How to keep your day job from killing your writing career

07/13/2008

Like most writers waiting for their big break, I have a day job. I have, in fact, had a day job for a long, long time[1].

There are many dangers inherent in leading this double life. It’s easy to lose focus and let writing take a back seat. This is because the day job is more immediate, though not necessarily more important. Plus, in a job you often have other people depending on you, whereas in the early stages of a writing career, the only person you’re likely to disappoint is yourself. And unlike the seemingly endless process of writing and rewriting, a day job often brings the immediate rewards of cash and a sense of accomplishment, of actually having done something.

Not all jobs are satisfying in and of themselves. But even bad jobs become an excuse to not write. Because we’re tired, drained, or don’t have any time left over for ourselves.

That’s why we have make a concentrated effort to make writing a priority in our lives. Writing is not the default behavior for the human animal. It’s way down the list on the hierarchy of needs, for one thing. If we want it to happen, we have to make it happen. On purpose.

So I offer here a few humble suggestions for putting your writing at the center of your life.

Know what you want and how to get it

When you manage to scrape together a few minutes of writing time, you can’t afford to be lost in a fog. You have to know what you want to accomplish and the steps you need to take to get there. So you might spend some time planning your career before you get to the actual writing. That’s okay. You won’t be able to successfully sustain your writing effort until you do.

So, what’s it to be? Are you a feature film writer? Are you gong to direct low-budget independent films from your own screenplays, or are you going to write specs that will probably never be made but land you a writing assignment? Or is TV more your game? How are you going to turn your script into a career? Do you have a contact in mind? Contests? Where is this script going?

Whatever you choose, know what result you desire and be as specific as possible. The more concrete your goal, the more force it will have to pull you through the day to that magic moment when you can sit down and write. If all you have is some vague notion of “someday” writing a screenplay, then that’s probably when you’ll get to it — someday.

Take daily action toward your goal

You have to build and maintain moment toward your writing goal in order to keep the day job from robbing you of your writing career. It’s far too easy to let one day slip buy, and another, and soon a year is gone and you are no further along on your screenplay. I’ve seen it happen to many dear friends. Don’t spin your wheels, take daily action toward your goal.

And that means moving forward, not rewriting the same pages over and over.

Begin and end your day with writing

One of the ways you can make writing seem like a bigger part of your life is to make the day job seem smaller. Do this by bookending it with writing. That way, your day is really about your writing which happens to be interrupted by your employer, rather than the other way around.

I’m not a morning person myself. I hate almost everything about the morning. But getting up early and writing was a revelation to me. I discovered, for one, that what I hated most about getting out of bed in the morning was that I was going to work. Getting out of bed to write felt very different — in a good way. It was time just for me, not for anyone else, least of all my employer. Second, the words flowed much faster in my still-half-asleep state. For one, the day had yet to take a crap on me, so my consciousness wasn’t full of distractions and petty emotions.

Remember what you want and who you are

Stay above the fray and just get your job done with minimal drama.

I’m a preschool teacher, which is traditionally a job held by women. I am the only male on a staff of over a dozen, just at my center. Maybe it wouldn’t be any different with men, I don’t know, but I can tell you this — I am surrounded by drama and petty squabbles and territory fights and mood swings that would give you whiplash. It would be very, very easy to get down into this mud pit and start slinging, but I have a mantra.

I’m not a teacher, I’m an unemployed screenwriter.

During the day I’m there to do a job, and I do it well. I get the kids happily engaged in activities. I lead group time. I read books aloud. I sing. I plan curriculum. I observe children’s development and write assessments. I care for the classroom pets. But I’m not getting sucked into the bullshit. I don’t do drama. I don’t take sides or gossip. I don’t have the time or energy for that because I’m a screenwriter. I’m just here at the day job until my next writing gig. You ladies can fight amongst yourselves, I’m going to save my energy for the page.

Set a writing goal to accomplish by the time you get home

Again, this is about having something to pull you through the day. You need a target to aim your arrow at — the arrow that’s tied to your ankle with an unbreakable golden thread.

If you write in the morning as you should, then you probably have a sense of what you need to do next. Keep this in mind throughout the day and make it your aim to tackle it when you get home. This can be a story problem (How are the guys going to bust Zeke out of the asylum?) or a task relating to your growth as a writer (Need to write that query letter). Whatever it is, you should be mulling it over during the day so that when you arrive home, you are ready to hit the deck running.

Wash the day away

One of the biggest obstacles I faced was in making the transition from worker-bee to self-employed writer at the end of my work day.

Most of the time, I’d go home completely spent, shovel dinner down my gullet and flop down in the recliner and watch TV until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, with a solemn promise to myself that I’d write tomorrow…or on the weekend…or on my vacation…or someday.

What I needed was a way to make a clean break from the work day and reset for my writing time. Being a sedentary slob, it never occurred to me to work out, and it seemed counter intuitive that exercise would give one an energy boost. Think about it. How can you have more energy after spending energy? That seems to defy the laws of thermodynamics.

But not only does a short workout — and a brisk shower! — renew your energy at the end of the day, it has a cleansing effect on your tortured mind. It improves your mood substantially and distances you mentally from all the crap you’ve had to put up with and couldn’t do anything about. Suddenly, you are destressified and ready to focus on something else…like writing.

And even if you can’t, or won’t, work-out, a little physical movement — walking to the corner store, doing some gardening or cooking a gourmet meal — can help create that transition, separating work and home. In the least, take a shower and change your clothes. You’ll feel like a new you.

Look forward to periodic group events

Nothing kept me afloat after film school more than regular writer’s group meetings. I had something to look forward to every other Friday night. It was a chance to get out of my work-day mindset and be among those who shared the same struggle, the same sorts of goals. It’s very, very reassuring to throw off that sense of isolation and find yourself among friends.

Also — and this is critical — the group meetings imposed a structure on me, rather than me having to rely on self-motivation. Relying on your own self-discipline is certainly important, but you want to mix it up a bit and cover your bases. If you have an off-week, it’s not as easy to shirk off pages when you know your group is expecting them.

So do what you can to find that for yourself — be part of a group on a regular basis. Start your own group if you have to. Heck, even if you don’t know enough people who write in your area, you probably could round up enough people for a regular movie-appreciation night. And, lucky you, you live in the information age. The online community has made this a very small world, indeed. Opportunities abound to be part of the screenwriting community on the Internet. You could even, I don’t know, start a blog.

If you are lucky enough to live in Southern California, you can take a screenwriting extension course at one of several universities or join one of several amateur screenwriter associations. You can enroll in private film schools, or sign up for UCLA’s year long Professional Program, which is based on the format of their renowned MFA program.

Structure your day, week, month and year around your writing

The rhythm of your life is either governed by the seasons of the writing world, or by the whims of your customers and the agenda of your boss. Which sounds better to you?

Take back your life. We’ve already seen how to minimize the footprint of your job on your daily schedule by beginning and ending the day with writing. We’ve set up weekly or bi-weekly group events to bring some external motivations to bear and to give us something more to look forward to. Now we can continue this approach through the months and for the entire year.

Make yourself a writing calendar. Can be paper, in Outlook or even online. I keep two writing calendars, actually. My project calendar is about six-weeks long, and I record my daily writing quota and milestones for the project overall. This keeps me on track, and also shows the consequences of going off-track. If I skip a couple of writing days, it might not feel like much at the time, but when I check in with my project calendar I can see that I’ve lost twelve pages already. Damn. It adds up. Of course this calendar is constantly under revision, but merely interacting with it keeps my writing goals alive in my mind and on the front burner. That’s half the battle.

My other calendar[2] holds dates for personal writing retreats, deadlines for major screenwriting contests, and dates for various screenwriting-related events such as the Austin Film Festival. I’m lucky enough to have a job with good benefits. I get ample vacation time, so I try to take at least one three-day weekend a month and a two-week vacation every year. Not everyone gets that luxury, and for a long time I didn’t either. But now that I’ve got it, I want to use my vacation time to subsidize my writing career.

I call my monthly three-day weekends my “writing retreats” — they are a way of keeping myself focused for the long haul, and allow time to check in and make any necessary course corrections, or act as a chance to find inspiration, or just to catch up on any missed writing time.

For my first retreat I went all-out and rented a cozy beach cottage in Crystal Cove. Not every retreat has to be fancy (if only I could afford a beach cottage every month!). The point is to schedule yourself some extended time on a regular basis to really immerse yourself in your writing. If you can get away, great. Even if that means hoofing it to a local cafe or library. Be creative and do what inspires you. Imagine how you would feel after a year of extended weekends spent renewing your commitment to your writing career in a way that inspires and invigorates you.

Finally, think Big Picture and bring structure to your year with your writing calendar. Plan to have a final draft done and ready to submit by a contest deadline. Plan to attend a major conference or film festival and practice your schmoozing. Sign up for a pitch fest, just so you have a reason to finish that script and practice your pitching skills. Use deadlines and events to motivate and keep those commitments.

It’s a wonderful writing life

So that’s it, that’s my prescription for keeping the day job from killing your writing career before it even starts. Have a definite end-game in mind and know how to get there. Maintain your momentum by taking daily action toward your goal. Use a mantra or other device to keep in mind what you want most and who you are, even in the middle of all the work-day crap. Make a clean break from the working world at the end of the day and reinvigorate yourself by working out, showering and changing into your writing clothes. Have something to look forward to on a regular basis like a writer’s group meeting. And finally, structure the days, weeks, months and years of your life around your writing. Doing all these things will protect your nascent writing career by keeping the day job in its place and putting your writing at the center of your life.

Read this post in Hungarian.

  1. Except for the few years that I was in grad school, which was one of the chief reasons I went to grad school. []
  2. A version of this is now available online. []