Pursued By A Bear: “How do I keep my day job from killing my writing?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“How can I hold down a full time job without letting my writing suffer?”

This is an issue I’ve touched on before so you may get some mileage out of this previous post which addresses the lack of time for writing while holding down a full-time job. As this is such an important issue for so many writers I’ll try to reframe the question slightly here and focus on ways to stay motivated while also working full-time.

I don’t think making a living as a writer has ever been simple. There are countless tales littered through literary history of those who’ve grinded through extreme poverty to carve out a career.

The modern writer seems to have evolved into a new beast. More and more of us have a second vocation, something to keep the clothes on our backs as we struggle to make a writing career pay. But it’s often more than that; we’re less keen to gamble in the way many of our predecessors did. Our day job is also our fall-back option.

If we never hit the big-time as writers we know we can make a decent living doing that other thing.

Is this a good thing? Yes and no.

Yes, because we can afford to feed and house ourselves.

No, because we’re not 100% invested.

It’s a difficult argument to make but I often find myself wondering if I’m really giving writing my all. My day job is pretty comfortable and secure, I enjoy it most of the time and I work with some fantastic people. If I had to stick with it until retirement in some form or other I wouldn’t hate life all that much.

If I didn’t have a day job, and had to make money from writing to survive, there’d be a lot more pressure. Not necessarily a good thing, but hear me out. A lot of the greatest works of art have been produced under enormous pressure. When we absolutely have to produce something in order to keep on living we don’t think about it, we just do it. No matter how dedicated we are, we can never get quite the same urgency if we know there’s a safety net.

Imagine you’re an alligator wrestler who’s just jumped into the pit with a fifteen-foot prehistoric beast. Nothing stands between you and a grisly, excruciating death but your wits and physical prowess. Are you focused?

Of course you are. You’re absolutely terrified, and that keeps the whole of your tiny mind entirely fixated on what’s about to happen. The rest of the universe has ceased to exist. You’re in the moment. You are going to win this.

Now, imagine your good buddy Ray’s standing on the edge of the pit with a great big shotgun. He’s ready to open fire on that monster alligator the second your pants turn even the slightest shade of brown.

What are you thinking about now? Are you focused on wrestling that alligator?

Probably not like you were before. Now little thoughts start to creep in; “I’ll be fine, Ray’s about to shoot this alligator the second I’m in trouble. I’m not going to die in this pit, even if I can’t wrestle the gator.”

You’re no longer 100% invested in what you’re doing, because in the back of your mind you know there’s a safety net. You know survival isn’t dependent on your success so you find yourself acknowledging the possibility of failure. In fact, you excuse yourself for failing before it even happens.

According to my extremely limited understanding of the complex field of psychology, thinking about failure makes you more likely to fail.

You become like the English national football team before their final group match in a European Championship; “Even if we draw this, we’ll still go through.”

What happens as soon as you adopt that relaxed, safety-net mindset? You go into that game without the pressure. And you promptly balls it up.

The question is, by having another job to take off the financial pressure, am I sacrificing my greatest psychological asset? I have no fear of failure.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to succeed as a writer. I love writing and would love to do it for a living. But is that enough?

I experience the effects of this dilemma on a much smaller scale each time I’m writing to a deadline. I find, without fail, that whenever I have a limited amount of time to produce something and there’s another human being eagerly awaiting its delivery, I consistently produce my best work.

When I have all the time in the world without anyone breathing down my neck I can sit at the keyboard for days without writing a decent line.

I need a bit of pressure to really get the best out of myself. But I don’t want to be poor, so what can I do?

I haven’t fully figured this out for myself but I’ll cover some techniques I’ve experimented with so far as a part-time writer. Maybe they’ll be useful to you or spark off some ideas of your own.

The following are examples of artificial pressure you can create on your own (or with a friend) at home.

Set yourself a fake deadline. Try setting a personal target of finishing a play by a specific date. It can be a meaningful date like your birthday or the day you leave for a holiday, or it can be arbitrary like the end of the month. Obviously a fake deadline isn’t as pressing as a real one, so you’ll need to set a penalty in case you fail to meet it.

“No trick-or-treating if I don’t finish this play by Halloween.”

“No shopping for a year if I don’t finish this play by next month.”

“Chop off a finger Yakuza-style if I don’t bash this play out before my trip to Japan.”

Make sure you stick to these punishments, or the deadline will be meaningless and you’ll fail to get the play finished.

Employ a writing boss. This is one I came up with all by myself. At work I have a boss who tells me what to do, and I invariably do it. I do it pretty well in fact. And I keep to deadlines. I started thinking about this perplexing phenomenon and came to the conclusion I need a writing boss. I need someone to set me deadlines, criticise my output (and appearance), keep track of when I clock in and out, give me a quarterly appraisal and approve my expenses.

Sadly my advert on Reed.co.uk requesting ‘Voluntary manager for part-time writer’ hasn’t attracted any candidates as yet. In the meantime my wife’s covering some of the manager’s work by regularly criticising my commitment and appearance. Unfortunately she refuses to sign off any of my expenses.

Seriously though, if you have a trusted friend or relative with the spare time and inclination to give you the occasional kick up the arse, take advantage of that resource. Employ yourself a boss. Just make it clear from the outset you’re not paying them and they don’t get their own office.

Strictly limit your time. This is like setting a daily mini-deadline. If you have all the time in the world it can be very difficult to get started, you don’t have that fire under your arse to get you moving. Don’t tell yourself “I’ve got all day Saturday to write, there’s no point grabbing an hour on Tuesday night, I won’t have time to get into the flow.” Sit down on Tuesday night, set yourself an alarm for one hour’s time and jump right into it. You’ll be amazed at what you can get done when the clock’s ticking.

The next few ideas are real pressures you can heap on yourself in your quest for productivity.

Enter competitions. Remember the point above about setting yourself a fake deadline? Competitions give you a real deadline, only instead of a punishment you have a potential reward at the end of the rainbow. Competitions can be highly motivating, plus you’ll sometimes get ideas for plays you would never have otherwise thought of in a million years. Choose wisely though, writing a competition piece about Wayne Rooney’s hair transplant is probably counterproductive if you have no interest in the topic.

Write about current affairs. I often find I can get a bit of urgency on when a contemporary topic gives me some inspiration. There’s a sense of having to strike while the iron’s hot; you have to get something down before anyone else, and before the story becomes old news.

Get a commission. Obviously this is easier said than done. But if someone’s willing to pay you actual, real-life money for your work you’ll find it can be hugely motivating (duh). Not only does the promise of cold, hard cash at the end of the road make you eager to get to work, you’ll also be spurred on by the fact someone’s eagerly awaiting your play.

Produce your own work. I realise this is essentially telling you to commit even more time when you’re already struggling to fit your writing in, but if you can convince a theatre to have you it will be a huge incentive to finish writing the play. Hopefully you’ll have a bit of money behind you from that day job to cover up-front expenses. If you can get a strong production team together you’ll be able to really focus on the writing, and as opening night looms you’ll have no choice but to get it done..

I hope what I’ve written above gives you some ideas. There’s no right or wrong answer, and I’ll say again I don’t think I’ve been writing part-time long enough to judge whether it’s a successful endeavour for me. In some respects it’s harder to get things done because you have so much less time and energy to dedicate to writing outside of your other job. On the other hand that lack of time can be highly motivating if you really want to continue writing.

Although I mentioned writers who have had to struggle through adversity, there have always also been comfortable writers; those who are funded by a spouse or an inherited fortune. These people haven’t had the pressure of potential starvation and homelessness weighing them down, and yet they’ve still achieved great things.

I guess in the end it all comes down to your character and how hungry you are. If you really, really want to be a writer, you’ll find the time and the energy to do the work. No matter what.

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

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