I’ve had a lot of shitty jobs.
I haven’t been unemployed for more than a month since I was fifteen. Combine that with a low tolerance for moron supervisors, a tendency to get bored quickly, and, as I grew up, the knowledge that I wanted a career as a writer and the refusal to work any job that would interfere with that goal, and I have a long, long list of workplaces. I’ve been a Subway sandwich artist, a busser, a hostess; an accounts payable specialist, a payroll specialist, an HR director. I’ve managed educational programs, offices, a Blockbuster. I’ve been a test scorer, essay grader, copywriter. I’ve taught pretty much everything related to English or writing at pretty much every level.
Sure, I was good at most of those jobs, some I even really enjoyed, but in my head I always believed they were simply a means to an end—a way to feed, house, and clothe myself while I was chipping away at my manuscript, on my way to my dream career as a published author.
I considered my writing classes and programs much more important than those lowly day jobs because in my naïveté, I thought I’d use my craft training and skills to, you know, write. But as it turns out, that’s only the first step. Now that Hand Me Down has been out in the world for four months I know that being an author—which is definitely different from being a writer—means a hell of a lot more than simply writing. You play the roles of publicist, copywriter, website developer, travel planner, thank you card sender, Vista print designer, social media manager, and anything else necessary. You basically become your own executive assistant to your author self. But you only work on commission.
If you’re a writer, you probably have your own list of “day jobs” (unless you are independently wealthy, and then I might hate you) during which you probably spent many hours nurturing fantasies of selling your book. What nobody tells you is that the reality of publishing a book is dramatically different than those work-day dreams in which you sell for a huge advance and sit back with a drink as it becomes a bestseller and then a movie and your royalties come pouring in like gold coins in cartoons and you can make a living as a writer simply by writing.
But the skills you gained while you whiled away the hours in your non-book-writer jobs can still come in handy. Here are three ways they did for me.
You never know what kind of bizarre questions or off the wall comments are going to come out of students’ mouths. “Recycling is stupid.” “Wait, women can’t actually have, um, climaxes…can they?” Not to mention all the bozo things they say in relation to writing—“why does it matter if I use their or they’re? It’s the same word.” Grr.
As a teacher, you get used to camouflaging your face so your true reactions don’t flitter across your features and give away your shock or frustration. This comes in handy when your readers, who will feel like they know you, ask you strange and personal questions, or tell you random bits of information, like the woman who told me she worked with homeless teens and sometimes did meth with them. “Just so I can connect with them.” Um…what do you say to that?
Weird things will happen to you, too. I guarantee it. With a proper poker face, you can just nod and smile and say thank you and move on. I recommend practicing this whether you are a teacher or not, because readers are people, and people are unpredictable.
You will be asked to do a book reading and a book club on the same day, maybe in different cities, and, not wanting to disappoint anyone (debut authors will do everything we can to help readers connect with our books, so I guess, we’re whores…or is it just me?) you will agree to both and have to figure out how to make the travel work. You’ll want to get postcards, bookmarks, business cards, posters, mugs, T-shirts, book bags, and maybe even a cake with your beautiful book cover on it. You’ll want to send thank you cards and postcards to bookstores, book sellers, book clubs, libraries, your aunt who told everyone she knows about your book. You’ll have interview questions and guest blog posts and website updates and reader emails to keep up with. It’s a lot.
I’m naturally a pretty organized and efficient person, but I was overwhelmed with all the administrative details pretty quickly. Luckily, I had done payroll for an Excel genius and learned some of his tricks for spreadsheets. I managed travel and a ridiculously busy calendar for the CEO/president of a fancy-pants mortgage brokerage firm in Palo Alto, which made me better equipped to handle my suddenly very busy schedule. I've had more than a half-dozen office jobs over the years and all the organizational tools I picked up, I used. Anything that can help you gain some control over the chaotic first few months after your pub date will go a long way in preventing mistakes or missed opportunities and maintaining your sanity.
Even if you had deadlines before you sold your book, publishing deadlines are different. It’s not just your agent or your critique group you let down if you fail to deliver, not just your editor, but a whole team of people who get paid to make your book baby a product. Waiting. Talk about pressure.
If you’re writing articles for magazines or journals or any type of professional writing they don’t care if you’re feeling creatively blocked. These are businesses. You must produce the commodity they hired you to create by the date you agreed upon, and if you don’t, they won’t ask you to write for them again. Experience with this kind of high-stakes writing deadlines helped me cope with looming publishing deadlines, and made me a little better at writing under pressure. If you can think of your book deadlines as another piece of regular work, it might help curb your nerves.
Despite my frequent frustration by the jobs that were not part of my ultimate career goals, I’m thankful for each position I’ve worked as each of them taught me something valuable, even the jobs that mainly taught me I didn’t want to do that job anymore because that often fueled my writing drive. Nothing is wasted, as they say, and if you’re like me, you’ll need all the help you can get from any applicable skill as you launch your author career.
What have you learned in a “day job” that has helped (or could help) your publishing process?