Everyone likes to read about the day jobs of famous writers — and how they were able to give them up. But for today’s writers the day job will be permanent part of our working lives.
When it comes to the bios of famous writers, the day job is often part of the story: TS Eliot was a banker, Kurt Vonnegut sold Saabs, Isak Dinesen farmed coffee, George Orwell was a colonial policeman in Burma.
Writing day jobs change depending on the era. In the macho 50’s and 60’s, blue-collar day jobs were trendy: Gary Snyder was a lumberjack, Jack Kerouac sailed as a merchant marine and William Burroughs was employed as an exterminator. At other times, white-collar day jobs were popular: Franz Kafka, was an insurance man (speaking of insects) and so, stubbornly, was Wallace Stevens. William Carlos Williams was a doctor. Even the reclusive Harper Lee got out in the world and manned the reservation counter at an airline.
So, why are we so curious about the day jobs of writers? We find them amusing, especially when the job doesn’t fit the writer we think we know. We have no problem with Jorge Luis Borges working as a librarian—Of course he was a librarian! Look at the man!—but how delicious to think of the esteemed novelist Beryl Bainbridge acting bit parts in British soap operas.
We also like the idea of these exalted creatives working in humble jobs, their genius, like our own, unrecognized. We suspect they would have been bad at normal jobs—too sensitive, too flighty, too weird (could Stephen King really have been a good janitor?)—and this also gives us comfort. Finally, we like the way the story goes: struggling writer works crummy job, publishes great work, leaves crummy job forever and never really has to work again.
In recent times something has gone badly wrong with the drudgery-to-literary-glory fable. While writing has never been a sure path to riches, writing is less profitable now than it has been for decades. Royalities have fallen, as have rates for commissioned articles—online blogs like the one you’re reading are given away for free and there are those who think they should be.
All this has taken a huge toll on writer earnings. Research now shows author incomes collapsing to “abject” levels, leaving writers struggling just to keep writing. As Richard Russo summed it up for the Author’s Guild:
While it may be true that there are new opportunities and platforms for writers in the digital age, only the wilfully blind refuse to acknowledge that authorship is imperiled on many fronts…there’s evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, that as a species we are significantly endangered. In the UK, for instance, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society reports that authors’ incomes have fallen 29 percent since 2005, a decline they deem ‘shocking’. If a similar study were done in the U.S., the results would be, we believe, all too similar.
This sad state of affairs means that publishing our work, even when we’re successful, is no longer a ticket out of the day job. At the same time, in a kind of literacidal trifecta, funding for the arts is being slashed and universities, once reasonably safe havens, are demanding more and more from the writers they employ while offering them less and less.
With hindsight, I find myself to be a member of the generation that followed on the heels of the final wave of decently remunerated writers. These were the writers made their names in the 80’s and early 90’s, before the fault lines really opened across the landscape of publishing. I learned my craft from them: Richard Russo was on the faculty of my MFA program. They often took posts in academe to supplement their creative income and knew the satisfaction of leaving behind routine day jobs to dedicate themselves, more or less, to literature.
I’m sure our writer-teachers taught us in good faith, believing that we would one day have the same opportunities they did. Yet it hasn’t worked out that way. Soon after graduating it became pretty clear that I and most of my fellow MFA graduates would probably never be able to write full time for a living or even, in a profession overcrowded with MFAs like ourselves, to make a living through teaching writing. Instead, were destined to have working lives that are sharply divided between the writing we love and the things we do to put food on the table. That is, if we’re able to keep writing at all.
It’s against this background that I view the day jobs of famous writers. I myself have always had a day job. I wrote my most recent novel, The Merchants of Light, while covering innovations in the field of social finance—with some nonfiction, like this BOOM! essay on sustainability in California, social media and editing work on the side. This leads to the sort of schizophrenic LinkedIn profile that confuses some people (though never other artists) and yet makes for an interesting professional life. The fact is I’ve always valued my day job, so much so that maybe it doesn’t really count as a day job. Reading into the statistics, this means I’m much luckier than most writers today.
And what about those writers of yesteryear with their funny day jobs? To me, their stories belong to a mythological past that has no real relevance for us. Their experiences don’t tell us anything about the writers who went on slaving because their creative work was never recognized or those who were ultimately forced to put family or financial necessity before their art—poor old Charles Lamb springs to mind—or those whose day jobs eventually got too big, became too responsible, to allow time for writing. (That scenario seems the most present danger for me.)
What these tall tales tell us is that, if we are really brilliant, really special, then one day the world will take note, start paying us for our talent and free us from the tedious obligation to make money. That could happen, of course. It still could! But until it’s a sure thing, I am keeping, and continuing to appreciate, my day job.