Over the past five months, I interviewed a dozen writers about the day jobs they worked during the early years of their writing. Here’s my own Day Job story: I work nights as a paramedic in order to spend my days as a writer.
The shifts run eight hours. I stack a double shift and a single over two consecutive nights, and I’ve qualified for health insurance, a luxury unimaginable to every one of my artist friends.
Nineteen years of overnights, and I’m still grateful for the job. Not just for the security and flexibility, but because the anonymity and demands of the job bring me into the thousands of apartments most people walk by every day and never see.
As paramedics, we bring amazing diagnostic technology bedside — almost every wire and tube you’d receive in your first 10 minutes in the ER. But, often frustratingly for our patients, the most reliable indicator of what’s going on is provided by the patient’s story. We can often learn more from a patient’s description of their condition than we can from any machine. As clinicians, we ask: What’s different about tonight? Tell me why we are here, and why now? Put me in your shoes and walk me to this very minute.
On paper, I’m sure this looks like a dynamite setup for a writer. Bang out three shifts and come home to just watch as the nights spill onto the page. But in reality, it has proven more difficult. The headspace I need to be a compassionate and competent paramedic is different than the one I need to spend at the desk, rearranging the same 26 letters in hopes of making the reader stick around. At work, I’m rewarded for the rapid recognition of evolving illness and even quicker interventions. The languages we share — one for our patients, another for the doctors we work with, yet another for the lawyers who occasionally find their way into our paperwork — are the stripped and condensed lexicons of people who know their jobs so well that they shrink to a few abbreviated phrases, a caught eye, a telling silence within a sentence. When I’m working with my better partners, we know the disease processes and our subsequent interventions so well that we rarely say more than a handful of words.
Whenever an author mentioned they’d been at work on a book for six years, I wanted to know how they managed to cover those 72 months of rent and expenses.
This familiarity comes at a cost. When I return to my desk, my vocabulary has atrophied. I haven’t the patience to draw the reader to see the unseen in the familiar. My mind can’t sit still long enough to plot a tweet, much less a novel.
Years ago, I learned the best way for me to switch gears is to read a long-form interview with an author. I print the pages and disarm the internet, spend the next hour in between those lines until the cadence of the conversation slows my brain and smothers its urge to jump ahead.
It’s been 10 years since that discovery. I’ve read a lot of interviews. Whenever an author mentioned they’d been at work on a book for six years, I wanted to know how they managed to cover those 72 months of rent and expenses and how they protected themselves from the demands of those jobs.
When I approached the editors at Medium with the idea for Day Job — and later, when I approached the authors I interviewed — I told them that I wasn’t interested only in the income-producing jobs they worked to pay the rent, but also how they managed to protect the part of their brain that was responsible for imagination and language while putting in those hours. About the parts of those jobs and those days that made it into their muscle memory to surface in their writing habits and novels today. And how those jobs helped them identify obstacles, what they had done to make it through. In a way, I was asking the same questions at both jobs: How did we get here? Walk me through the steps and obstacles that got us to this point.
We sought authors for whom there were often no traditional road maps to success. We also looked for authors who had something standing between them and their ability to think of themselves as an author, whether this was external, economic, societal, or self-imposed. (Spoiler alert: It was usually a mix of all.)
I asked each author for an hour of their time. Many gave more. In every case, I ended up with far more material than I could print. But I was glad I’d asked for the hour. Because in almost every interview, after 30 or 40 minutes of unflinchingly accounting for the hours that made up the years, most authors paused and exhaled, as if for the first time realizing the magnitude of their accomplishment: “I don’t know how I did it.”
I’m grateful to each of these authors for their honesty, vulnerability, and willingness to go back to uncomfortable times. The irony of asking for an hour to discuss how they managed to protect their time is not lost on me. Fortunately, each author was too gracious to point that out. I hope these stories can serve as a road map for those of us still finding our way.
Reader. Writer. Paramedic.
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