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Is Having A Job Good For A Poet?

I followed a Facebook discussion last week on whether poets are best to work as full-time writers, or work in a completely different field. Those advocating the former were (unsurprisingly) full-time writers and supporters of the latter had other forms of income.

The argument was that, if you have a full-time job, it’s bound to sap your creative energy – in addition to sapping 40 hours a week of time you could have spent writing. A full-time poet is bound to become a better writer than he/she would become if burdened with a job. The counter-argument was that working offers experience that informs poems, and that many famous poets (Wallace Stevens, WC Williams, TS Eliot, Philip Larkin etc) held down demanding jobs and still managed to write plenty of good poems. As someone who holds down a demanding job, I sided with the counter-argument.

However, I’ve been thinking more about it since. It is indeed true that I often have to break off writing a poem and do a whole load of other things. It’s also true that I get tired and sometimes have little energy for writing poems; even if the will is there, the flesh is weak. There is definitely a downside to combining poetry with a busy job. On the other hand, most ‘full-time’ poets make a living through doing tutorials and workshops, giving readings, writing articles/novels, teaching creative writing, and a host of other work activities that don’t consist of actually writing poems. The few who only write poetry must have a working spouse or other generous relative/benefactor, in addition to Arts Council grants. Almost no one can live off writing poetry alone. It’s easy to romanticise poverty (only a –v away from poetry) but, if you can’t pay the bills, your mind may not be fully on the blank sheet of paper in front of you.

What do you think? Is having a full-time job helpful or destructive for a poet?

This Post Has 26 Comments

  1. I think that – as with most things in life – both positions of this argument are true and can co-exist, albeit with an obvious level of tension.

    As someone who works around 60 hours a week in my own business and finds it difficult to switch off my ‘work head’, writing poetry has become a late night personal indulgence when the rest of the world is asleep. An indulgence that has have discipline and rigour as per any other work-based task, otherwise I wouldn’t actually produce anything! (Fortunately I don’t have any international clients otherwise even those two precious hours after midnight would be eroded away.)

    I’ve recently completed my first long poetry sequence which has turned into a collection about my working life as an entrepreneur – a sort of business/poetry fusion project – and so the two ends of the argument have become mutually creatively satisfying. I work because I enjoy it and I’m successful at what I do. I write because I enjoy it and I’d like to be more successful at it. The subject matter of my work world has become useful stimulus for my writing, and the skills I have in running a business help me keep on track with the writing task.

    Putting aside matters of money (I’m financially independent) and relationships (I’ve a very sympathetic partner who likes to go to bed early), I think I would find it hard to write full time as I need something ‘other’ to push and stimulate me. Writing on its own, for me, probably wouldn’t be enough.

  2. This sounds like a rather artificial argument – most people are engaged in multiple roles in life and types of “work”; but if referring to paid employment (ie ‘involuntary’) work, then of course this could be seen as a factor in either enabling or restricting the writing of poetry or any other creative pursuit. It all depends on each person’s individual life circumstances and preferences. For example I also prefer to write at night after everyone has gone to bed, but being retired I could choose to write at any time of the day. However I am involved in community work, and do have occasional jobs crop up, besides family and so on, so I could pretend that I am too busy in the day – yet that would also be untrue. Some people can write on trains or planes; I can’t. Some are able to write poetry in snatches during their lunch hour or in cafes; I can’t. Etc etc etc.

  3. Have recently been ousted by a recruitment freeze from a job that I enjoyed and which had provoked quite a few poems and handed me some notoriety as a result. All I can think about is getting another job for income. Have written nothing since leaving. Night time was the best anyway so it didn’t interfere too much with the creative flow anyway. But I miss the source of my poems!

  4. I used to feel like a failure because I wasn’t a full-time artist or poet. But more recently, I’ve come to realize that my life is actually quite well-rounded, and that I like it that way. If I were a full-time poet or academic, I think it would drive me crazy.

  5. I find it odd that people would even argue about it. Each to his own after all, some people find life outside of writing inspirational, and some people find that full time writing is what they need. Who’s to say that creativity only works one way for all people? Just as sexuality is flexible and can change throughout a life time, perhaps our creative identities should also be seen as similarly plastic – after all saying that we should work either one way or another isn’t terribly creative in itself.

  6. Yes it is an artificial argument, and I hate dichotomies. However, when I had a full-time job (which always extended beyond 9.00 to 5.00), it certainly sapped my creative juices, partly because it involved writing a lot of expository prose. The ideal would seem to be to combine writing poetry with stimulating free-lance, part-time work, such as teaching, doing workshops, interviews, readings, etc, but then you have to get established as a poet first. Another problem is that such free-lance work can come at awkward times, as when you are in the middle of a major creative project.

  7. Yes, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. I’m just interested in the pros and cons of both approaches, and how people deal with the cons on both sides. Some very interesting responses so far.

  8. I find it’s not the time but the timing. Unavoidable ‘other things’ demand attention when I think I may have a good idea. I’m afraid of ‘losing’ ideas. If I can’t get an odd half-hour promptly I feel frustrated. I think best in the morning. Unfortunately that’s when other demands are strong. I don’t mind doing the other things (household jobs, paid work, a few social obligations), but getting opportunity and inspiration to coincide is a skill I often don’t have. Not presumably a problem for Eliot and Larkin.

  9. A personal view:
    I am lucky enough to be retired from full-time work, but in all honesty can’t claim that now I spend the equivalent time writing. In fact, ideas come to me in the early waking hours and randomly through the day – if I am lucky. If I were to sit down and try to write a poem, I wouldn’t be able to do it; it’s a spontaneous thing.

    When I worked full time, I didn’t manage to write creatively at all. However, I did manage to complete an OU degree during working hours. I can admit it now! If an idea comes to a writer when they are “working” even the most hard pressed of us can usually find a moment to jot the idea down. Take a notebook to work….and, yes, real life supplies us with more material than 8 hours staring at a computer screen. Unless, of course, that IS how you spend your time at work.

  10. I do not feel that full time work necessarily has a bearing on creativity. I will often note a line or idea down at work if it comes into my head and expand on it later. However being in the early stages of attempting to take my work further I have found finding the time to properly edit a poem, make contacts, knock on doors, research magazines etc (or in other words get my poetry in print) very difficult. My wife and I have three-year-old triplets. I often feel that to properly push my creative work along side my job (rather than blindly submit to various magazines) I would have to miss them growing up. Nothing is worth that. I would not be so sure as to include my work in the following bracket but perhaps a significant amount of good creative output (from many artistic disciplines) goes undetected for such reasons.

  11. How many full time poets are there anyway? There’s only one in Ireland – Famous Seamus. I resent my full time job and the energy and time it eats away but I have a mortgage and college going kids. I also resent poets who dedicate themselves to their art and are subsidised by mummy/daddy/husband/wife. Sorry, that should read ‘am exceedingly jealous of’

  12. Jury’s out on that one; however, for those who are only working “outside the craft” jobs because they need their benefits, joining a freelance writers’ group or organization is a key need. They can get the benefits they need and do their projects full-time. I am the Chair of the Women’s and Civil/Human Rights committees for the National Writers Union and I do this full-time, thanks to the Union providing the support and assistance that I need.

  13. I once heard a tongue-in-cheek definition of a ‘real poet’ that included criteria such as;
    * they don’t drive, and tend to use public transport
    * they don’t tend to have or use mobile phones
    * they aren’t professionally employed other than in writing or language

    I fail the ‘real poet’ test on all three counts, and I’m wondering if this is what’s holding me back?

    On a more serious note, a good deal of my own poems are drawn from people or situations I have encountered through my working life, so employment is in itself a source of inspiration.

  14. I worked for 35 years as an industrial chemist and wrote a lot of poetry
    in my spare time and was well-published too. Being at work elsewhere does
    help with ideas, but I have now been retired 15 years and the amount I write /publish has remained much the same. I don’t like doing workshops,
    school visits etc. for a living, but I do like giving readings. But I’m not in
    it for the money, though I’d like to be thought of as a professional.
    Geoff Stevens

  15. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I am so grateful for my full-time job. It provides me the (monetary) flexibility to do what I please and lasts only from 9-5pm leaving me plenty of time to write once I am home. It’s not especially mentally taxing and lets me meet loads of interesting people (excellent poem fodder). So for me, working full time is good for my writing.

    That said, working in publishing in the past was VERY BAD for my writing, and sapped every last ounce of desire out of me. Spending the day reading mediocre manuscripts meant I had little desire to read when I got home, and that my only daily contact with writing was very bad writing. Spending the day writing copy for work meant I didn’t want to write any ‘copy’ at home. The whole experience made it very clear to me that if I wanted to work and write, I couldn’t be working in publishing/a literature-related field. To each his/her own, but that’s how it worked for me.


  16. I’ve been an employee, an employer, and am now retired. The only time I couldn’t write at all was when running my own business, even though I didn’t necessarily have less free time.Now, while if I want to I can work on poetry for hours at a time, clearly a benefit, the cooking and shopping and housework still have to be done, but are less intrusive. On balance I have to say I have written more and better since being freed of other responsibilities.

  17. The question is that of one that I have personally been struggling with for the past, well, many years. I have recently moved away from working in the film industry, being unemployed, or as some say, “in-between jobs”, for over a year at times, was starting to become very negative in my working life. Now I, like many others I’m sure, love the idea of being paid to write, for writing to be my full time career. This has always been my goal, to be published, and despite some changes I have made to my thought process I still hope to be published one day. I outlook on writing has changed, anyones would going from 16 years of age to recently turning 29. The idea of doing any old job to pay the bills frightened me for years, and only recently I have swallowed my pride. I have just finished working for, Starbucks of all places, and I have been able to apy my rent and bills. Now I thought this was the end of my creavitiy, I would not be a poet any longer and I would be tried from being on my feet all day and rushing around, but the opposite has very surprised me.
    I have had plenty of inspiration from this job, in regards to the amount of customers I have met in my four months. Such inspiration from being able to communicate to old men, women, young children, black, white, australian, russian, british, disabled, famous, poor, funny and sad people. So much so that I began writing a blog about my experiences there.

    Overall it’s odd how ones life drifts into different chapters, that first can seem quite uneasy but can be the most wonderful experiences.

    I say go with work, and keep on writing as much as one can, even if it means you fall asleep at your desk, write! And what great inspiration there is out there, so to be in the mix with it all is an honour, I get ideas from everybody and everything, ideas that, if I were sat at my laptop at home, would never have entered my head.

    Write to work, work to write!


  18. I’ve been out of western european full-time employment for 18 months now. I still teach at a local language school and at the local university, but only so that administration is at a minumum.
    I have read more and concentrated much more on the art. Perhaps I could have done this earlier, but guilt over my dependents kept me from throwing up everything and becoming “a hero of art” to use a phrase used ironically by Roy Fuller.
    Frankly, I both envy and despise poets, especially male as I am old-fashioned, who rely on subsidies and their partners to provide for them. It argues a certain sociopathic irresponsibility – nicking shirts a la Dylan Thomas from one’s host.
    I also avoid the company of poets except for encounters at festivals and readings and those poets who are friends because they like my poisonality before they like my poems.

  19. My experience is much like aiko’s. I left a career in book publishing because it exhausted my creative energies. I’m happy for those years — closely editing manuscripts hones one’s language skills at the microlevel — but glad I eventually switched to a less time-consuming and soul-snatching line of work.

    The main difficulty was feeling so at odds with corporate culture; what mattered to me most mattered to everyone else not a whit. The business office is a minefield for an introspective sort and I was sometimes reviled for not being collegial and all smiles. Much inner strife which nevertheless led to poetry. “In Company,” my book about the world of modern work, comes out next year.

  20. I couldn’t run workshops/ give readings/ teach creative writing on a professional basis to subsidise a writing ‘career’ very simply because I don’t feel comfortable performing in front of an audience (and teaching does have a performance aspect: you have to get up in front of a class or workshop group and inspire them).

    I do have a day job to pay the bills and keep a roof over my head. Writing gets squashed into the times in between working and being a parent and it would be a luxury to have more time to write. That said, I don’t think I’d write more poems than I do already, but would have more time to edit, submit work to editors, review, research and promote my own books instead of feeling that those activities don’t get done properly because I can’t do everything.

    I think it useful to have a non writing connection with the world, whether a job or doing voluntary work, because it widens experience and gives a broader background to draw inspiration from.

  21. I think the way we think about this needs to be redefined. Is it about time? Everyone wishes they had more time, but experience shows that – up to a point – being busy really does enable you to get more done.

    My recent experience of unemployment was like Trish’s, above: I did, over most of a year, manage to write what has turned out to be a very well-received pamphlet and editing a manuscript etc – but mainly it was like a sort of frozen misery, 15 hours a day at the computer trying desperately to make something, anything happen. Corrosive worry and loss of purpose were more powerful negative factors than the time was a positive. So it has to be both time and conditions.

    Furthermore, people get varying levels of support at home. Having a dysfunctional relationship, or no relationship (thus both being alone, and having to do everything yourself) are very different from having a supportive (and useful) partner! But a partner who doesn’t like you to write is the kiss of death.

    Is it about “being seen as a professional”? This is the most pernicious thing I see around the place. All this anxiety about status! “REAL poets,” we’re told, do this or that or something else. “Real poets,” with books or workshops or who are somehow beyond the need to enter into the fray. But that’s just fake. It HAS to come from the inside out. Just do your work.

    I think we think that “being a poet” looks like one thing… but what’s that about? I admit I do workshops, but it’s because I love it, and I am doing it as WELL as a job. You’d never support yourself with it. Not in London, not without a paid-off mortgage and an earning partner and no kids.

    I also think it’s far more important to have a role in the world. With work, you get routine, exposure to people, a sense of duty (unfashionable word) to something outside your own solipsistic concerns – and a sense of value. Even a job you hate can give you something to buck against. Read any interview with a successful full-time writer: they are self-absorbed creatures, they lack perspective, it is why people think they’re precious. They have opted out of the low comedy and horror of real life. It’s unattractive, and during that time when I was out of work and trying to gain meaning in my life through writing I found it a rather sickly feeling.

    The greatest poets have just got on with it: they had no Arvon, no MFAs, no “being seen as”. Shakespeare was an actor in a company and they needed plays. When Ben Jonson took six weeks to write a play everyone thought he was getting lazy: it wasn’t “self-expression”, he was delivering an output. Chaucer, that canny human observer, was a wine importer/exporter and a senior civil servant. WCW was a doctor. Eliot: banking and publishing. Stevens, insurance – and incidentally, the composer Charles Ives was not only an insurance salesman, but wrote a guide to selling insurance (in its early days) that shaped the industry, and is still influential. The great Elizabethans were courtiers, & Donne, Swift, Hopkins and Herbert all had clerical careers. Charles Lamb was a long-serving clerk at the East India Company!

    Most women writers had to fit writing around work in the home and social expectations: Jane Austen wrote in the parlour, and had a bit of tatting she’d quickly whip out if visitors came, hiding her papers underneath. (And what do people criticise her with? That her writing is too domestic, small-scale, trivial. She shoulda had a job.)

    For all these reasons I REALLY don’t think it’s about having more time to “develop” your writing. It’s about focus and drive and a sense of perspective, and a sense of yourself, and just doing it. Everyone is different, of course, and everyone will find their own level, and path.

  22. Though writing poetry is central to those of us who write it (the most meaningful thing in our lives) it is a niche activity in terms of the wider economy (unless you are lucky enough to run workshops etc) and is viewed as such by most other working people (unless they do it). Take football, where celebrity footballers garner millions for scoring a goal, there are just a few celebrity poets – contemporary and household names – who will earn just a fraction of that goal in their lifetime. This question therefore is a little like suggesting that the day time job (In a photocopying shop) of a young unknown Sunday football player weakens or strengthens his game. I think the two things – job and subsidary interest – are oxymoronic. He needs the job to afford the kit and the away days. But he is unlikely to ever get a cash award for scoring.

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