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Does Working Make You a Better Writer?

Latest in the litero-sphere hullabaloo is Nobel judge Horace Engdahl's assertion that literary grants and programs are killing our creative spirit by isolating us from the gritty real world that feeds our imaginations.  He says we'd do better to work, as waiters or taxi drivers if need be, in order to learn the world in which we write.  On the other side of the ring are writers, many who are currently working or formerly working in that "real world," who contest that doing so did nothing for their creative spirit and that Engdahl's claim is pretty darn easy to make from the vantage point of a comfy professorship.

I'm not going to get into what goes into producing "great" literature.  I really  have no idea.  I have no delusions that I'm attempting to produce "great" literature (then again, I imagine many great writers of the past and present weren't trying for "The Great Novel of Our Time," either, and that's part of my problem with the whole labeling system).  I have some issues with the delineation between "literature" and "not literature" in the written word--the dichotomy seems invented rather than natural and I really have no skin in the game of where to draw the line between the two.

But as for writing?  Just writing, like I do?

Working made me a better writer.

It gave me experiences and perspectives that I would never have had coming straight out of university and moving straight into writing full-time.  I wouldn't have replaced those experiences sitting behind my desk, tip-tapping away on the keyboard. Frankly, some of the frustration and difficulty of working a job that didn't fulfill me professionally, that didn't help me achieve my ultimate goal of publication, was great fodder for writing realistic characters in crummy situations.

In fact, difficult working situations prodded me to invest in writing.  My first job out of college wasn't a great one, financially speaking (it was a great work environment with some truly fantastic people and work I enjoyed--it just paid beans).  Worse, it was pretty much a dead end--no ladder to climb, no promotions to work toward.  It wasn't, shall we say, a career-making position.  It was a job.  Much like the work Engdahl discusses for writers. (I do find it fascinating that he doesn't talk about teachers, lawyers, doctors in his discussion--perhaps because these are careers, not placeholder jobs meant to eke out a living until writing pays off.)  The recession hit and my hours were cut.  With the extra time, I decided to invest in something--writing.  I wrote my first novel (that now lives in a file on my external hard drive and will never see the light of publication) that year.

I queried that novel with the agent who ultimately signed me.

But that's another story.

The story I'm telling now is one about working.  I've never stopped working.  I moved from my first job to a job at a university (staff, not to be confused with academia), ultimately landing in recruitment and student services.  I worked over forty  hours a week.  I still wrote.  Prolifically.  I then stayed home with my daughter for a year.  I've never had less time to write than that year.  I now work part-time and stay home part-time.  So I find myself cringing a little at the side of the discussion that argues "working makes it too hard to write.  I couldn't find the time."

Yes, finding the time is hard.  But the time you do have?  It *matters.*  You write like your life depends on it because that hour is it.  And...this will sound harsh...but if you're unable to produce anything and getting depressed and think your work is all crap...that's kind of on you.  Yes, writing for one hour a day instead of eight means writing will take longer.  It will take longer to write the draft, to work toward perfection.  (You will never reach perfection, by the way.)  But if you "can't" I call shenanigans.  That's not because you're working another job.  That's because you've decided you can't.

As for work opening us up to creative possibilities, and academia and grants isolating us from those possibilities?  Tentatively, yes.  Yes, working demands that we *interact* with the world in a way that sitting at a desk writing does not.  Interacting with people, encountering problems, watching how different people react to those problems, how they propose solutions, how they laugh together, how they form bonds.  Still, working isn't the only way to do this.  Living works, too.

In my view, isolation is the enemy, and academic creative writing courses and grants can isolate you.  But so can a job.  

And there's something that smacks of elitism (ironically enough) to claim that one must work a "gritty" job to produce something authentic and worthy.  That's a rather narrow definition of authenticity.  My small-town life with an engineer husband and a job at the local community college is as "authentic" as the life of a bike messenger by day, author by night in a developing country that Engdahl seems to think is capable of producing "real" literature on a level that Westerners are not.

My point?

Living life makes you a better writer.  It's narrow-minded to demand a particular life or lifestyle, however.  And there's no excuse in the world *not* to write--maybe that's the lesson we should be learning from the writers persevering in gritty, difficult jobs.  They're not creatively better-situated because of their work--they're more determined.  And determination can produce writing that is truly something great.


  1. "Living life makes you a better writer.  It's narrow-minded to demand a particular life or lifestyle, however."

    Cheers to that!

    Engdahl's remark that to be a great writer you need a gritty job somehow made me think that he expects writers to all live like Hemingway.

    The poet Emily Dickinson also came to mind. She rarely left her house and had no job at all, gritty or not. yet her poetry is so authentic and worthy. Cases like her demonstrate that not only jobs, but life itself (however it's lived) makes for good writing material.

    And I agree that no writer should complain that they have no time to write. If a woman with kids can write, anyone can write (not that I have kids, but Ive seen how busy and stressed moms are)

  2. I agree. I think it's living life and pondering it that "makes" writers. I know there are very successful, talented young writers, but I don't it's a surprise that often times it's a few decades into life that a writer hits his/her stride.


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