The work-write balance: five authors talk about balancing the books

Never mind the pram in the hall, what about the day job? How do writers manage to create while working full-time to make ends meet? Sarah Bannan talks to four fellow authors


Last month, I went to a talk at the Dublin Book Festival: Writing for Young Adults and Children – Eoin Colfer, John Connolly and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick in conversation with Aoife Murray.

It was a superb event, as you’d expect, and all four were inspiring and witty and wise. The session was pitched towards aspiring writers and illustrators and, as such, practical concerns soon emerged. At one stage, John Connolly offered that, while some authors can and do make a decent living through their writing, for many, “there is a second job. And that second job is writing.”

I think about this a lot – the second job. If other people, non-writers, think about this at all (and let’s be honest, they probably don’t), they probably assume that writers only take a second job if they must. That writers only work if their writing can’t support them financially. And that’s probably true for many.

But, as a first-time novelist who wrote her first book while in full-time employment, I’ve often wondered if there is some virtue in having a day job. Intellectually, my job was the very thing that inspired me to write in the first place. My work in the Arts Council – where I’m Head of Literature – had me in contact with writers, publishers, festivals and writing centres, on a daily basis. My job taught me that writers are not otherworldly beings but people. Like me. Time-wise, my job made me focus. I couldn’t procrastinate or not do the work – there was no other time to do it than outside of the traditional working day. Financially, I knew it didn’t matter if my novel was never published – that wasn’t my means of income. I didn’t worry about who might read my book or if it would sell.

Nobody asked me to write a book (a writer really must always remember this) and I truly did do it for myself – to see if I could, yes, but also, and most importantly, because there was something I wanted to express. A world I wanted to create, and a story I thought was worth telling.

So I wrote Weightless in my spare time. In evenings and early mornings. At weekends. On annual leave. When my baby was sleeping. When I was out for a run (yes, really.) I did my editing and copy-editing this way, too, and in some ways that was more challenging than the initial drafting. I did this while working full-time and raising a child and, in the end, the book was published and I didn’t die and neither did anybody else in the process.

But for novel two? I said I needed a break. I took some unpaid leave and promoted Weightless and wrote another novel. Now that I’m on the home stretch of my career break, I can see that I’ve been super productive. I liked knowing that writing was my main priority, that my purpose every day was to examine and shape language, not budgets or numbers or arguments. It’s been wonderful and freeing and I have (most of the time) felt like a proper writer.

But it was harder than I expected, being a full-time writer. I was my own boss and I turned out to be a mean one. I put myself under impossible deadlines. I didn’t take proper breaks or utter words of encouragement. I never told myself well done. Not once. I also missed having colleagues, bouncing ideas around, being brought a cup of tea. (Also hard to complain about my boss when my boss was me.) I even missed meetings. (I know.) So there’s a part of me that wonders if it was the right thing to do. Maybe I would have written a better novel while battling out the desk job too. I won’t ever know, I don’t think, and it probably doesn’t matter.

I’ve asked four other writers how they feel about the day job. And whether it helps or hinders the work, if there’s an ideal balance (and how can I get that?!). The answers are various and conflicting, and I know if you asked me tomorrow, I’d probably give a different account than what I offered above. In the end, though, as the great Anne Enright says, “you have only one problem and that problem is on the page”.

Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus), which was shortlisted for the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards

Sinéad Crowley

I had the day job long before I had a publishing deal so it was never a case of taking a day job to support the writing. The day job came first and it still really is the “day job” – writing is done at evenings and on weekends. But I’m lucky because it’s a fascinating day job. I’m arts and media correspondent with RTÉ News so I interview writers and artists on an almost daily basis. I think when I was planning my first book that helped normalise things for me. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing a book but it did help to know that writers weren’t mysterious beings who existed in lofts and garrets; they are people with children and mortgages and deadlines like everyone else. It helped demystify the process.

I also love working in a newsroom. I can’t say I’ve taken any plots directly from news bulletins but it helps to be surrounded by news and current affairs all day, every day. You’re very aware of what is going on in the world and what drives people, what engages them, what upsets them. That awareness has bled into my fiction, certainly.

Because I have such a busy day job, I have developed the ability to work in short, intense bursts. I can sit down at the kitchen table at 8.30pm and write between 500 and 900 words and then that’s it, I’m done. Even if I had more time I don’t think I’d write more than that a day, my brain is trained to write like that now. So the two are working well together at the moment, I’m very lucky.

Sinéad Crowley is arts and media correspondent with RTÉ News and the author of the DS Claire Boyle crime series. The first two books in the series, Can Anybody Help Me? and Are You Watching Me? (Quercus) were both shortlisted in the crime category at the BGE Irish Book Awards

Colum McCann

I feel like I have a dozen jobs but they all are pulled magnetically towards the one that truly matters. I teach at Hunter College in New York, I write occasional pieces of journalism, I scrape out a screenplay every now and then, I give lectures, I travel to schools, and I am the founder of a non-profit global story exchange group, Narrative 4. Beyond that I coach soccer for kids – and that’s for relaxation! But all these jobs and pastimes funnel, eventually, towards the thing that keeps me going: the act and art of storytelling. Not only does my life enable the storytelling, but the storytelling enables my life. I’m certainly not complaining. I would be lost without all the noise.

Colum McCann is the award-winning author of six novels and three collections of short stories. His most recent collection is Thirteen Ways of Looking (Bloomsbury) and the story What Time is it Now, Where You Are? is shortlisted for the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards – Short Story of the Year

Carlo Gébler

Ah, the balance question. The writer wants to write but the writer needs to do other kinds of work to balance the books so the writer does something miraculous – the writer balances the two, the writer writes and works.

The popular and comforting belief is that we are somehow able to do this balancing thing easily. This is because writing is widely believed to be something which is lo-tech and can be done literally at any time. So it’s quite easy, so this canard goes, to fit the writing around the day job and vice versa. (Easier than if you’re an actor or an opera singer for instance). Oh yes, the canard goes, writer’s can always get the scribbling done because for goodness sake, the writer can always write in the writer’s lunch hour (whereas the actor or opera singer can’t do their thing in their job’s lunch hour). Yes, that’s what believed, or so I think, and it’s absolute nonsense.

The problem with this belief is that it is based on a profound misunderstanding of what writing actually is: the popular idea is that writing only happens when you, the writer, are actually writing at the keyboard or whatever. No, wrong. Writing doesn’t only happen when you are writing. Writing is also happening when you are not writing but doing other things: however, this only applies if those other things aren’t work things or related to work things like eating lunch at work or attending a staff do; they must be things you do regularly, automatically and habitually without thinking and when you are engaged on doing these things, and you are a writer – and this is what nobody understands (sob sob) – your brain will be quietly turning over, sequencing, sorting, getting the words lined up like aeroplanes in the sky which will then be ready to land as soon as you sit at the keyboard and call them down like an air traffic controller calls the planes in.

Thus, writing is happening when you eat your cornflakes first thing in your cold kitchen, when you step out the door and look up at the sky to see what kind of a day it is, when you walk to the bus stop – and throughout your day, when ever you are engaged in these automatic kinds of activities the writing will go on. But as soon as you start the day job, bish, bash, bosh, it stops, this getting the words ready thing, and the brain switches, obviously, to the job and it stays on the job until the working day has ended, because that’s what jobs are, they are all consuming and that includes the lunch hour; and the brain only goes back to the getting words ready thing once the job is done and you’re back in the automatic, habitual zone (walking to the bus stop to catch the bus home, et cetera) where you can follow a course of action and, at the same time, you can let your brain wander where it will. This is how it is – or at least that is how it is for me, and I have several jobs, all academic or educational – and trust me (I’m a writer), I do know of what I speak.

Now do I mind that I have to work and when I do the dreamy process described above comes to an abrupt stop? I’m not really in a position to quibble. Look, I need the money, so I do the work. End of. Had I more time to just noodle, to just do the automatic things which, while I’m doing them, allow my brain to get the words ready, and skip the work, I would be much happier. Of course I would. But I’m a realist. I need the money. I have children to feed, et cetera. So I do what I have to do. All I ask is that no ever says to me again, “So it must have been a doodle banging your novel off? You knocked it off in your lunch hour, right? That’s what writers do, isn’t it?”

The work writing balance is awry but we carry on regardless. Aren’t we marvellous?

Carlo Gébler is a writer and currently teaches on the M Phil in Creative Writing at Trinity. With New Island he has just published a memoir, The Projectionist, the story of Ernest Gébler, and next year will be publishing The Wing Orderly’s Tales, a set of interconnected stories about a modern Irish prison. The Projectionist was shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards – National Book Tokens Non-Fiction Book of the Year.

Susan Lanigan

I currently work as a software developer on site in a state department. Words like SharePoint, Powershell and .NET that might sound like incantatory spells are common parlance. There is very little intersection between my day job and writing life, other than both requiring intense periods of concentration.

Occasionally, I code like a novelist. Do this, then do this, then this, all in a series of cascading steps. Makes me laugh when I see it.

In every long contract I’ve ever been on, I’ve been open about my “other life”. I’ve received only support and enthusiasm.

When people say they are full-time writers, I wish they would acknowledge the financial support being provided, often by a working spouse.

I worked all through the writing of White Feathers until the final edits. That took me three and a half years. If I want to be more productive, I will have to work on shorter projects and avoid historical. For a working writer, there is constant awareness of needing to sacrifice, and pain associated with that need. It is never resolved.

Sara Baume said in an article in the Guardian that if she had worked a nice job in the city, she could never have written Spill Simmer Falter Wither. I had the opposite experience. I was unemployed for a year and half and didn’t write a thing. Went back to work in 2010 (right in the city centre) and started writing White Feathers. It shows that everyone works differently.

Susan Lanigan is the author of White Feathers (O’Brien), which was shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award in 2015.

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