Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

To Job, Or Not To Job?

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To job, or not to job? That's something I consider often, as do many of my fellow writers. Notice that I did not say, to work, or not to work? That is not the question.

For all but a few writers in this country, making an income beyond advances and royalties is a necessity. It’s not that Canadians don’t read and buy books — they do. But there just aren’t enough Canadians to turn even a book with very respectable sales into the things that humans need to survive, let alone those things that many of us enjoy having — a home of our own, university tuition for our children, a chance to go out for dinner without waiting for our publisher to invite us and pick up the tab. It’s not a question of having something “to fall back on” if the writing doesn’t pan out, the way legions of parents and guidance counselors have encouraged, but of having something to keep the bills paid throughout our writing lives.

So, what’s it going to be?

There are famous examples of writers who had steady work while their books were being written and being published. T.S. Eliot was a banker and Franz Kafka worked in insurance and then investigated compensation claims. Toni Morrison worked as an editor for an educational publisher. True, Kafka claimed to hate being chained to employment and to resent the time it stole from his writing. But he kept at it. Perhaps Kafka shared the feelings of a painter friend of mine, who returned to work after many months of devoting herself “full-time” to her art. When I asked her why, she said, “I made an amazing discovery. I paint much better when the lights are on.” Good point.

But for some writers, the security and structure of daily employment seems to boost the creativity, as well as the bank account. For one thing, it gives you access to characters and scenarios that don’t tend to play out in the home office. (Would Kafka’s work have been the same without the bizarre encounters a daily job can provide?)

A busy paid workday certainly doesn’t seem to be hurting Russell Wangersky and his creative output. Wangersky, who has won multiple awards for his books of fiction and non-fiction, is currently shopping his fifth book to publishers. Like his previous works, Wangersky wrote this book while employed full-time as an editor at the St. John’s daily newspaper, The Telegram. Wangersky credits years of daily newspaper deadlines with his ability to sit down and focus on his fiction, in the time he has available. And he likes the variety of the assignments that the work on the paper offers. “On the editorial page, I get to write about flat worms and weird shrimp and anything I want to,” Wangersky says. “And I think it helps to be surrounded by words all day.”

Then there are those writers who feel that their day jobs assist with their writing precisely because they aren’t based in words; it’s the contrast that makes them compatible. Poet and non-fiction writer John Terpstra is also a carpenter. When he faces the desk and the notebook, he knows that it is strictly for his creative work.

Around tax time, when I take stock of my income and expenses, I always wonder if it wouldn’t be better to return “full-time” to someone else’s payroll. But despite the lure of the steady pay cheque, in recent years I have stuck strictly to a regime of freelance work. I have clients, rather than bosses. I do other people’s work, but from my home office.

I have taken the approach another artist friend of mine calls his “sixteen-different-paper-routes”-means of making a living. Sometimes I teach, sometimes I read or edit manuscripts, sometimes I coach writers and others to speak effectively. I make a stipend for running the charity Project Bookmark Canada. But mostly the work I do for pay is to write. When I sit down at my keyboard it could be to write my novel or it could be for any number of assignments in my Day-Timer. This column comes to you between a book review and an appointment with one of my communications clients, a large educational institution for which I am writing a number of fundraising documents.

Theoretically, these many assignments allow me to keep my fiction at the heart of my working day. But it’s a real question whether I actually wind up with more time to write creatively than do my counterparts who have T4s and health plans. And one of the main struggles for me is how to delineate between the time and mental space that I devote to “Work for Others” writing and the “Work for Me” writing. I’ve tried all kinds of physical and mental tricks. Sometimes, I refuse to write anything other than fiction and poetry in my little office, migrating from kitchen table to couch to café to get the client work done. A year or so ago, I cleaned out a little nook in the attic (between a bathroom sink and a dresser) and set up my filing cabinets and a desk devoted to Bookmark work. Sometimes these forced barriers work very well. Other times, they fall away.

Ironically, my best approach to getting my creative writing done while still earning a living is to do what many properly employed writers do: to get up early and write before the business day begins. But because I work freelance for several clients, sometimes I can nudge the start of that day back a bit, giving me more hours in the morning to concentrate on my fiction. If you’re one of my clients and have been told “I’m in a meeting till 11,” there’s a good chance that that meeting was with my book.

Which can mean that the business day may easily go till late at night to compensate for that morning’s jealously guarded time and that I sacrifice a lot of weekends to paid assignments. And the other fact of freelancing is that when I’m on a serious deadline, or am offered a great freelance gig, it’s pretty much impossible to preserve many hours for creative work.

At times like this, my novel stares down at me from the board to the left of my desk (where I have the sections laid out) like a pouting child who speaks uncomfortable truths. “Spend more time with me,” it says.

“Would you just hold on?” I say, like guilty parents everywhere. “I’m doing this for you!”

Miranda Hill’s stories have appeared in The Globe & Mail, Reader’s Digest, The New Quarterly and The Dalhousie Review, and in 2011 she won The Writers’ Trust / McClelland and Stewart Journey Prize for her short story, “Petitions to Saint Chronic.” This story and eight others were published in her debut collection, Sleeping Funny (Doubleday Canada, 2012).

Hill is also the founder and executive director of the Canadian literary charity Project Bookmark Canada. She lives, writes and works in Hamilton, Ontario.

You can find more articles by Miranda Hill in Open Book's Archives.

1 comment

Thanks for a great article! I weigh in on the side of a day job, for the time being. I like money to be available, and the distraction ultimately fuels my creativity. Having learned to step away from the computer when blocked, I see job as a positive escape, a chance to live incognito in the real world as my writing dances and whirls upstairs.

That said, having no other job is a goal I'm working toward. I'm in no rush, but it'll happen eventually, pre or post retirement!


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