How Your Day Job Can Help Your Writing

December 30, 2016 | By | Reply More

eleanor-1I’m lucky to live in a writer’s city, full of writing friends. Every so often we meet, drink cheap wine, bounce ideas around, and complain about our day jobs. We apply together for writing fellowships, arts grants, writing sabbaticals, writing retreats. All in quest of the time to write that our jobs, just ruining everything, steal from us.

If only we didn’t have to work, we say. We’d write all day, every day. It would be glorious. We’d be Roald Dahl in the writing shed. We’d be Stephen King. A novel a year. Hell, two!  We’d have a study for our 9-5 hours, or a writing attic, or one of those writing pods in the garden.

We devour accounts of more successful writers’ days and share them with the wistful envy of people talking about film stars, rock stars, billionaires. “I hear she goes back to bed after the school run, and writes right there propped up on the pillow,” we say. “I read he goes to the library until around 11 and then meets a friend for lunch, then edits until 5 in the afternoon,” we share, in hushed, day-dreaming tones. We quote Larkin’s Toads to each other, toasting the attack on the work-toads that squat on our lives.

I’ve always compartmentalised my writing life. A helpful side effect of this approach was that I could blame all of those non-writing hours, the wage slave hours, for my lack of real writing progress (this also works brilliantly for exercise, by the way.) Whatever I was being paid to do, this had nothing whatsoever to do with my real life, my writing life, the world of my burgeoning novel, I reasoned. That world I was building, word by word and sentence by sentence, I kept like a shining and fragile egg in my pocket, as though isolated from the rest of my experience.

It’s been surprisingly easy to ignore one of the oldest rules of writing: write what you know. The world of my first novel, Foxlowe, couldn’t be more different from the world of my daily working life. A young girl growing up in a cult on the Staffordshire Moorlands, surrounded by superstition and violence, has little in common with the hectic pace of school life, deadlines and marking, classroom discussions and assembly hymns.

In the novel, there is a brief scene outside the London languages college where I used to work. I spent my long-ago time there with my writer eye sealed shut, just pushing through the hours until I could get back to my notebooks, where the seeds of Foxlowe were being haphazardly sewn.

We spilled out into a grey street. Valentina pulled me past buildings of ugly concrete blocks and a gaggle of young people speaking languages I couldn’t understand. Outside a shop with neon lights and buckets full of I Love London bags and plastic red buses…

Green, the narrator, is an outsider, whose every description is through the lens of her strange upbringing, but even so it’s probably my least favourite scene in the novel. I know there is so much missing, and those half-remembered details of the school on a Friday afternoon would be sharper, more real, more interesting, if I had taken the time to jot down my experience there at the time with my writer eye wide open.

foxlowecoverv2hardbackukWhen I began the final drafting process, I was surprised to find little traces of my working world all over the place, burrowed out of my subconscious and glinting in Green’s words. An overheard turn of phrase from the school corridors. Shades of taught texts: Bly and Manderley, already conscious ancestors of Foxlowe house, haunting in unexpected ways. The pool of light from a stained glass window, which I watched one morning, daydreaming during Cathedral assembly, became a similar light pool in which Green bathes her feet, and an important image in the novel.

I realised it was time to stop complaining about the day job, and start embracing it as an important part of my creative landscape. I’d even go so far as to say that my job has made me a better writer. Rather than resenting time away from my laptop, I now consider my “other” career as a major source of inspiration. I’m delighted and surprised daily by some flash of insight from a student, some writer trick that’s caught their eye, in texts I thought I knew backwards. Aside from this more obvious theft from discussion about what makes literature tick, those small daily observations, journalled and then fictionalised, have become something I use in my writing practice.

Cross with myself, I now wonder how much of my old 9-5 lives were squandered opportunities in character sketches, descriptions of time and place. That particular smell of the office carpet, the micro aggressions of the office kitchen, the mulchy nauseating heat of the commuter tube, even the cadence of the 6 am alarm: they were all being caught by the writer part of my brain, but I let them dissipate rather than getting the details down. If I could speak to that younger writing me, I’d tell her to journal every day, focusing not on the time snatched away from work but the time she was there instead. Give me your arm, old toad; help me write my next novel.

Eleanor Wasserberg grew up in Staffordshire. She attended Oxford University, graduating with a BA in Classics and English in 2006, and went on to take the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia in 2009. She received an Arts Grant to complete her novel Foxlowe, published in 2016 by 4th Estate. She now lives in Norwich, where she teaches English at Norwich School.

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