Juggling a Job and Writing Fiction

When I quit my job as an in-house translator to write fiction full time, I went to my tax advisor and grandly announced to her that I was going to do the minimum amount of freelancing to get by and spend the rest of my days writing a novel. I didn’t care about making money anymore and I wouldn’t take any work that impacted on my writing schedule. After all, I’d found my true calling. The art was the only thing that mattered, just like Steven Pressfield spelled out in The War of Art. Eyes moist with triumph, I concluded my little speech by telling my tax advisor—a German with the pragmatic Weltanschauung of the Iron Frau—that she could expect a massive drop in my earnings over the next year. Her response was a Teutonic kick in the Weichteile: ‘We’ll see.’

Turns out she was right. Obviously. There was no massive drop in income. I didn’t turn down paying work because of my burning desire to create art. I still needed and cared about money. At first, it bothered me to realise I didn’t have the strength to turn my back on the established order, to cut the safety net emblazoned with a dollar sign. But the reality is this: the starving artist trope is a myth. Unless you’re Knut Hamsun or George Orwell and you’re able to weave a harrowing narrative out of a man’s quest to starve himself to death as an act of spite toward the world, nobody is impressed that you can’t afford to eat properly or that you’ve had to sell your Sonos speaker to a mate to buy cigarettes and red wine (props that you put on your desk for when a friend comes over and asks you how the writing is going. You don’t even answer the question; you simply nod at the desk and sigh). If you don’t have two coins to rub together, you can’t buy books or travel or sit in a bar with a friend and talk and observe – all experiences essential for enriching your writing.

And so, like the majority of fiction writers, I had to learn a new skill: how to juggle. That is, the ability to do a sufficient amount of work in a day to earn enough money to be privately sufficient while keeping the minimum number of hours free for writing. The problem was I couldn’t find many articles detailing the best way—or even how—to do it. There are plenty of guides for tyros on how many words to write in a session, when to edit, how often to write, and so on. And there are hundreds of interviews with established writers on how they structure their day (like Murakami the cyborg jazz hound who gets up at 4 am). But not so much on flinging balls in the air and trying to catch them again. So with that in mind, here are five things I’ve learned about juggling work and writing.

 Note: These tips do sort of fall apart entirely when children are added into the equation. Then again, people who manage to juggle a job and kids and writing are superhuman and they don’t need advice.

1.    Make the hours count.

As a day-jobber and a writer, every hour is like a Tetris piece falling too fast from the sky. It’s up to you to match what you’re doing with the hours that you’re given, even if you feel like you want to ignore what you’re supposed to be doing in favour of firing up the YouTube. If you lose even half an hour somewhere, you’ll have to make it up elsewhere – and that elsewhere is your writing time. The more you dick about at work and eat into your writing time, the worse you’ll feel when you arrive home at 7 or 8 pm and only manage to turn out 300 words before retreating to the sofa with a bowl of overcooked spaghetti and pesto and the nuclear glow of Netflix rouging your pasty skin. You want to feel like you’ve earned that terrible food and bad sitcom, don’t you? Make every hour count.

2.    Routine is king.

The best way to make the hours count is by establishing a routine. When you have a routine, you can save the energy otherwise expended on organising your day. Whether before work, after work or during your lunch break, find an unbroken time window whose glass is strong enough to withstand outside influences. For me, that means working from 8 am until 1 pm, doing sport/having lunch for an hour, working from 2 pm until 4 pm and then writing from 4 pm until 6 pm or 7 pm. Once you’re into your session, don’t break it for anything if possible. Not for more work, not for phone calls, not for emails. Keep your mind clear of vocational clutter and power through. It’s only a couple of hours, three at the most. Attack that page. You’ll feel great at the end of it. And the next day you’ll go into work and have something to share during your coffee break. “I wrote something last night,” you’ll say, the words half-directed at the floor out of a sense of false modesty. “Oh yeah?” says the only person in the office whose voice doesn’t have you reaching for the noise-cancelling headphones. “What’s it about?” And you’ll grin and say, “I can’t tell you because it’s not done yet. That’s a rule.” They’ll nod and walk away, and you’ll be left to think about what you’re going to write tonight.

3.    But you can break the routine if you need to.

“If you don’t write every day without fail, you’re not a real writer.” It turns out this isn’t true. Harper Lee wrote a grand total of one book (I’m not counting miserable first drafts not intended for publication). She was a writer and perhaps the best example of quality over quantity ever. Now, this isn’t to say that it’s fine to sit down and mash out 300 words once a week. As stated, it’s important to develop a routine and stick to it. It keeps the cogs greased, Pavlovs you into a creative mindset, stops the excuses from lining up like lemmings on the tip of your tongue. But if you miss a day or two because you took on too much work and you’re exhausted, there’s no need to flagellate yourself. All you’ve done is identify a boundary, and each time you overstep it, it’ll become a little more concrete in your mind until finally you know exactly how much work you can do before it impacts on your writing time. So in a way you have to break from your routine from time to time if you’re going to follow it on the whole. The same goes for if you have visitors or a friend is begging to spend time with you: if you’re going to commit to them, do it properly. Don’t have half a mind on writing while you’re with them. Take the break and enjoy it and return to the desk renewed (and maybe with some inspiration) the next day.

4.    If possible, freelance.

Do you care about your job as much as you care about writing? Would you miss the office environment? Do you have skills you can sell to people for money without having to turn up in the same place day after day? If so, become a freelancer. Freelancing is the future. Publications keep proclaiming it, so it must be true. Oh sure, it’s lonely, there’s a lack of financial security, you’ll definitely have to work weekends and you often feel like you’re thumping your forehead against the cold, hard bark of the forest of stupidity, but it has its perks, too. Being able to choose your own hours, for example (good for building your routine). Finding yourself with a whole sweet afternoon free, a mug of tea in your hand and a blank page before you. Or landing that one plum assignment worth enough so that you can take four days off at the end of the month and go out and gather new experiences.

5.    If work has put you in a bad mood, edit.

Here’s the scenario: you’ve spent most of the day working flat out on a project to meet a deadline, only for your boss or the customer to tell you your efforts weren’t necessary. The project has been postponed, perhaps. Or they’re going to go with a different version. Or the person who is supposed to sign off on it is on holiday. Whatever the case, you’re tired, jaded and in no mood to accept anybody’s bullshit—least of all your own. That’s why it’s the perfect time to read through a short story, a poem or a novel that you’ve been working on. You’ll immediately see the places where you’ve been too cute and where you’ve tried to cut corners. You’ll sneer at clunky dialogue, sigh at the winded pacing, shake your head at characters more uneven than the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. You might even hear a voice telling you that you’re worthless and shouldn’t be a writer. Don’t listen to them, though. They’re just tired and cranky, too. The focus is on using your irascibility to your benefit, not your detriment. So wield the scalpel. Cut and slash. Be as ruthless as you like. The next day, when you’re (hopefully) feeling better about yourself and the world again, you’ll come back to your text and gasp at the all-new beast before you: it’s so lean, so clean, so mean. Feel that new pep and vim in your blood as your fingers machine-gun the keyboard. And use it to create something amazing.