Writing while working full time – why do you do it?

Most writers when they first start out do not have the luxury of writing full-time. They have bills to pay and families to support and most writers are crippled with self-doubt about whether their writing is any good. Plus, contrary to popular opinion, not every writer secures a five-book multi-million pound deal with the first book. So they continue with their daily job, snatching an hour or two here and there, hunched over a notebook or laptop computer, desperately trying to add to their work-in-progress in the limited time they have. It can mean a lot of sacrifices, so why do they do it? It could be any number of reasons, from desire to make some money to my own personal reason, desire to see my book on the shelf in Waterstones. (If anyone wants to know, I’ll be sitting next to Mark Mills, alphabetically speaking – yes, I have checked!) But I think the biggest reason is that they have a story they want to tell and they can’t help writing it.

Stephen King, in his autobiography On Writing, talks about how he wrote his breakout novel Carrie while living in a trailer (or caravan) with his wife and their two children and working as a teacher in a high school, although the idea came from a much earlier job as a school janitor. Kathy Reichs – yes, That Kathy Reichs who has seemingly hundreds of books in your local bookshop or library – still works as a forensic anthropologist, despite those books and it will come as no surprise that her protagonist shares her job! Working a full-time job while you’re an unpublished writer, with no deadlines and no writing pressures, is difficult enough, imagine trying to do it when you have expectations on you from an agent and publisher!

So why do people who write continue to work while pursuing a career in writing? Well, I’d like to suggest several reasons for not giving up your day job too soon:

  1. Inspiring your work – Both Stephen King and Kathy Reichs use familiar settings in their books. When you have experience of a particular setting it gives your writing authority and makes it much more believable. Both the books I’ve worked on so far have been in two of my work settings – a newspaper and a university. It makes creating the right atmosphere much easier. Everyday life can also help you to create plots and develop characters. If you shut yourself away you miss out on so much that real life has to offer. An awkward customer could provide you with just the character you need.
  2. Maximising your time – when you only have an hour or two a day to write in, it really makes you focus your mind and plan ahead. When I set aside a whole day for writing, I get intimidated by those hours stretching away in front of me. When I only have an hour on my morning commute, I have to know exactly where I’m going to start when I pick up my pen otherwise the time gets wasted in thinking. It’s also much easier to ignore the housework or turn off the social networking when it’s only for a short period.
  3. Keeping your feet on the ground (also known as keeping you sane!) – when you first start writing it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you could be the next JK Rowling or PD James, or to get crippled with self-doubt about your work. It’s unlikely that your first – or possibly even second – book will make any money at all so a day job pays the bills while giving you a chance to chase your dream. It allows you to be free to enjoy your writing – or indeed write what you enjoy. But mostly it keeps things in perspective and stops you getting disheartened.

Do you work outside writing? Does your job help or hinder your writing process? Have you found you write better when you have less time to work in?

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