Why not being a writer is good for writers

I’ve follow Amie McNee for a while on Instagram and read her latest blog post dealing with that awful question for aspiring writers: “But what’s your real job?”

This got me thinking (and I never know where I fall on this debate so I thought for a long time!)

I find answering this question so awkward that I always say I’m a PR man who does creative writing as a hobby. So first of all: well done Amie and everyone else who proudly says “I am a writer!” It takes guts.

But there are things I don’t quite agree with – and I don’t think it’s just me being pedantic (though that has been known).

First off all a ‘job’ is whatever pays your bills, so if you ain’t getting at least some cashflow from writing, then writing ain’t your job. It can be your passion, your goal, hell even your life purpose (all of which are more meaningful than just a job) but it can’t be your job.

Secondly, just as we should be proud as writers, we shouldn’t be ashamed of our jobs. Loads of aspiring, and even successful, writers have jobs as teachers or PRs or freelancers or lawyers or whatever. If you’re in denial about the fact you’re not a full-time paid writer, then that’s not healthy.

Thirdly (and this is where my title makes sense) I think there’s a way of solving the writer-job conflict. I think we’ve got to embrace our shitty time-consuming jobs which take us away from our real passion. That’s right, cherish all of those frustrating emails and long meetings and 7-hours-a-day spent away from your novel.

I’m not just being facetious here. I genuinely think there’s merit in having a separate work life: it’s full of writerly material like characters and situations you don’t get elsewhere; it connects you to a different world in which your priorities don’t matter; its humbling; it forces you to analyse yourself and your environment.

For me, one of the worse sins that full-time writers commit is writing a novel about writers and writing. JK Rowling does it with Cormorant Strike investigating the publishing world. Richard Yates does it in Young Hearts Crying. Even Philip Roth is guilty.

These are the books in which you have a character or narrator who is a novelist or poet and they spend their time writing and thinking about writing. And it’s all because the real writer has nothing else to talk about. Professional writers have no material as compelling, no passion or drive as vital, as those of us who spend our time at some other job.

So I think we should use our jobs for our own purpose. To mine material, to make us more determined and focused. That’s what some great work-based novels do, like Heller’s Something Happened and Yates’ Revolutionary Road.

That’s why for me, not being a writer is one of the best things for my writing.

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One thought on “Why not being a writer is good for writers

  1. Jonathan! I love your perspective on this. I completely agree that our time outside of our writing holes is SO valuable, and contributes greatly to our imagination. Thank you for this.

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