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The Day Job: Friend Or Foe?

Jennifer Blevins / Saturday, October 17, 2009 Comments Off

p>open heart surgery on the side Imagine you are a doctor. Let’s say you have known you wanted to be a doctor ever since you were a little kid, attended many years of school to become a doctor, and experience the greatest possible level of joy and fulfillment in your life when you are practicing medicine. However, let’s say that the society in which you live expects doctors to work for free. Occasionally doctors can secure gigs that pay, but it’s normal for doctors to hold down other jobs so that they can support themselves enough to practice medicine. As such, a typical day for a doctor could include: getting up early, enduring a long commute, spending 8 hours in an office working a job that consumes energy yet doesn’t stimulate intellectually, grabbing some dinner after work, and THEN performing open heart surgery at night.

This is what it can feel like to be an artist, especially in New York City.

Of course we need doctors and they perform a very important job…but so do artists. And we need artists, too. Yet it has become the accepted norm that most artists must work a support job in order to survive. This reality can be frustrating, depressing, and is something I think about a lot when I realize that yet another week has passed and I have poured far more energy into my “support job” than I have into my writing. I recently ran across a great article by Emily St. John Mandel on The Millions that explores this very topic.

Mandel has worked various day jobs to support two different artistic careers and offers examples from her own life as well as from the lives of two writer-friends to illustrate how support jobs can hinder or help artistic creation. She does a good job of exploring many angles of the artist/day job conundrum, and even pulls Kafka into the mix. It’s a wonderful post and if you are currently sitting in an office job, stewing in a bitter pool of anger and despair, I highly recommend you click on the link and check it out.

Like most situations in life, a day job is what you make of it. You can make a concerted effort to squeeze creative juice out of it, or you can allow it to suck the very marrow from your bones. I have been on both sides of the equation, and I must confess that it’s a lot easier to slip into resentment and bitterness than it is to make lemonade out of eight daily hours of lemons. Every day I walk in and tell myself TODAY is the day I’m going to use my monkey job downtime for good and work on my writing….and every day I am sucked back into the Facebook vortex and obsessive clock-watching. More than anything it’s a mind game.

At the end of her article, Mandel admits that it is not entirely impossible for writers to find a way to support themselves writing. However, she mostly dismisses it as a vague possibility:

“So we all come home tired from our days at the office, sit down in front of the blinking cursors on our screens, and allow ourselves to daydream for a moment about being struck by commercial lightning: a film deal, a surprise bestseller, a call from the organizer of Oprah’s book club. We’re all perfectly aware that it will likely never happen. We all keep writing anyway.”

Call me an idealist, but I have not yet given up hope. We need doctors because they fulfill a basic need; my intention as an artist is to find a way to do the same. And then maybe one day I’ll be able to let the vicious day job cycle drop away…and reminisce about the period in my life when I had so much time to screw around on Facebook.

In the meantime, when I’m not stewing in bitterness at my support jobs I am actually able to recognize the ripe creative possibilities right in front of me. Writers write about people, so the more bizarre and quirky people we surround ourselves with the better. I am currently writing a play based on my experiences in my last day job; every time I sit down to work on it I am grateful for the hell that was that particular employment experience….because it just may help me write one hell of a play.

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More: Rants / Writing
  • http://ingemarwrites.wordpress.com/ Heather S. Ingemar

    I love the analogy between doctors and artists.

    Nice post!

  • http://www.juliebogart.com Julie

    Excellent post. In some ways, writers/artists have to be more driven than people in most any other profession. We have to work the full-time job, perform open heart surgery when we get home, and fight the nagging voice inside that’s telling us we aren’t good enough. It’s a challenge that only a crazy person would take on. Or, you know, a writer.

  • http://www.cristamchugh.com Crista

    As a doctor who writes, I can’t tell you how many puzzled looks I get when I tell people I’d prefer to write than practice medicine. In this case, though, writing is my second job. It doesn’t pay enough yet for me to quit my day job, especially considering all my student loans from med school, but telling stories keeps me sane and makes it possible for me to get and go to work every morning.

  • Ahna Kristarr

    I find myself in this very situation. Great post

  • http://www.emilymandel.com Emily St. John Mandel

    I know I’m late to this, but thanks very much for linking to my article. I think you’re absolutely right — your day job is what you make of it. I like your doctor/writer metaphor; the idea that artists shouldn’t expect to make a living from their work has always been troubling to me. Especially when so many other people make their livings from our work.

    As for the end of the essay that you quoted there — I have a lot of hope, and a lot of ambition, but I think I don’t allow myself to think too seriously about my chances of getting to quit my day job someday, simply because I’m at the beginning of my writing career and I know it’ll likely be a while before I can write full time, if I ever can at all. So I’ve been trying to make the day job/writing balance work, and trying not to torture myself with thoughts of what freedom from day jobs might feel like.

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