In a diary entry dated 1911, Kafka writes that having a day job “is a horrible double life from which there is probably no escape but insanity.” Academia and publishing offer literature-adjacent careers to a small number of writers (who must find time for their own work even within these literary industries), and the rest of us are left to eke out our livelihoods in nontraditional ways, balancing odd hours and demanding labor with creative work (not to mention regular lives of meals, children, exercise, even—dare I say—leisure?).
I asked seven writers about their day jobs and how they manage to produce work in their off hours without losing their minds.
Devin Kelly, High School Teacher
New York, New York
I’m an 11th grade English teacher at a small charter school named Comp Sci High in the South Bronx. I have a lot of criticisms with charter school culture: there’s a pervasive urgency that feels neoliberal at its core. You hear lots of words like flexibility and adaptability and such. But that’s more of a systemic critique. I love our school’s community, and I love the work we are trying to do. That being said, it’s difficult work. I don’t just teach. We have an advising model, so I have a caseload of students who I communicate with constantly. I’m each of their family’s main point of contact. I do small group work, social and emotional skill-building. All of that. It’s purposeful, caring work. And it was that work that held and still holds our school community together during the ongoingness of COVID. We always ask ourselves: does each student have at least one adult in the building that they can trust, that they are happy to see each day? I feel really confident that the answer to that question is yes.
I also teach over 100 students: three classes of Regents-aligned English and one class of AP Language and Composition. What that means is that from the moment I get to school at around 8 am until I leave around 5 pm, I am on. It makes writing hard. I have to make time for it. I wake up at 5 am everyday to read. I read on the subway. I spent three years teaching as an adjunct for CUNY and left that job four years ago. I had more time to write as an adjunct, but had no stability (sending love and solidarity to all adjuncts). Now, I have some stability but have to scratch and claw for time to write. It’s difficult. I come home and feel like my skin has been vacuum-sealed to my cheekbones from the inside. There’s love for the work. So much love, truly. But work is work. Collectively, we don’t speak about that enough. It feels like we can’t love our jobs and critique them at the same time. But we must. Our society is hollowing each of us out, one by one.
I don’t know how much of my work informs my writing. I actually feel a little uneasy when I read essays or poems that begin with some moment in the classroom. I am guilty of this. But this is because I have grown to believe there is something sacred about the classroom. So much of the world stifles imagination. I remember when teachers were allowed to carry guns in Florida. I wasn’t expecting to get so emotional. But I was angry, so angry. Allowing teachers to carry guns meant that the world had forced its way into the classroom’s sacred space. The beauty of the classroom is that it can be a space of true imagination. It can be a space to dictate the way in which, collectively, you would like to re-imagine the world before you leave the classroom and enter the world again. But the more the world enters the classroom without asking—whether through arming teachers or pushing for more standardization or enacting the myriad school shooting drills we go through each year—the less permission we have, collectively, to imagine. The more imagination feels blunted by the world.
So much of the world stifles imagination.
All that to say: I don’t think about writing often at my day job. But I think the same things that influence my writing—permission, wonder, astonishment—influence my pedagogy. I love teaching at the high school level because I love how often I am surprised by my students. And I love being a kid. Adulthood is a mess. It’s a mess of paperwork and drudgery and bills and so much else. I spend most of my day at work trying really hard to be as much of a kid as I can be. Which means I try to be patient, perpetually astonished, forever open to surprise. It doesn’t make the work any less hard, but it makes it more meaningful to me, and, I hope, to those I work among. It reminds me that there is something worth living for, some kind of light within each of us that is often dimmed by the world but maybe can be turned on again.
Bud Smith, Construction Worker
Jersey City, New Jersey
Everybody I know has a job or two. All the artists are squeezing it in, no choice. They all work too hard and are constantly hustling. I work in heavy construction. I’m a welder and rigger and mechanic. Always a set of engineered blueprints, and someone in a crane or a forklift helping us build or destroy. I work outside, mostly. Hot. Cold. All kinds of different facilities, generating stations, refineries, nuclear plants. It’s dangerous, physical work. Often high up in the air. On breaks I write first drafts on my cellphone with my thumbs—sitting in the work truck or in the machine shop. At the end of the day when everybody else is fighting to get out of the parking lot, I write for twenty more minutes. It adds up. When I get home, I edit that day’s work on a laptop or retype it on my typewriter. Later I retype that back into the laptop again and then send it somewhere. I didn’t bet on myself academically. I figured I’d go into debt and I wouldn’t have a good shot paying college off. I thought I could work manual labor, read a lot, and write a lot and learn it all on the side, but a bit slower. Life needed something to do. And this was the something to do. Some of my coworkers now, as a derogatory nickname, call me Poet or Professor. I like them all, it’s Sunday night and I miss them. I look forward to Monday mornings to hear them tell their best stories again. They always make me fall out of my chair laughing or just say the saddest shit you ever heard. Being around people so fully aware how weird and hilarious and heartbreaking life is, you can’t help but pay attention, you can’t help but learn from them and become a better storyteller. I mean, you’d have to be or they’d kill you for opening your mouth to say something not worth saying. I get up at dawn, drive in, get dirty, have a good time, sparks flying, squeeze in art, come home, shower, make more art. A simple and privileged life. Good health and a partner who works hard too. We laugh a lot together and she’s the best storyteller of all. She is painting watercolors at her desk on the other side of our pink living-room right now. She says, “What are you making?” and I say, “Well what are you making?” We eat dinner together and it’s a mad sprint after to try and get the idea out into the story I’m writing, or from her paintbrush to the canvas. There’s only so much time before bed. Of course sometimes, you just have to tear it all up and throw it in the garbage, pop a beer and sit down in front of the stereo together singing songs. You’ll only be alive a little short while and it’s okay to have fun when you shouldn’t be. Eight hours of sleep, sure, six it becomes in renegotiation.
Emily O’Neill, Server/Bartender
I work at a small independently owned bistro in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a bartender and server. A typical shift starts around four in the afternoon and runs until 11 pm or midnight, depending on how busy we get. At the beginning of a shift, we go over any menu changes, decide on language for selling any specials, and delegate any tasks that need doing. I’m the only full-time bartender, so I’m usually responsible for coming up with the cocktail of the day or week and I take a larger role in brainstorming cocktail menu changes.
Any job in sales involves storytelling, so working in restaurants for 17 years feels like a natural extension of my writing life. People love hearing special details about a winemaker, or who originated a recipe, or where I go to eat and drink when I’m not serving them, so a lot of my time at work is spent actively telling stories. I’ve only had one office job in my life, in my early twenties, and I absolutely hated how trapped it made me feel. The money I make at my current job is the most I’ve ever made and I’m able to live comfortably despite Boston being one of the most expensive cities in the US. If money was no object, I’d probably still want to tend bar a couple nights a week, just because of how it helps me organize my thoughts, burn off extra social energy, and feel like a participating member of my community. I live and work in the same neighborhood, which feels exceedingly rare, and that’s something I value more than I can say.
I tend to write in the mornings before work or on my days off (I have three in a row, a definite benefit of my chosen field). Working a job that asks me to pay very close attention to sensory details, body language, and the timing of everything within my control has absolutely made me a better, more thoughtful artist. My second collection of poetry, A Falling Knife Has No Handle, is all about the way experiences in bars and restaurants are perfect metaphors for the connections we crave. Hunger is so basic—everyone is hungry for something, and restaurant work makes you notice that and chase after it.
Sometimes the physical exhaustion of working full-time on my feet makes it harder to get to my desk as much as I’d like, but the flip side of that is I have a lot of downtime on shift to think through a poem or story. Often, by the time I have the energy for a dedicated writing session, the thing I want to say is already half-polished and ready to really be played with as a result. And restaurant work is the kind of thing where there’s always room for improvement, so the mindset I have, whether working or writing, is that my best effort is a foundation I can build something on over time. I didn’t get good at describing my favorite wine to people overnight, but I do get better at it every time I attempt it. In that way, it’s very much the same thing as how and why I write.
Ruth Madievsky, Pharmacist
Los Angeles, California
When I’m not writing (most of the time, to be honest), I work as a primary care and HIV clinical pharmacist. I see patients by appointment and help manage their chronic conditions. My work entails starting my patients on new medications and adjusting current ones, providing counseling and education, managing side effects and drug interactions, assisting with cost issues, and anything else within my purview that can potentially improve someone’s quality of life. I’m also involved in clinical research, so I help with trial design, enacting our clinical interventions, and writing/trying to publish our research manuscripts. It’s a Monday through Friday 8 to 5 job with a one-hour break for lunch. Becoming a clinical pharmacist usually entails getting a college degree, a four-year doctor of pharmacy degree, and completing a one- to two-year residency program.
I can’t untangle my decision to become a clinical pharmacist from being a first-generation immigrant. Both my parents work in healthcare. My family hawked the idea of pursuing a historically stable profession at me my whole life. They were always supportive of my writing, but they insisted on the need for another profession, if only as back-up, to protect me from financial precarity. I was angsty about it for many years, especially in college, where I was surrounded by people who’d been encouraged to “follow their dreams.” I’m still angsty about it sometimes, when I imagine how much better of a writer I might be if I had more time to devote to my craft.
At the same time, I don’t regret becoming a pharmacist and don’t fantasize too seriously about quitting my job. It’s freeing to write whatever I want without depending on my art for income. Fixating too much on “the market” can be toxic to art-making. If I’m going to have to hustle full-time anyway to make ends meet, I’m perfectly happy doing that in a career that tangibly helps people. At the risk of sounding self-righteous, I like knowing that my labor is actively improving someone’s life. Working a day job that utilizes different muscles than writing keeps me from getting too burnt out when I toggle between the two. Plus, the FOMO I get from watching other writers constantly producing new work while I’m in clinic not producing new work is a good motivator to make time for my own writing.
I usually write during breaks at work, in the evenings, and on weekends. It’s all about taking advantage of the nooks and crannies in my schedule. (This is infinitely easier because I don’t yet have kids.) I find it incredibly taxing to write for more than a few hours a day, so this works for me. I also have this habit of throwing my hat in the ring for things I’m not yet prepared to do as a way of manipulating myself into doing them. For example, years ago, when I had the opportunity to do a manuscript consultation with a poet I admired, I applied without actually having a manuscript. When he agreed to work with me, I was forced to put together a manuscript, and that eventually became my first book of poems. Currently, I’m writing a column for Catapult exploring the immigrant experience through the lens of internet culture. I pitched the column partly to force myself to become a defter nonfiction writer. Writing essays can be kind of harrowing for me; having a deadline and an editor who’s counting on me and is willing to provide guidance helps. I think about writing all day every day and denying myself the ability to write when I’m at work keeps me excited to return to the page.
Rosalie Knecht, Social Worker
New York, New York
I’m a writer and a clinical social worker in private practice. I wish I could describe a typical day, but I left my job as an administrator in a mental health clinic on January 30, 2020 to start my practice, which means that I have never worked this way under normal circumstances, only during the pandemic. For most of the past year and a half, a typical day looked like seeing clients during the hour here and the hour there that my partner could take away from his full-time job, so that one of us could always be with our toddler in the absence of normal childcare. Every morning, before his workday started at 9 am, I would write for an hour while he made breakfast for all of us and wrangled our kid.
I resist the term “day job” a bit, because I really love being a social worker and I love being a therapist, and calling it that feels dismissive. I feel very lucky that this job exists. A lot about the way we understand our own lives comes from our sense of narrative and how we organize information, and for someone who is already interested in those questions and enjoys conversation, it’s a great job. It’s complex and different every time and it yields profound moments on a semi-regular basis. I chose it, as many people do, because getting into therapy myself was a meaningful experience, and also because—very importantly!—I thought it would be compatible with writing, because of the autonomy and flexibility it allows. That has turned out to be true.
My experience has been that the amount of energy you have for writing tends to depend a lot on how much you like or dislike your job. Disliking a job drains your energy tremendously.
I can’t help but try to imagine how I would be answering these logistical questions if no pandemic had happened and I had spent the last 18 months dropping my kid off at daycare and going to an office to see clients. There would be more of a concrete sense of fitting writing into my workday then, but in my world now, there are few distinct workdays vs. home days, and the work of taking care of my kid and seeing my clients and working on my books has been braided together—or has melted together—throughout the course of the day. In many ways the work/life division has collapsed, especially for the self-employed.
Analicia Sotelo, Creative Strategist for brands and campaigns
I work as a brand strategist at a purpose-driven agency in Houston, Texas. A typical day is fast-paced and features research, interviews, collaboration, client presentations, etc. It’s a creative and critical-thinking role. I’ve always been interested in advertising because it’s a form of communication that influences culture and vice versa. When I landed in my role, I had already explored many different types of communication fields, from social media to fundraising to public relations. In this one, I’m able to focus only on creating messages for nonprofit causes and social responsibility programs. I encourage writers to explore everything because you never know where it can lead you.
With advertising, writing needs to be succinct and powerful, churned out quickly. That sense of muscularity has helped me become more confident with all types of writing. You get to a point where you can write anything—emails, articles, scripts, presentations, digital ads—whatever. That confidence helps you let go of overthinking. It’s a great reminder that the beauty of any writing comes from constant practice. In terms of what creative writing does for my job, it absolutely influences it, though not directly. Being able to know what words can do helps me stay fresh when I’m coming up with a campaign headline or a brand strategy.
The eternal question is how to find time for writing. Some writers create a schedule for themselves, and they’re methodical in that way. I’ve tried that and it works to an extent for me, but now I think of finding the time as a personal struggle to conquer daily. It’s as if time itself has decided to be elusive—a friendly, strange creature in the woods.
Now I think of it as finding peace instead of time. Any job has a faster pace, and by the time you get to the weekend, your mind is tired. I’m lucky my workplace cares about giving team members the space to take flexible time off. Yet even with that understanding, it’s a challenge on a human level to get the impetus to create.
I don’t really think about writing at my day job because it requires a lot of focus and mental energy. When I write poetry, I like to have a cup of something delicious and caffeinated in my hands and I like to have nothing at all to worry about, at least for a little while.
For me, it’s about slowing down. It’s about sitting in the backyard, or reading a book with no direct intention, or listening to an album I used to love. It’s about receiving the world at a different pace, a pace that’s in opposition to the pace of capitalism or the pace of our own expectations.
Chessy Normile, Administrator
New York, New York
I do the type of work you try not to discuss the specifics of because there is no interesting way to describe them. The work of the organization, as a whole, is interesting—it’s an education center—but I’m doing PowerPoint, Excel, budget codes, invoicing, shipping. My desk is shaped like an L. I keep refilling the same old Pure Leaf Iced Tea bottle with water. I cap and uncap my pen.
Reasons I like this kind of work:
1. Language in an office goes haywire. Sometimes I’ll be in a meeting and everyone’s talking about skeletons. They’ll say, “Chessy, can you get a skeleton to me by EOD?” and I’m like “. . . yes.” No one acts alarmed by what I’d have to do to procure a skeleton because they think we’re talking about a PowerPoint or a diagram. TBD.
2. You can theoretically write at work. At my last office job, I wrote poems line by line or phrase by phrase on individual Post-It notes beneath my desk and stored them in my bag. At 5 pm, I’d shut my computer off, walk to the subway, read or write on the train for 45 minutes, then get home and pull the Post-Its out. I arranged them on the wall to build poems, probably 50 to 100 up there at a time in all different colors arranged in columns, lines, groups. I wrote the phrase that became the name of my book of poems—Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party—on one of those Post-Its, and the last poem in that book—“My Life So Far”—was originally written that way, too. I could always find time to write between tasks at that job. This new job is considerably busier, so I write in the morning before I start work and try to jot things down throughout the day when I can, but it’s rare. I share Google docs with friends—most recently Leah Wellbaum and Travis Tate, who are both amazing poets—where we write a long, continuous poem back and forth to each other and that’s perfect for office work because you can pull the doc up and quickly read what someone wrote and just reply in whatever time you have spare.
3. At this job specifically, I learn a lot about education and how people learn.
I guess it’s worth observing that when I have more time to write, I write more. But poetry is so good in how adaptive you can be writing it. You just have the time you have. Right now I’ve got mornings, the rare night, Saturdays and Sundays, and I try to find moments during the day when I can.