Bad Advice Wednesday: Need a Job? Be a Writer First (from the archives)

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Do not listen to this man…

Oh, I’ve seen such anguish on FB and elsewhere about the thin market in college jobs for writers.  More jobs will turn up, of course, and somewhere, right now, someone’s writing up a job description that sounds a lot like you.  But that September job list really is depressing. Then again, if you’ve set out to be a writer, why let the job statistics for teachers bother you?  Yes, you need a way to make money, but what difference does it make how you get there, if the whole point is to buy time to write?

I always thought it was best to do work that had nothing to do with writing.  So I put in kitchens and bathrooms.  I bartended.  I rode a horse and chased Simmental cattle around.  I painted apartments in NYC.  I played in bands (famously!).  And when I got home from these generally lucrative activities (well, not the ranch stuff), or while I lay on the beach during all the time my night work opened up, I wrote.  I didn’t really get that I was in an apprenticeship.  But what I did get was that what I meant to be was a writer.  Not a bartender, for example.   So I didn’t take that too seriously (though I often made a teacher’s weekly salary in a night–tips).  When I was done, I was done.

And not a contractor.  No, I hadn’t set out to do that!  Though construction got fairly serious at times… But then I’d remind myself: you, my friend are a writer.  And so I’d finish up the bathroom I was working on, pinch the large wad of cash, and take as many months off as that cash would buy.  And I’d write. Preferably someplace nice…

Practice novels, sure.  And then stuff that was getting published.  And that got me into grad school.  My MFA program (Columbia U.) was wonderful as a way to focus on reading and writing among like-minded souls.  I taught the undergrads (Logic and Rhetoric), and that paid my way.  No different than the other work I’d done: my teaching assistantship bought me time to write.  Also, grad school taught me to be poor, which was good preparation for teaching in the academy, or teaching anywhere.

After grad school, and largely because of it, I published a book, and with the degree, that made me employable.   I applied for jobs and got some of them.  I taught 25 years in all, promoted, tenured, endowed chair, the whole shebang.  All so I could write, I didn’t forget.  And when at long last I could rely on writing to pay the way, I quit teaching.  Just like that.

Because I’d never set out to be a teacher.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love teaching!

But I love not teaching more…

And I’m way busier than I ever was teaching, go figure…

I know it’s no fun to contemplate, but if you want to be a writer, it doesn’t really matter what else you do to get along.  X dollars is X dollars, no matter where they came from.

Jesus, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.

Be a writer first at least.  Can you do that for me?  Thanks.

  1. Bill Lundgren writes:

    beautifully articulated. Hard not to be impressed with such a focused vision, despite all the distractions of consumer society. For a similarly lovely depiction of the writing life, read Don Carpenter (“Friday’s At Enrico’s”). Carpenter makes it clear that he’s a writer, despite the obstacles, because he simply doesn’t have a choice and whatever “sacrifices” he has to make are worth it in the interest of satisfying the Muse.

  2. Dinty Moore writes:

    Your advice is bad. Bad as a bone.

  3. MikeyJ writes:

    I agree with Bill’s notion that the less creative the day job is, the more creative gas you have in the tank when you sit down to write. That said, sticking around places like the service industry much later than your 20s makes you less and less employable since you aren’t part of a work stream that adds skills to your professional tool belt. I get it, I bartended for year and made good money but I know many people still waiting tables in their 40s–still trying to “make it” as musicians–that have no other work experience to add to their resume. It took me 15 years of vocational wandering to end up in an industry where I can “use my degree” (Eng/Creative Writing), but it’s nice to finally find an arena that needs and uses my skill set. I am now a Proposal Analyst for a CRO and write/edit every day for a pretty good salary. Do I come home after work and pound out 1,000 words on my new novel? Sadly, no. But I am supporting my family and saving for the future and feel OK with it. I try to make time to write and accept my diminsihed creative output in exchange for job security. I suggest looking into CRO jobs for any writer. Cubicle life can crush your soul but that suffering is fuel for your writing.

  4. john writes:

    Yep good advice. Thank you Bill! (Now I’m going back to reading papers!)

  5. john writes:

    Love this advice. Thank you Bill. (Now I’m going back to reading papars.)

  6. Dave writes:

    This is the best advice yet! (I mean of Bill’s of course.)

    Everyone grad student where I teach should read it.

  7. Ryder Ziebarth writes:

    I’m going to send this very stellar advice to my daughter– she’s a singer about to graduate Berklee College of Music–but I have t send it quick, before her father sees me.

    • Bill writes:

      Nice. You know, it’s actually possible for a young musician to make money playing music while practicing music and developing as a musician. Plus have fun and a life… And if it’s true for young musicians, it must be true for young writers… So many more possibilities in the age of information…

  8. Taylor Brown writes:

    Right on. Love this.

  9. Elizabeth Hilts writes:

    Thanks for the bad advice. I really needed some of that today.

  10. Karin writes:

    Thank you. This really spoke to me today. Back to work!