mean to suggest that I know your motivations better than you do, but I do think that someone in your position, who has published extensively, who has a strong authorial voice, isn’t in the same position as someone fresh from college who’s written no more than they included in their admissions packet. And yet the programs themselves are often set up to cater overwhelmingly to this later group, rather than the former.

      So maybe you’re not the best example of the type of person I’m talking about, but there are an increasing number of them. Myself included. I look back at my time in an MFA program, and can’t think of one single thing I “learned” that didn’t result organically from my own time spent writing and talking to other writers, which I could have done without the course requirements.

  3. Precisely, yes. I could do it alone, but I don’t want to. And I really don’t want to have to do it alone while working full time. Which brings us back to your point. $

  4. I used to work in web development, and before that in publishing (assisting! I was a shitty assistant) when I lived in NY, but now I’m working on a PhD – I kind of liked web development and still do this freelance sometimes, but for me it was really tough to get the amount of writing and reading I wanted to get done between work, the things of a life, going to shows, and doing all the other things I liked to do in addition to writing and reading. Maybe I’d be a little further along in my “writing career” if I’d done something else, but the one thing I decided when I went back to grad school was that as much as I was professionalizing by getting a PhD, I wasn’t going to let (or was going to try my hardest not to let) my writing become the rat race that the professional world was for me — that this isn’t a race to see who could build the longest CV, so much as my own thing, personal development and all that. Anyway, grad school has taught me a ton – I’m definitely happier with my writing, I’ve read a lot of things I would never read (and understand) on my own without having been taught to read criticism in a particular way, I’m around a fantastic group of writers and scholars, etc., so yeah, you can definitely learn anything you want to on your own, but for me grad school accelerated that process. The one thing I don’t like is the “professionalization” of a program designed to turn you into a college professor in that there is pressure to publish, but I knew that that was what I was getting into. And the job market sucks – it’s sucked for a while, but it’s disheartening to see people with PhDs, MFAs, and 2 or 3 books not getting interviews. But, I press on and try to think of grad school as more of a step in my own personal growth than as a stepping stone to a job. I do need to put food on the table for me and my dogs, but for now I can frame it this way.

  5. Also, I really love teaching. But at the end of the day I have as much time to write as I did when I was working forty hours, but now I’m much more disciplined about actually writing – grad school’s given me that, too.

  6. Hey Molly, I’m curious about this: “the limits and possibilities of what control over sentence mechanics can and cannot accomplish in terms of what has or has not yet been done with text.” – what do you mean? I don’t want to derail the discussion about day jobs and grad school, but curious what you’re thinking.

    1. Ha, I mean, I know what I meant, but it was a piss-poor way of saying it. I’ll try again. I think my strength as a writer is that I know my way around a sentence. All my new writing involves play with punctuation. I haven’t read a lot that does this, but I know that where I’ve applied is the kind of program that is interested in this sort of engagement with text. For instance, I’m working on a book of poems. First, unpunctuated words. The next page is transparent, with commas. The next is transparent, with dashes. The next, parentheses; semicolons; colons; quotation marks; question marks; periods, and so on. With each overlay, a new reading. I think the book has to be read backward.

      Not sure if that helps, but it’s an example of what I’m working on.

      1. That sounds cool, I was just curious – this stuff’s not quite what it sounds like you’re working on, but you should check out Craig Dworkin’s stuff (esp Parse) and Jen Bervin’s stuff, esp Desert (http://www.jenbervin.com/html/desert.html) if you can find a copy (my university library has a copy – depending on where you are, you might check rare/fine arts libraries if it looks up your alley) – I think grad school’s a great place to work on stuff like this, if you’ve got a supportive crowd, because as much as you can learn this stuff on your own, there’s nothing like the stimulation of being around a bunch of like-minded folks. I know people say that MFA programs can be competitive and all that, but I’ve never experienced it enough to outweigh the exchange of ideas (and writing!) that goes on.

        1. I should say those two texts don’t remotely resemble what you’re doing, but I’m a sentence nerd, and those two texts were pretty inspiring to me re possibility and play.

        2. The only work I know from Bervin is Nets, of which I’ve only read excerpts (Santa, please send me a copy):
          In it, she “stripped Shakespeare’s sonnets bare to the ‘nets’ to make the space of the poems open, porous, possible—a divergent elsewhere. When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page; when we read or write poems, we do it with or against this palimpsest.”

          Fantastic stuff from a fantastic thinker.

  7. The work of Lily Hoang tells us something about this:

    “That for eight years I brought people food & drink & cleaned up what wasn’t put in their fat mouths but that whole time I was a student except for that one year I wasn’t & then the envelopes arrived & I escaped.”

    1. haha. you just quoted me. that’s crazy.

      yeah, i waited tables for many years. with the one & only Michael Stewart. then, like the person shya critiques above, i went to get an MFA for free writing time & money.

      then, a university paid for my cushy, middle-class life.

      so i quit my day job & am now legit not working in canada. i call it: writing.

      1. I loved that line because I thought it was both beautiful and slightly hilarious. I just started reading today! I was on the bus. I am reading bottom to top. The translator recommends bottom-to-top, left to right, page-by-page, right? Because I briefly worried it was bottom-to-top, starting on the last page of each chapter-section-thingie, and ending at the beginning of each chapter-section-thingie, but then I said, that doesn’t seem right, I’m pretty sure it’s page-by-page. Although after I read, I’m finding I immediately reread a few times in different configurations.

  8. I’m a recruiter for a video game company. I love it. Years ago I quit my job to write full time and I hated it, never had a more unproductive time in my life. I learned that I need to do something else during the day, use my brain for other things, in order to make creative space more meaningful? I guess? I don’t think I would ever want to do anything related to writing or teaching full-time; writing is what keeps me sane, I’d hate to think of what my relationship with writing would be like if I depended on it financially. So every morning I drop my son off at school and then go sit somewhere and write for an hour and then go to work. It’s nice.

    1. Molly: you want to be a professional roller derby player? there are many ways to make money, dearie, roller derby doesn’t seem to be the most lucrative or safe. perhaps the WNBA?

      & funny, that note about Michael Stewart sounded an awful lot just like Michael Stewart. don’t let him rub off his wily sentences on you!

    2. Are you really on a roller derby team?

      Indy has 2 of them, a major team called the Naptown Roller Girls, and a farm team called the Circle City Socialites. I’ve never gotten to see either of them but my buddy Chris refs for Socialite matches, and I have a group of pals who go to matches pretty regularly.

      I take a certain amount of joy living in a city that has such appreciation for roller derby as to harbor two teams.

      1. I do! I do! Thing is: I’m not big, but I’m fast and I can spin on a toe stop for an hour. So I think I could be a jammer. Is that what it’s called? I missed the tryouts this year in my city. Boo. But I’ll train up and learn the game, and you betcha I’ll be trying out next year, no matter where I am. I’d drive an hour for practice every day, for sure. God I miss rink-stink.

        1. Haha. You never cease to amaze, Molly.

          If you get on a travelling team and you’re Indy bound to derby against the RGs or the Socialites, let me know!

        2. I love you even more now!

          Jammer, yes. My friend Dana is a Jammer. Windy City Rollers. Her name is Deb Autry. Love derby so much. I even love that silly Drew Barrymore movie. It was amazing!

  9. My day job before starting the PhD in fiction was editing romance novels. Which, actually, I had little respect for when I began (I wanted an editorial job and so took the first one that came along) but working in that world with those authors taught me what a writing community means. Most of them belong to a chapter of RWA (Romance Writers of America), they get together for weekly workshops and have parties for each others’ books. They help each other network and promote each others’ work on blogs. They have fabulous conferences and while the world can be gossipy, there is awesome aura of support–there’s enough room for everyone. The romance ladies showed me how important a supportive, creative environment can be. They inspired me to try for my own community and I eventually got my MFA at a low-res program with that goal in mind. They also made me wonder what it would be like to just go for it and immerse myself, whole hog, in a writing life. Hence the PhD.

    Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes it sucked. For five years my reading diet consisted largely of chick lit and werewolf erotica (not as awesome as it sounds) and I had to sneak in short story collections when I could. But I learned a lot about structure and plot and sentence construction by editing manuscripts. Not to mention genital euphemisms.

    1. Hi Susan,

      What an incredible story, an atypical one at that, I would think, or at least one that isn’t often told. And what a wonderful thing that the particular community that you’d observed from outside (or at least it sounds that way) encouraged you to take formal steps in your education, and more importantly, I’d say, to find your own community,

      I’m interested in hearing more about communities of writers and the ways in which those communities support its members.

      How has your experience with your MFA program and your PhD program dovetailed and diverged from the romance writer community you observed?

  10. A few months out of Ball State with my BA in Creative Writing, I managed to convince a software company that I could write technically, and I’ve been doing that for almost 3 years now. I go through fits with it, but overall, I take solace that it’s a great company that actually cares about its employees. And, I squeeze in my own writing on occasion, and have a spot by a window where people have grown accustomed to seeing me reading on breaks.

    Before that, I was a sandwich delivery guy via bike; I’d love to say “bike messenger” but it doesn’t feel right. I wrote more then, mainly though because of the community of writers I had in Muncie. Once I got to Indy, I was on my own, wrote here and there for awhile, and spent the last year or so doing little more than scribbling occasional lines on receipts and napkins. I just got burned out on writing because of tech writing and lack of mutually nerdy/passionate writer friends.

    So, echoing the “need for community,” it’s only been the past few months, since September, that I’ve really been passionate to the point of the midnight disease about writing again–and I’ll straight up admit it’s because of stumbling on to HTML Giant and the writer/editor/blogging community surrounding that, and now Big Other. It’s not the same kind of community–I can’t just call up someone and meet them at the Heorot for a beer and conversation–but the constant swapping of ideas and reading lists, encouragement and commiseration has my fingers moving like they’ve not since I left Muncie.

    1. That’s fantastic, ce. Living in New York, I’m surrounded by writers I can meet in the flesh, but for better or worse, I still get that itch scratched online more often than not, at the Giant, of course, and now increasingly here at BO. It’s doing something right if it’s encouraging people to write more.

      1. I’ve always said/thought/etc. the best compliment you can give anyone or anything is, “[Insert person or thing] makes me want to write.”

        The Giant community and now the BO community (there’s an obvious amount of overlap in these communities) both do exactly that.

    2. I totally here you on the community thing. Because I live so far away from any cultural center, the Internet and sites like HTMLG and BO have been so fantastic in keeping me sane and having people with whom I can talk about writing.

  11. My day job is teaching composition and tech comm and dissertating and being on the job market. I love teaching. I love the academic schedule. I love students whether they’re fantastic or frustrating.

    Prior to getting my PhD, I worked at a university, writing, designing and producing communication products (recruitment brochures, alumni magazine, student magazine, press releases etc etc etc) for a college within the university. I was in the office for 50-60 hours a week and because I didn’t have a PhD, faculty didn’t take me seriously. On the weekends, I worked in a bar. I love bartending and sometimes I think about picking up a couple shifts. I’ve also done loan consolidations and training for a student loan company, worked in an adult video store, and been an adult phone entertainer.

    Any time I start to think academia is hard, I remember what it was like to have to be somewhere at 8 am so I can safely say that for the most part, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. I have so much time to write. It’s fantastic. That said, I would not mind marrying well and being able to write full time. That is a fond fond fantasy of mine.

    1. bartending is a fun gig. as a side job to help pay off college debt, i sling drinks for a resort that primarily does weddings in the summer and occasional corporate events in the winter. something like that could be a pretty solid gig for you with the academian summer schedule.

      i wouldn’t mind marrying well and writing full-time myself, though i’ve already married, and my job pays most of our bills, so that didn’t pan out. ha.

  12. Sometimes I would have to interview faculty (mostly men) about their research and they would talk to me like I was a complete idiot, not because they were trying to explain their research in laymen’s terms but because they were assholes. Then they would try to rewrite my articles or think they could DICTATE how the article should read to me, because they felt they knew better. Now, not to be arrogant, but I was very good at my job and I can turn a phrase and once our interviews were complete I really didn’t need their input. Often times, they thought I was like their secretary–there to do their bidding because I was part of the professional staff and not the faculty. Some of the faculty would make the snottiest comments like, “Why haven’t you gone all the way if you’re in English?” and other such charming things. I learned a lot in that job and really enjoyed most of the work but the one thing I don’t miss is having to work with those faculty for not nearly enough money.

    1. That is some shitty shit. I’m really glad that a greater majority of my professors at Ball State were really down-to-earth dudes/ettes.

        1. Do you know Jeff Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds? Its subtitle is a succinct paraphrase of its focus: “A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System that Shapes Their Lives.” And a quote:
          “A system that turns potentially independent thinkers into politically subordinate clones is as bad for society as it is for the stunted individuals. It bolsters the power of corporations and other hierarchical organizations, undermining democracy…[I]t does this by producing people useful to hierarchies, and only to hierarchies: uncritical employees ready and able to extend the reach of their employer’s will.”

  13. It reminds me of the scene in Pulp fiction where the woman is looking into the car at Bruce Willis after the accident. I don’t know why….

  14. I’ve had lots of bad jobs… when I was 17 I pumped gas in S. Jersey and was robbed. I’ve also worked a meat counter in Eugene, Oregon (and I don’t eat meat), I cleaned model-homes with my sister & and then brother-in-law in the suburbs of Philly while also selling beer in a corner store where I was instructed to “keep the baseball bat close at all times,” and also worked a third job while in Philly at Urban Outfitters.

    hmm… In Portland, Oregon I worked for a Glaucoma clinic, now in NYC I teach which I like when I get classes and hate when my classes get canceled or aren’t offered to me.

    1. The meat counter sounds awful; I would never work as a grocery store cashier simply because I never wanted to handle the meats. Gross, Steven. I can’t believe you did that. And Urban Outfitters! Good God.

      Hey, are you supposed to tip the pump jockeys or whatever you call them? (What do you call them?)

  15. Which meat counter in Eugene? I lived there a while. I can surely see someone there not eating meat.

  16. Molly,

    ah yeah, learning to stuff left-over meats into intestines and call it sausage was not my sorta thing. i worked the job for about a month and half then quit it and took a job at a record store- shittier pay but much better gig.

    i was always referred as a “gas attendant,” so i’m not sure, but a coupla older dudes used to tip me with beer- cans of Hams-ha!

  17. Greg,

    The store was called Oasis, but they eventually got bought by either Natural Oats? aka Natures or what is now known as Whole Foods.

    The good thing is that they had a great beer selection and my roommate worked as a cashier so between she & I we also had tons of food and beverage in the fridge and cabinets.

    1. I knew it. I was there 97-00 and 02-05 My friend worked at Oasis on Willamette as a cashier and rang up a $40 order of mine for $10. Perhaps that is why he only worked there a few weeks.

  18. Hey John, sorry for the late response: was traveling, airports, delays, family face time, yadda yadda. Anyway, you asked “How has your experience with your MFA program and your PhD program dovetailed and diverged from the romance writer community you observed?”

    There is often, of course, a kind of imagined animosity between lit and genre (esp. romance) communities but I think all writing communities are doing similar things–providing emotional and craft support for their participants. I like to think the communities I’ve found through school are maybe more stylistically diverse than those supported by Big Publishing but working in romance kept me kind of honest as a writer. I saw, up close in the romance world, that writing is a struggle for everyone. It’s lonely for many. And the community you choose ends up having a huge impact on your writing (that’s how it’s been for me–I’m sure it works vice versa too). No matter what my opinions are on romance novels as a whole, I feel, deep down, like we all go through a lot of the same anxieties and difficulties that communities help assuage.

    1. Yes! And now we are both in nyc, I just came here a few weeks ago. I would have gone to the Ashbery reading but I had just arrived. Nice series.

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