Writers and Day Jobs: How Authors Make it Work

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Writers and Day Jobs

Late at night, a window glows above the city streets. At her desk, The Writer stubs out a cigarette and closes her new laptop. She pours herself a scant glass from a good bottle of scotch, downs it and picks up her vibrating cell phone. A writer friend is having a similarly fruitless night.
    "Meet me at the bar?" he asks.
    "Sure thing," says our heroine. She grabs her coat, reaches into the bottomless money bag hanging near the door and heads into the night.

That would make things very straight forward, wouldn't it? But alas, writers — like everyone else — have to work for a living, and often the writing is what happens early in the morning, late at night or during the eighth day of the week. Some writers make enough from their writing to support themselves, but (in Canada, at least) most don't, and the ensuing struggle to balance the budget while writing books requires creativity.

I asked some writers in the Open Book: Toronto community to tell us how they pay the bills and what their ideal employment arrangement might be.

Freelancing, teaching and working as writers-in-residence showed up as the most popular breadwinning activities, though Rebecca Rosenblum fondly remembered her gig working "a very slow early morning shift at a [library] information desk [where] I was able to do whatever I wanted (write) as long as I made myself available as soon as potential questioner showed up."

Stacey May Fowles works full-time as the Circulation Manager for venerable Canadian magazine The Walrus. Of her experience, she notes "I've always considered circulation a really good fit for writing, sort of its reasonable, rational, straightforward partner. It allows me to be surrounded and influenced by a multitude of ever-changing editors and writers, but because I don't work with the words directly it really frees up my head space for my own writing."

Natalie Zina Walschots gained some great material (and enviable skills), working as a cheesemonger in Calgary. "It was officially the loveliest part-time job I have ever had", she says. Later, she worked as a copywriter for a Toronto-based pornography company, before becoming a full-time freelance writer, an arrangement which has its own challenges. "I work much harder for myself than I would for anyone else," says Natalie, "and I don't always know when to give myself a break."

Which reminds us that just because a writer is grocery shopping at 10:00 a.m., that doesn't mean he or she is slacking — far from it. As Elizabeth Ruth notes, "my paid work usually takes place during the evenings, and on week-ends."

One writer, who preferred to remain anonymous, voiced the concern that hovers over many keyboards across the country, saying "I find I can't write if I'm stressed about where my next cheque is coming from."

So what's the ideal situation? Many writers seem to embrace the idea of other work in addition to pounding the keyboard, whether for inspiration, variation or sheer sanity. Stacey May notes that during a brief period of full-time writing she "found the lack of structure a bit difficult and frankly, crazy-making. I think outside obligations and connections, however tenuous, are fundamental for writers ... It's hard to 'know your audience' if you're gravitating towards pyjama-clad shut-in." Our anonymous contributor agrees: "[The ideal would be] a part-time job for a sense of stability and structure and the rest of the time to write."

Catherine Graham, who teaches at both the University of Toronto and the Haliburton School of the Arts adds: "As long as I can still find the time to write, teaching feeds my creative life for it is its own art form."

Elizabeth weighs in, saying "writing 3 days/week, full days would suit me just fine. I'm able to slip into the work right way and stay there all day. Ideally I would want my 3 days to be consecutive."

So while our collective mental image (so popular in films) of the full-time writer up in a garret may be little more than a romantic ideal, it seems that writers are finding ways to make working — outside of their books, stories and poems — work for them.


Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada).

For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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