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Work Frustrations; Social Climbing

November 11, 2011 | by

Okay, I have a question about the ideal sort of job for a young writer. If not ideal, then certainly better. I am a gallery manager in Manhattan. It is an exhausting, constantly detail-oriented job that does not pay especially well. Work frustrations and a first novel that is still in progress but progressing despite the less than ideal amount of time I can devote. I am wondering whether I should quit this “career” and become a bartender. I would have more hours to write, and my hands wouldn’t be typing for eleven to twelve hours a day. So what jobs do you recommend?

You mention bartending. I’ve known several writer-bartenders over the years. The job, they tell me, comes with perils of its own. In the good old days, the easiest thing was to get a gig proofreading at night for some giant consultancy or law firm (like the title character of Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica). The pay was good, and when you punched out, you punched out. Those jobs are hard to find now (proofreading’s the first thing to go), but since you’re in New York, it’s worth signing up with a temp agency. I temped once, for a business-to-business advertising firm, and on my very first afternoon found myself writing slogans for a revolutionary new water-efficient toilet. At least, I tried. (It was also my last afternoon.)

I have always thought dog walking would be a good job for a writer, if you’re the sort of person who thinks while you walk. But perhaps one of our readers will have a better suggestion ... or a position to fill?

I’m enjoying The Way of All Flesh. Can you suggest some novels about social climbing by cultural or racial outsiders?

If Ernest Pontifex counts as a cultural outsider—or a social climber—then who among us is safe from either charge? Not Becky Sharpe, in Vanity Fair, or Lucien de Rubempré, in Lost Illusions. And certainly not Georges Duroy, the gutter-bred antihero of Bel Ami, or David Copperfield or Gatsby or Tim Ripley or—to choose a more recent example—slick Nick Guest in The Line of Beauty. But neither, I suppose, is Lucy, the title character of Jamaica Kincaid’s first novel, an Antiguan making her way in New York, or Pronek, the immigrant hero of Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man, lost in Chicago. After all, if you’re not from around here, there is a fine line between climbing and getting by. (Is Ellison’s Invisible Man a climber?) Leonard Bast tries to better himself, disastrously enough, in Howard’s End, and who can blame him? Creepy Jasper Milvain does a much better job in New Grub Street. The black shipbuilder Bob Jones doesn’t climb, exactly—but he gets promoted, and all hell breaks loose among his white coworkers, whom he secretly loathes—in Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go. There is always, of course, Augie March, taking goyish America by storm. And—my own favorite—the reckless, charming Irish hero of Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, cutting a swathe through Disraeli-era London. Speaking of outsiders who make it.

I edit others with skill. How can I learn to better edit myself? —Kathleen R. Kimble, Missoula, Montana

Ms. Kimble, you are in luck. There is an excellent book on this very subject: The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself, by Susan Bell. If you’lve already had practice as an editor, you’ll find Bell’ls advice that much more persuasive and—let’s hope!—easy to follow.

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  1. PaulR | November 11, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Non-ideal job for middle-aged, struggling writer: Graduate Student.
    Hours available for writing:

    1) Before the kids wake and the commute to the lab.
    2) In the lab when the boss isn’t looking.*
    3) After the lab when the kids are asleep.

    *Or when the boss thinks you are summarizing your data for publication.

  2. Elizabeth | November 11, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    A writing professor once told me that to get a job–any job–where you are stringing words together for a living would be beneficial. Five years into my job as a staff writer in fundraising, I can say that for me, at least, that isn’t necessarily true. When I get home after work, the last thing I want to do is crack open my laptop and start writing…again.

    But then again, maybe for other people it’s different. No matter what you choose to do with your life, you will always find obstacles to your writing. So the best thing to do is to just commit to writing every day (500 words or so), or at the very least, sitting at your desk.

    It’s the routine that matters.

  3. Jeff | November 11, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    I’m so glad some of you brought up middle-age and writing. I gave up a career to write and failed for a variety of reasons. Yet I want to plod on because I feel I have to.

    I’m not sure there is a job you can do and comfortably write. I found that writing is the job and everything was secondary when I was able to do it.

    The thing is you have to be willing to sacrifice and do all you can just write like Elizabeth said. Easier said than done in my case, at least.

    After all these years I now understand why so many feel the urge to write is a curse and not a blessing.

  4. adad | November 11, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Enigineering works for me, it’s an entirely unrelated skill. I feel really relieved when i come home and write.

  5. Kaaren | November 11, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    This is in response to the young writer asking about the ideal job: I’ve had many jobs. The worst in terms of free time for writing was being an art dealer.

    A good one: book store clerk (but only because of the economy then and being in my 20s).

    Better: real estate agent (but only because of the economy then, in Santa Fe in the ’80s. We’d sell one property and write or paint for the next month straight).

    The best: investing in rental property with more than one unit.

    Heaven: no job but writing.

  6. Leo | November 12, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Funny: Just yesterday I decided to take the job as co-manger of a framing shop for art (pictures) 40h/w and to try to write one good page a week.

  7. Thom Bunn | November 14, 2011 at 7:01 am

    The two best helping-writing jobs I have had:

    Labourer (during University holidays): start early finish early, hard physical work, lots of thinking time, meet lots of non-literary types.

    Translator (currently): functioning in the space between two languages is incredibly generative, I find, and refreshes sensitivity to basic things like word definitions, cultural differences and sentence structure.

  8. Nicole | November 14, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Interpreting (not translating). It gets you places, it pays well, you meet all sorts of people. Translating involves usage of writing energy you need to save for writing, but interpreting uses different muscles. And the material you grt from it! Awesome.

  9. Thom Bunn | November 15, 2011 at 4:31 am

    Interpreting does sound awesome, interesting and complementary-to-writing work..

  10. Carson Reed | November 15, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    As a writer, I found interior/exterior painting to be my favorite occupation. Once I had acquired that skill set, I could paint entirely from muscle memory, and my mind was free to go where ever it wanted. There are few difficult decisions to be made and very little human interaction.

  11. Lorin Stein | November 15, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Interpreting is so much fun to watch. I loved finding out — from a Swiss interpreter of French, German, and English — that she took shorthand *in the target language.* This amazed me. (In my book, interpreting has to be the single most crushable profession there is.)

  12. Duncan | December 4, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Unfortunately, I only speak one language well. You half-mentioned the perils of being a bartender, anyone with more experience want to expand on those?

    I really want something that let’s me focus my time and energy on writing. Not to mention put food on the table.

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