Writing in the gaps and crevices between proper work

Writing at work

The poet James Dickey felt huge relief when he was able to leave “these dark Satanic mills of American business” and concentrate on his writing full time. Many writers don’t have the luxury of giving up paid work to concentrate on their art and instead struggle on resenting their main employment.

How do writers find time to write when they have full time jobs?

This discontent is summed up by Franz Kafka’s comment that “the office is a horror” bringing new depth to the meaning of Kafkaesque and its nightmarish visions of evil.

“time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy” Franz Kafka

Many writers write before or after work. Philip Larkin considered this the natural order of things: “I was brought up to think you had to have a job, and write in your spare time.” He would do his day job as a librarian at the University of Hull and write in the evening after dinner and the dishes.

Write during the working day

The other option is to find time during the working day which is what James Dickey did when he worked as an advertising copywriter. “Every time I had a minute to spare, I would stick a poem in the typewriter.” Tony Morrison told the Paris Review of squeezing in writing “I have always had a nine to five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly.”

“Every time I had a minute to spare, which was not often, I would stick a poem in the typewriter.” James Dickey

Others found it less stressful – take Wallace Stevens who said having a job was “one of the best things that could happen to me”. He wrote during his four mile walking commute to work as well as during his lunch break. This is described by Mason Currey in Daily Rituals “It was on these walks that he composed his poetry, stopping now and then to scribble lines on one of the half-dozen or so envelopes he always had stuffed in his pocket.”

Part of the trick seems to be finding a job flexible enough to fit in writing. Evie Wyld continues George Orwell’s tradition of writing whilst running a book shop and has confessed to editing her manuscripts under the shop counter.

One of my predecessors at Lumb Bank, the Costa nominated novelist Stephen May, called the Arvon system “the most congenial I ever found for writing a book.”

Read more of Steve’s advice to writers in the lazy guide to writing productively. 

When Steve worked at Lumb he lived on site in a cottage at the end of the garden. He would start work when the writers were having breakfast and when they went into workshops he’d “go into library knowing I wouldn’t be disturbed for a while.”

He wrote his first novel Tag in the Lumb Bank library: “I’d pop out at coffee time and talk to students and, when they went back into workshop, I’d go back to the library. I’d stop writing in time to put lunches out and then do Arvon stuff from lunchtime onwards.”

Lumb Bank library

Don’t neglect your paymasters

What is interesting is he didn’t neglect his paymasters – he would work until 10.30 at night hosting the evening readings, so his working day was long, but interspersed by bouts of personal creativity.

Steve has managed to successfully combine writing with his more recent jobs. His second novel was written on the train to work and “revised in gaps and crevices between proper work”. Though he wrote the third and fourth novel before starting the working day, he still managed to maximise his commute and train journeys to meetings to edit and polish it.

Steve’s advice to other writers is to “find any time you can.” Many of us would do well to take this on board, stop complaining like Kafka, and instead look for those gaps in between ‘proper’ work.

“find any time you can” Stephen May

If you like reading about other writers’ habits, read our blog on Daily Rituals by Mason Currey.

Bec Evans About the author: Co-creator of Prolifiko, Bec has spent a lifetime reading, writing and working with writers. From her first job in a bookshop, to a career in publishing, and several years managing a writers’ centre, she’s obsessed with working out what helps writers write.