I had originally planned this as a coming-out column, to reveal I was a day-jobber and dash any perceptions I was a full-time writer. But my revelation comes a few days too late, because I’ve just been laid off. I’d still like to tell you about the years I spent squeezing a writing career into nights and weekends, and why I kept this schedule off your radar.
Yes, I was a nine-to-fiver, with a corporate job in marketing. I had a desk and wore a suit. Some of you knew, but not many.
It was easy to exclude from conversation. When someone invited me to an afternoon event, rather than say, “I’m working,” I’d say, “Evenings are best for me these days.” Sometimes they’d look at my briefcase, suss me out, and we’d both be embarrassed. I became the Clark Kent of the Montreal bathroom scene and could change out of my work clothes in the tiniest of stalls.
Why didn’t I feel comfortable sharing this?
For starters, there’s a social expectation that an artist must constantly research, meditate and travel to produce something of any worth. Who would want to plunk down 20 bucks for a book written during “spare time”? How could a sideline possibly stir mini-revolutions in thought, or generate any wisdom?
It was also the shame of admitting I couldn’t pay the rent with my chosen profession. If my job had been connected to books, or to the same literary communities who read my work, I would’ve been more at ease to disclose, but it wasn’t. It also didn’t help that when walking home from work, neighbourhood punks would spy my suit and give me the finger.
Funny that for me, employment has always held more stigma than unemployment.
It’s not that way for all authors. Props to my many writer friends who either have reconciled their day (and sometimes night) jobs, or have always been upfront about them. And respect, too, to those who have no use for revealing all aspects of their working life.
I have a few reasons for coming out.
It’s somewhat hypocritical of me to protest slashes in cultural funding while I outwardly present as a fully self-employed artist. Why should governments and arts organizations support people who don’t appear to need help? We can’t all be Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, a writer who can afford a closet full of Manolo Blahnik pumps on the income from a weekly column.
The writers I mentor should know that becoming a full-time writer doesn’t happen overnight, that it takes years of strategic planning. And friends should know that when I declined their invitations to birthday parties, art openings, graduations and camping trips over the years, it’s because I was trying to fit two demanding careers into the same workday without having a personal meltdown.
They should know it tore my heart out not to be there.
Writing is rarely a high-paying gig, so supplemental jobs are common. Chances are, the people who write your favourite books are the same people who pump your gas, deliver your mail, provide you with sex services, verify your insurance claims, dig your wells and drive orange juice across the country while you sleep. And yes, that book that changed your life was probably written on a Christmas vacation.
It’s Fight Club out there.
I’m now into my first week as a full-time writer, and it’s scary. I’m spitting proud of the writing money that does come in, and it’s slowly growing. It’s just enough to convince me I’m doing something right. I still can’t pay the rent entirely with my chosen profession, but I’m going to try damn hard.
I’ll be speaking at two Chicago schools this week. One event is connected with National Coming Out Day, and the other addresses LGBTQ literature. I imagine that between the slices of deep-dish pizza I’ve kindly been promised, I’ll be talking to students about how coming out isn’t a two-second declaration — it’s a lifelong process. There will always be something about you that people need to know, and that you need to share.
And I’ll be sure to tell the lit students there’s no need to be ashamed of a day job, especially if the pizza delivery person might’ve written a novel that moved them to tears.