Do Guys with Shit Jobs Write Better Fiction?

by Jay Wilburn


The goal of many writers is to write full time. They want to quit the day job and live in the cabin on acres off the grid (except for Internet of course) and off the millions they make from their zombie wombat steampunk epic fantasy. Who wouldn’t?

Most of the advice about quitting the day job comes in the form of following dreams and having faith in yourself. Most of the advice about keeping the day job involves responsibility and making wise choices. Some successful authors talk about getting bestsellers written before making the leap to full time. That is a long time to wait on realizing a dream even if it is a smart move.

I write full time. I did it through a combination of ghostwriting and my own struggling fiction for a while. I did that and sacrificed a number of items in the budget that normal working people often have. In time, it shifted to more of my own fiction and less of the freelance or ghost work. That was not a conscious choice as much as it was one path drying up and my wife having to change her work situation. Life happens and then you figure out a plan for not starving to death.

Is it best for your writing to quit the day job though? Most writers have one even if they dream of not having one someday. Indie writers in particular have them often. I tend to enjoy indie writer’s work more than most of the name authors with big publishers. Their writing is more likely to break rules and explore further out on the edges than what the market driven publishers will allow. I’m not entirely sure that their shit jobs don’t contribute to the aspects of the story I enjoy.

The joke is that all of Stephen King’s characters are writers. I ran across a site once that broke down the professions of major and minor characters in King’s work. I don’t know how accurate the count was, but there were more teacher characters in his stories than writers, the second most common profession. Some of those teacher characters came earlier in his career when he was more recently separated from his day job. He had worked a few shit jobs too that found their way into his short fiction as well. In the years that followed, he’s had a few characters that were writers and teachers. He takes writing what you know to an extreme, but I’m not convinced that a few more bus drivers or plumbers wouldn’t have rounded out a few of his stories better. Yes, I am the douchebag that presumes to tell Stephen King how he should be writing. I know how that comes off. I’m a big Stephen King fan. Back off a step …

What I like about the fiction of indie writers comes down to the visceral nature of how the shit work fits into the story and informs the characters. I can feel it and smell it better. It hurts more in all the right places. I remember that pain more clearly when I read one of their stories. I have trouble capturing that as well in my own writing.

Right after I quit teaching, I had nightmares about going back to teaching. I had them for about two years. Eventually, they stopped. When I talk to old friends still teaching, their stories remind me of the insanely shitty aspects of teaching, administration, paperwork, legalities, and nonsense that I had blocked out or forgotten since I left. Thinking back on a shit job is not the same as writing about it between shifts.

Since I left teaching, I don’t get that feeling about halfway through Sunday where I fear the approach of Monday. I forgot that aspect of the work cycle. I remember it when someone posts a meme about Monday. I can write that, but probably not with the visceral edge that someone writing right before a shift might.

I used to work night shift. I never adjusted well to it the way others sometimes do. I remember the pain and discomfort of trying to live on that cycle. I will never write it as well as someone living it right now.

Even people that love their jobs have a certain edge. You can love a job and still have endless experiences related to the bullshit that makes your life or the lives of others harder at the job than it has to be. All of that adds something to characters and writing.

I know writers that put up more impressive word counts on break at work or in the exhausted hours after they got home than they did after they were free to write all day. That desperate drive has some power to it. Some of it is the drive to be free of the restrictions of that job. I often like the work I read from those people. I don’t envy the day job or desire to go back to mine, but I recognize a quality to that work that my work sometimes lacks. As a reader, I find myself drawn to those stories more deeply and more often. As a writer, I find myself envying what authors achieve through relating the small, hidden details of their lives and experiences.

I would never dissuade a writer from making the leap to full time even if it is a terrible financial move. I would say that while you have the job you hate, squeeze every drop of pain and acid out of those experiences onto the page as fully and as raw as you can. There is terrible, dark magic there that is worth exploring while it is trying to devour you. Fully use it for the curse and the blessing that it is. I’ll read it.


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Jay Wilburn is the author of the Dead Song Legend Series and coauthor of the Enemy Held Near as well as many other books and stories. He is also the host of The Matters of Faith Podcast on Project Entertainment Network. You can follow his writing and other activities at JayWilburn.com or have access to exclusive material through his page on Patreon.