Writers and Day Jobs
A writer’s gotta have a day job. I knew that going in.
I was in high school back then, learning about the Civil War and differential calculus and the reproductive system of the earthworm. It was important stuff, all of it. Earthworms are hermaphrodites. They have both male and female sexual organs. When they get together on a Saturday night, they impregnate each other. If you want to get into a good college, you’d better know that. That’s what my teacher told us, and so I worked hard and took my studies seriously.
I already knew that I wanted to be a writer. But a writer’s gotta have a day job. Because writing—especially the kind where you’re making things up—doesn’t usually pay all the bills. Groceries are expensive. Lots of good writers starve to death. That’s what my counselor told me. A day job kept food on the table and a roof over your head. It seemed like good advice at the time.
My father was an electrical engineer, and my mother was a teacher. They both had day jobs and had gotten them by going to college. What they didn’t tell me was that there are plenty of people with really good jobs who never went to college. And the truly brilliant folks drop out of school so they can get on with the business of changing the world. Instead, they told me to go to college so I could get a good job. It was either that or to live in their basement forever.
University of Maryland is a big school, about 37,000 students. I majored in biology, figuring my knowledge about the earthworm reproductive system would give me a head start in my studies. The most enjoyable class I took was creative writing—an elective—but it was pass/fail and only one semester. Organic chemistry nearly killed me. Luckily, it was graded on a curve. Scoring 38 percent on an exam was considered a B.
“What do you want to do after graduation?” my advisor asked me. “Are you going to become a scientist and stick with the earthworms?”
“They’re hermaphrodites,” I told him, but he just sat there staring at me.
“You’ve got good grades,” he said. “You should consider medical school.”
“I want to be a writer.”
“What kind of writing?” he asked.
“Fiction,” I told him. “I want to write stories that capture people’s imag—”
“You’re talking about a hobby,” he said. “Writers need a day job. Take my advice and go to medical school. You can be a writer after you’re done.”
So I went to medical school and three years of residency after that. It took almost a decade. By the time I was finished, I was no closer to becoming a writer.
Better get started, I thought, and so I did, writing on nights and weekends. It was harder than I expected, and my day job kept getting in the way. I was also married and had a six-month-old daughter. There were plenty of reasons to quit. Keep at it, I told myself, so I kept pushing, moving the story along one hand-wringing sentence at a time.
Three years later, the first draft of my novel was finally finished. It didn’t end there. The first draft is the easy part. I know that now. Since then, things have only gotten harder. But life has also gotten better. Because writing is part of my day job. And although it’s the most painful part, it’s also the part that I enjoy the most.
Don’t get me wrong. Practicing medicine is fun, too. I’m glad that I became a physician. I enjoy taking care of patients and helping people when they need it the most. But I have to be careful because medicine demands so much of my time and energy. It fills the room and pushes everything else against the walls. If I want to continue to be a writer, I have to push back. I have to carve out a place for that other part—the equally important part—of my day job.
Writing helps me understand myself and the world around me. It is not frivolous or secondary to other things. And whether or not it pays the bills, it has every right to be here.
“Don’t quit your day job,” people say to the artists, musicians, and writers among us. It’s good advice, I think, something to keep in mind when we’re tempted to surrender passion for practicality. It’s a reminder to keep writing, exploring, and creating—to carve out a daily place for the things that feed our soul.
My third novel comes out in August, and there will be others after that. Sometimes I talk to my daughter about writing. She’s ten years old now, mature enough to understand.
“It’s so much fun,” I tell her, “like a friend you get to spend time with every day.”
“Every day?” she asks.
“Almost every day,” I say. “You’ve got to make room for it. You’ve got to keep at it if you want to be good.”
She nods as she considers this. She’s a talented writer already and has the curiosity to see where it takes her. But there’s a daily effort, a dedication to keep getting better. It has to be part of your day job, and a writer’s gotta have a day job. She should know that going in.
About the author:
John Burley attended medical school in Chicago and completed an emergency medicine residency at University of Maryland Medical Center and The R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. His debut novel, The Absence of Mercy, received the National Black Ribbon Award in recognition of an author who brings a fresh voice to suspense writing. His third novel, The Quiet Child, will be released on August 8, 2017. To learn more, visit www.john-burley.com