Bec Evans
Bec Evans is co-founder of Prolifiko and author of How to Have a Happy Hustle. She has spent her life writing and working with writers - from her first job in a book shop, to a career in publishing, and now coaches, supports and inspires writers of all kinds.

The poet James Dickey felt huge relief when he left what he called the “dark satanic mills of American business” to concentrate on his writing full time. But most of us don’t have the luxury of giving up the day job, so what’s the best way to balance working with writing?

The tension between the writing life and working life is summed up well 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.

Many writers write before or after work. Philip Larkin considered this the natural order of things saying: “I was brought up to think you had to have a job, and write in your spare time.” Larkin would work away at 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 author and poet 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” he said. Similarly, Tony Morrison told the Paris Review about how she squeezes in writing to her day wherever she can: “I have always had a nine to five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly,” she said.

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. Contemporary author 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.

I used to run Arvon’s Ted Hughes Centre for Creative Writing and of my predecessors, the Costa nominated novelist Stephen May, called the Arvon system “the most congenial I ever found for writing a book.” 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 to write knowing he wouldn’t be disturbed for a while.

Indeed, Steve wrote his first novel Tag in the Lumb Bank library. He said: “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.”

Don’t neglect your paymasters

What is interesting is that Steve didn’t neglect his paymasters – he would work until 10.30pm 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 Life, Death, Prizes was written on the train to work and according to Steve was “revised in gaps and crevices between proper work”. Though he wrote the third 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.

Some further reading:

  • If you need help scheduling time to write, why not follow the advice of Eviatar Zerubavel?
  • If you like reading about other writers’ habits, you must get your hands on a copy of Daily Rituals by Mason Currey.
  • Here is a lovely blog on how Mo O’Hara juggles her working and writing.


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