SEPTEMBER 9, 2016
FLANNERY O’CONNOR famously wrote that “if you want to write well and live well at the same time, you’d better arrange to marry a stockbroker or a rich woman who can operate a typewriter.” I have another suggestion for artists who are worried about making a living. Be the stockbroker.
I’m not saying that writers and artists should literally look for jobs in finance. I’m arguing that having a full-time job in another field can actually benefit writers in both expected and surprising ways.
For most of my adult life, I have had two careers. I’m a novelist, and until recently, I was also chief operating officer of a large nonprofit organization that serves children affected by violence and poverty. (I just started a new, equally busy job in philanthropy.) Often, when I talk to students or readers, they lament that they would love to write a novel, memoir, or short story collection — if only they didn’t have to have a job. The one career that’s conducive to writing is teaching, they believe — because of the summers off, sabbaticals, and flexible work schedule.
Don’t get me wrong — I love to teach. I love the interactions with students, the magic that can happen in a classroom. And I know that college-level teaching has long been the moneymaking method of choice for writers and other artists; that there is value and comfort in being surrounded by artistic colleagues. But having a job in an unrelated field doesn’t need to spell the end of one’s creative ambitions. It is possible to write books, or make music or art, while working at something totally different.
If you really need to write, you will find a way to do it. Wallace Stevens and Ted Kooser were insurance executives. William Carlos Williams was a doctor. And it’s not just poets who were able to write while working. Raymond Carver labored at a series of blue-collar jobs. James Dickey, both a poet and novelist, was an ad man. Toni Morrison worked in publishing, and juggled both her careers while being a single parent. Louis Begley was a partner in a high-stakes law firm through the publication of his first several books.
All of these writers had employment separate from their artistic endeavors. Of course, for many people, including myself, having a job is not a luxury. I come from a family of modest means —my grandparents on my father’s side were both factory workers; my stepfather, a Japanese immigrant, worked grueling 80-hour weeks as an electrician — and I’ve been deeply shaped by my family’s attitudes toward work and self-determination. But my guess is that while Morrison’s job, and Begley’s, etc., provided financial stability, they also had benefits that extended far beyond the paycheck — benefits that helped not only the writer, but also the writing.
A job — especially a job outside of academia — exposes you to a range of experience that you might not get by spending the bulk of your time writing or on a campus. In my own jobs, I’ve spent time in every corner of Los Angeles, witnessed extreme poverty as well as tremendous wealth, traveled — sometimes in the very same day — between tough neighborhoods in south or central Los Angeles and huge estates in Bel Air or Brentwood. I’ve gotten to know lawyers, architects, investors, gangsters, pastors, activists, and cops. I’ve met nonprofit professionals from all over the globe: directors of an orphanage in Russia; officials from Hong Kong; social workers and psychologists in Jamaica. I’ve worked with gifted, selfless colleagues who’ve helped children cope with trauma — kids who’ve witnessed the murder of a parent or sibling; or who’ve endured unimaginable abuse. All of these experiences haunt and humble me, and keep my attention focused outward on the world, not just inward. And while I’ve never written about my jobs per se, they have taken me to places that have found their way into my books — an old mansion that led me to write about the silent film era; a crumbling housing project in Watts; the hushed hallways of a fancy Century City law firm.
A day job can also give you a sense of accomplishment. Whether you make a sale or provide comfort to a patient or create a new product, a job allows you to achieve the kind of tangible, everyday success that is often so elusive with writing. It’s hard to beat the satisfaction of having some small part in a kid turning away from a gang; or a parent leaving an abusive partner; or a student graduating, against all odds, from high school. The work can also be very concrete. For my last two years at the nonprofit, I worked with the great Frank Gehry on the building he’d designed, pro bono, for my organization in Watts. As a poet friend commented, what writer gets to do that?
By providing structure and a sense of purpose, a job can also protect you from your own demons. If I have a bad day at my writing desk, I can counter it by immersing myself at work. Conversely, when good things are happening with my books, my job keeps things in perspective. It’s hard to get overly excited about a good review or press feature when I have to explain service outcomes or revenue projections to our board of directors.
While having a day job is clearly good for your financial well-being and mental health, I would argue that it can also be good for your art. Because my writing is separate from what I do to make a living — because no one expects it, or assesses it for promotion or retention purposes — it makes the writing itself an escape, and a joy. Without the burden of external pressure, I can take all the time I need to get it right.
I’m not saying that having two careers is easy. In my mid-40s, it’s gotten harder to burn the candle at both ends. My spouse and I don’t have kids, and if we did, I know that things would be immeasurably harder. Still, there are choices involved — weekends and vacations are spent writing instead of taking a break. I have to be selective about invitations to speak or to write. It’s hard to keep up with social media, and so I miss a lot of the latest developments in the literary world. While this puts me at a disadvantage in some ways, I also tend to think it’s good for the art. My schedule ensures that when I am not at my job, I’m focusing on what really matters — the writing.
In a time when financial stability is elusive for so many; when college teaching positions are scarce, it’s irresponsible to give our artists and writers the message that they’re giving up on their art if they have a full-time job. It isn’t an either-or. Ultimately, an artist is not defined by whether he wears a T-shirt or a suit to work; whether she’s sitting in a coffee shop at 2:00 p.m. on a weekday, or in a cubicle. An artist is defined by his or her art.
So writers, artists, don’t worry that your inspiration will dry up if you work as a lawyer, a fireman, a mechanic, or a nurse. Whatever you do to make a living, you can still create. There’s nothing wrong with being the stockbroker — as long as you’re still a poet, too. And if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll find a job that really engages you — even if you’re married to a rich woman with a typewriter.