The Working Writer (aka Why Living the Dream Means Working for the Man)

"I’m like – no offense – a writer writer, not a corporate advertising, working-for-the-man kind of writer.”

Says Lena Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath in an episode of the latest season of Girls as she explains to her boss at GQ why she’s quitting her content marketing job.

The distinction Hannah makes between art and advertising is not only a naive one (which is what the show is demonstrating) but it’s also an unrealistic and harmful one, too – something I’ve only begun to realize myself.

Last weekend, Northwestern University’s MFA graduate program put on an event called “The Working Writer.” Among topics like how to get involved in the local literary community and start a freelance writing career, one consistent underlying takeaway was that the idea of a “writer writer” as Hannah put it is an illusion.

Or, as the panelists put it:

  • “If you’re a writer, you’re always a writer, no matter what job you do”
  • The classic advice – “don’t quit your day job”
  • “Having a job sets you free and allows you to write”
  • “I wrote my MFA thesis on the Brown Line train"
  • “You can’t create if you’re constantly struggling”

All of the panelists had published work and were what anyone would call “serious” writers. Yet, they, too, are competing for copywriting positions to write Crate & Barrel catalogues, law firm marketing materials, and posts for brands’ blogs.

A job, no matter how unrelated to creative writing, shouldn’t be viewed as an impediment; it’s the permission to spend hours of your day creating something for which you might never be compensated or at least not to the level of the personal satisfaction you will have gained.

Anyone who’s pursued a career in creative writing or the arts realizes this, yet then why do we keep fighting against it?

Are our jobs, or the type of job, just another excuse as to why we haven’t written a page in weeks? Right up there with the “I’m too busy” or “I’m tired” defenses. Or, is it the hope that we’re somehow different? That our success, when it happens, will be longer lasting and eliminate the need to “work for the man?”

Rather than wishing for different circumstances, we should make the most of our current situations. Keep taking the man’s money, but do something interesting with it.

-Christopher Brooks is the author of The Gertrude Threshold: A Novella, which is published by Ragged Right Media and available on Amazon starting at $0.99.