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What kind of job should you take when you’re trying to write too?

At a recent freelancer writers’ networking event, several of us were discussing with a younger writer how she could make some income while setting out to write fiction, essays, poetry or nonfiction without a clearcut path to regular checks.

Following college I had no desire to write fiction or poetry, and I willingly put other types of writing on the backburner while I held corporate jobs.

Still, it’s an interesting question. I especially pondered this issue during my first full-time job out of school. I was a receptionist at a city-government office. Long before the internet or PCs, I answered the phone, took reservations for the shelters at municipal parks, and totaled data on an adding machine for performance reports.

I was crazy with boredom. (I relish a fast pace and detest slow periods at work even if there is no stress.)

I told myself that since I fancied being a writer, I should write in my head and jot down all my terrific words during lunch and when I got home from work.

Couldn’t do it. In part this was because I didn’t have much of anything to write about at the time and couldn’t handle any degree of self-revelation that might eventually get published. But also, boring work did not inspire brilliant thoughts or brilliant writing.

One problem was that it had not gelled in my mind what type of writing I would do or even what I had to say that was worth sharing. That took years, even decades, for me.

Here are some additional reasons why working at a job like that simply didn’t work for me as a writer.

It appears that we each have the capacity to put out only a certain number of words per day. This number varies among individuals from a few hundred to thousands. How long this takes also varies among people, but few people write a solid eight hours per day.

I used to be a financial writer at asset management / mutual fund companies. Coworkers would pass my desk when I was reading the Wall Street Journal or drinking coffee and comment that it must be great to have so much spare time.

Pissed me off.

Fingers on keyboard is a very small part of a business writer’s job. Some days I didn’t write any first drafts at all. Instead, most of my time was spent gathering correct numbers from other departments, collecting other people’s revisions of my drafts, proofreading, photocopying, attending interminable meetings, etc.

And yes, I spent a lot of time reading. This made me more knowledgeable, stimulated ideas for new headlines and articles, and even yielded interesting vocabulary and examples to spice up my copy.

Plus I spent time thinking. I know it looks like wasted time, but thinking can be a useful activity even if it looks like daydreaming.

If you want to write faster, take up speed typing. Despite many articles on the internet to the contrary, speed is largely irrelevant so long as you can stay on task and plan your work to meet deadlines.

Still, after a day of reaching a word-count goal at work, whether as a formal strategy or the natural result of work, it’s hard to go home and produce more words.

Second, boredom does not aid writing. It would be wonderful if between phone calls and deliveries to the office I could have written terrific stuff, but I couldn’t. Boredom makes me feel lethargic, even tired. Also gray and moody.

Assembly-line work and other manual chores does not inspire me to think up great writing and remember it for hours.

As someone with a kinesthetic information-processing style, walking around, housework and other movement that does not require the full brain can support creative thinking. But this is only true when I have the freedom to jot words down while they are fresh in my mind, not when I have to immerse myself in work tasks.

So what is the best type of paying work while you are trying to earn a living at a regular job?

The best work, in my opinion, pays enough and offers enough benefits to justify not doing what you would rather do with your time.

Also, the best work provides more than income. Ideally it is interesting or it helps others or it provides social opportunities. Even if it takes away from writing time and energy, it’s better to have work that is stimulating.

Originally posted 8-17-15

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