Four ways a day job can help your writing

Last week, I talked with Erin Lane of Holy Hellions about money and her ministry for a post I’m working on for Patheos. Erin is an author, speaker, and blogger, and she splits her time between working with a nonprofit that runs retreats and her own freelance projects.

Erin said something that really made me think: that without her work in ministry (at the nonprofit), her creative life would feel like it didn’t have enough depth, and without her creative work, her ministry would miss out on an element of playfulness.

Often, I think writers feel pulled in two directions: to find a way to make money and support themselves, and to find a way to pursue the projects they care most about. Should you pitch that boring trade publication that promises to pay or work on your passion project? Should you make writing your career or your hobby?

And then there’s the guilt that comes with not being able to find time to write because a living needs to be made. “I’ll write tomorrow,” you think. Or on the weekend. Or over vacation. Or when I retire.

But Erin’s point of view was so positive–it reminded me that writing and the other things we do can actually help each other.

In the spirit of positivity–frankly, it’s difficult for me not to be happy on this potentially 80-degree day (SUN!)–here are four ways your day job/side gig/family responsibilities can help your writing.

1. It gives your life structure. Some of the most stressful periods of my life have been when I was totally unfettered from jobs, school, and family commitments and had time to write. When I was between jobs, I stressed out about the job hunt. When I was working on my thesis, I agonized over how to spend my free time. In both cases, I found ways to add structure to my life by volunteering and making a schedule for myself. This allowed me to feel free to write in the time I made for it.

2. Work allows you to enjoy concrete progress. If you work at a company, you get periodic check-ins with your boss to chart your progress. Maybe you can even see the progress of your work: you plan a project and execute it. Or you watch your pay go up over time. You see your child learn to talk; you help her learn to get dressed on her own.

In writing, the progress can sometimes feel like no movement at all. You might spend days working on a chapter that you end up scrapping. You might send out six pitches in a week and be rejected six times. Even though these experiences might help your writing improve, writing doesn’t have as many clear milestones, and there might be an epic wait in between each one. Having a bit of job satisfaction can keep you from tearing out your hair.

3. People appreciate your work. These past few months, I’ve been working with few small businesses and nonprofits to write their company newsletters. And you know what they do at the end of each month? They thank me.

I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed people appreciating my work until I fell into a rut of writing rejection. Reading an email from a happy client was a great reminder that I’m helpful and productive.

No matter what your job is, the thank you’s you get–from your spouse, your parents, your boss, your coworkers–are a great pick-me-up when you’re not getting any feedback from the writing world.

4. You have the freedom to pursue riskier creative projects. This was really Erin’s point–she talked about the balance between flexibility and stability. A day job lets you make a living (or a partial living) outside of your writing. Contributing to your family allows you to have self-worth apart from how many publications you have. These things are vital to making you feel safe and bold enough to take on creative risks. If you have to make your living solely from writing, you’re more likely to have to take on projects that you don’t love (and that even suck you dry, creatively). Erin talked about how having some stability actually makes you more confident in the flexible part of your work–writing. It’s totally true; if I have to make all my money, I’m limited in where I can pitch and what I can write about.

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Thinking this way really helped me get perspective on my own situation, splitting time between writing and tutoring/writing newsletters for small businesses. It’s difficult juggling so many things, but ultimately, I think it’s the best set up for my writing right now.

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