Just finished listening to an interesting Dear Sugar podcast about artistic dreams. A listener who calls herself Career Purgatory writes of a common dilemma: should she quit her soul-sucking day job to be a “real” writer or find time to write in her life right now? It’s a prevalent and pernicious myth that to be a “real” writer we must write full-time. Yes, there are a few writers who have attained such a level of success but most writers haven’t-and never will. In fact, some of the most talented, popular writers must still hold day jobs-as teachers, as professors, as journalists-even after writing best-sellers. Most often, writing simply isn’t enough to pay the bills.
To me, at the heart of Career Purgatory’s question is this: if I work as an accountant/lawyer/janitor during the day, does that make me any less of a writer?
My answer? Absolutely not.
Wallace Stevens held what some would call a “boring” job at an insurance company. T.S. Eliot worked at a bank. Did their tedious jobs prevent either man from writing some of the greatest poems of the 20th century?
Rather than view our day jobs as a hinderance to our dreams or an affront to our creative identities, we should-as Steve Almond so eloquently advises-understand our jobs as opportunities to engage with the world. Whether we’re spending our days entering data into a spreadsheet or copyediting government docs, if we’re paying attention, we can transmute these experiences into art. Think of Office Space. Director Mike Judge created hysterical, biting satires as a result of his experiences in mind-numbing corporate America. Art is chiefly the precision to render your experience. How dull if you were an artist who could only talk about the rarefied world of art! Art exists in soulless gray offices as much as anarchist movements and bohemian cafes.
The idea that there is one sort of artist’s life is painfully limiting. When we contend we can only be artists when we can quit our dreadfully humdrum office jobs or rendezvous to Paris, we’re essentially saying one thing: we can’t be artists, at least not now. Why do we cherish this mistaken belief? Because it keeps us from having to do any real work. No, no we can’t begin our novel yet! We first have to get the perfect chestnut table/old-fashioned desk lamp/totally impractical vintage typewriter! No, no we couldn’t possibly begin our book! To write a book, we need a full day-not an hour.
Is it any wonder so few of us ever sit down to write? Writing, being a “writer” carries so many expectations for us. Being a writer means writing full-time; being a writer means not having to hold an unglamorous day job. Being a writer means cappuccinos and bohemian artist’s studios and glorious vistas of peaceful, interrupted hours at a stylish desk (preferably where we can glimpse some picturesque scene from our window).
Unfortunately, writing (for the most part) doesn’t work that way. Writing is crammed in the nooks and crannies of our day to day existence: an hour here, an hour there, a 15 minute window between picking up the kids from school and taking them to piano. Writing is kitchen counters and cafe tables. Writing is a 10 cent composition book-not a leather bound journal.