Daily Rituals

T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Joseph Heller: They all had day jobs.
Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 2 2013 11:19 AM

Daily Rituals

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Keep your day job.

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I compiled Daily Rituals while working a full-time job as a magazine editor. I was lucky to be able to do both things at once—although I never felt like I was actually succeeding at doing both things at once. When the book was going well, work suffered; and when work got busy, the book suffered. Often both suffered! I'm sure anyone who has tried to juggle a day job with a side project can relate to this feeling.

And yet having too much to do is also an unbeatable motivator. If you can truly only spare a couple hours a day for a particular task, it is amazing how much you can get done in those hours. As Nicholson Baker told me—referring to a time in his life when he was writing and running a nonprofit at the same time—“You find out a way to get more done when you’re really busy. You just learn how to fit it in.”

My book research certainly turned up plenty of examples of writers who held down day jobs without squashing their talents. Anthony Trollope wrote for three hours every morning before going to his job at the post office, which he kept for 33 years during the publication of more than two dozen books. William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in the afternoons before clocking in on the night shift as a supervisor at a university power plant. He found the nocturnal schedule easy enough to manage: He would sleep in the morning for a few hours, write all afternoon, visit his mother for coffee on the way to work, and take catnaps throughout his undemanding shift. The novelist Henry Green didn’t even need to work—he was independently wealthy—but he went into the office of his family's manufacturing business every day because he liked the structure (and gossiping with the secretaries).

Joseph Heller thrived in magazine advertising by day and wrote Catch-22 in the evenings, sitting at the kitchen table in his Manhattan apartment. “I spent two or three hours a night on it for eight years,” he said. “I gave up once and started watching television with my wife. Television drove me back to Catch-22.”

James Dickey attempted a similar balancing act between writing and advertising, only he flagrantly deceived his bosses in order to work on his poetry in the office (and eventually got fired for his obvious disregard for his advertising duties). Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot were more successful at mixing poetry and business: While working as a banker, Eliot took literary meetings on his lunch breaks and wrote in the evenings; Stevens, an insurance lawyer, even scribbled scraps of verse at the office and had his secretary type them up. “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” Stevens once said. “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about about money.”

For much of her writing career, Toni Morrison not only worked a day job—as an editor at Random House—but taught university literature courses and raised her two sons as a single parent. “It does seem hectic,” she admitted in 1977.

“But the important thing is that I don’t do anything else. I avoid the social life normally associated with publishing. I don’t go to the cocktail parties, I don’t give or go to dinner parties. I need that time in the evening because I can do a tremendous amount of work then. And I can concentrate. When I sit down to write I never brood. I have so many other things to do, with my children and teaching, that I can’t afford it. I brood, thinking of ideas, in the automobile when I’m driving to work or in the subway or when I’m mowing the lawn. By the time I get to the paper something’s there—I can produce.”

Not everyone is so skilled at striking this balance. And writers have it easy compared to other artists. A novelist or poet can write for as little as an hour a day and make significant progress. For the most part, painters and composers need to spend more time with their work; fitting it in before or after a day at the office is trickier.

The artist Joseph Cornell struggled with this arrangement. He made his first shadow box in 1934, not long after securing a 9-to-5 job in a Manhattan textile studio. It was tedious and low-paying work, but Cornell stayed there for six years. Nights he spent at his kitchen table, sorting and assembling materials for his boxes. In 1940 Cornell finally mustered the courage to quit his job and pursue his art full-time. Still, as much as he had hated working, Cornell found that he hated not working, too. During the 1940s, he returned to the workforce twice, happy at first to resume the reassuring routine. Then, after a period of months, he would grow frustrated and quit.

The American composer Charles Ives was far more content in his day job—perhaps to the detriment of his creative life. For artists, there is also a risk of getting too settled into a job. Ives worked in the life insurance business by day and devoted evenings and weekends to his scores. But over time he had trouble keeping up both pursuits, and by his mid-40s he had ceased composing almost entirely. “Any artist who can make up his mind to spend three-quarters of his life being an insurance man and another quarter being an artist is a pretty unique compromise,” the composer Bernard Hermann said of Ives. “It is not often done. It is a very difficult thing to maintain the equilibrium, and I think that he fell off it. He couldn’t maintain it after a while.”

Mason Currey is the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.