Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor. He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.
“Hi Adam! I’m just finishing at Uni and I know I want to be a writer. I also know that it’s probably not realistic for me to expect to make money doing this for a while. I’m looking for work, but haven’t decided what’s best to support my writing. What do you think is the best day job for someone who wants to be a writer? Thanks!”
This seems like a really difficult question to answer at first glance because there are millions of different types of jobs out there. You’re ambitious, you’re young, you’ve got a degree; you should be able to take your pick in the job market.
However, in reality there are a number of limiting factors to your job search. You’ll have to consider how you want your day job to relate to your writing (if at all). You’ll have to decide if the day job is just to pay the bills while you gamble your entire future on writing plays, or if you want a Plan B job which gives you a fall-back career in case the writing doesn’t pay off. You’ll have to decide if you want extra networking opportunities from the day job, or if you’d prefer to keep it separate from your theatrical identity.
Then there are factors which are beyond your control, to some extent at least. In a highly competitive job market, with more graduates than ever before, it’s unlikely you’ll be privileged enough to walk right into your ideal position.
So what’s an aspiring playwright to do?
A popular choice of day job for people looking to work in any creative area of theatre is the front of house route. Working for a theatre makes sense right? If you have to earn money to put food in your mouth, you may as well make contacts and see shows while you’re there.
There are obvious advantages to working in a theatre; you’re in the thick of it, you’ll meet people and get opportunities you simply wouldn’t have access to as a barman in your local pub. If you want to make it as a playwright you’ll also want to watch a lot of plays, and if you’re working in a small theatre you should have the opportunity to do so, either for free or heavily discounted.
Another advantage to working in a theatre is that the hours are generally fairly flexible, and the management tend to be understanding (from what I’ve heard) when you get a last-minute opportunity and need a day off. Also, you probably won’t be doing a lot of writing for your day job, meaning you’ll be saving all that creative energy for writing at home.
So working in a theatre sounds ideal right? It depends. If you’re willing to gamble your entire future on the success of your writing career, yes, it’s a pretty good option. But what about those pragmatists among us who want to hedge our bets? If you don’t succeed as a writer, does a supporting role in theatre offer a job for life? Is it secure employment? Can you see yourself happily selling tickets for the next forty years? What about career progression? How much will you earn at the top end?
Obviously money isn’t everything, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from taking this route. Have confidence in your writing by all means, but at least consider the fact it may not work out. What will you do at the age of thirty-five when you realise you’re just not making it as a playwright and your only other skill is pouring a large glass of interval wine?
The alternative to working in theatre is working absolutely anywhere else. The immediately obvious drawback to this option is that you won’t get any of the networking opportunities you would have working within the industry. Does that mean you should discount this route though? I personally don’t think so.
Working in another industry has its own benefits too. You’ll have real-world experiences and meet everyday people, both of which can be great sources of inspiration when you sit down to write at the end of the day. I’ve also found personally that not thinking about theatre at all during the day gives my brain a much-needed rest, and I can attack the page with renewed vigour when I do have some spare time to write at home.
If you choose your alternate career wisely, you may have more opportunities in terms of career development as well. There’s no reason you can’t have a successful career in banking, marketing, fundraising, bricklaying or any number of other professions as well as writing plays. As long as you’re motivated enough to keep writing outside work it’s a definite option. If you do become successful as a writer you can always put your other career on hold or drop it completely.
Depending on the alternate career path you choose, you may also earn a lot more than you would selling interval ice creams. Again, while money isn’t important to everyone, consider whether you might want to get married, buy a house or even just own a reliable car in a few years’ time. There’s no guarantee you will be able to do these things whichever job you get, but if a comfortable lifestyle is important to you make sure potential earnings are part of your decision making.
Also, you always have the option of investing some of that hard-earned cash back into your theatrical projects down the line.
Of course, there are downsides to working a full-time job too. You may have to work extremely hard to carve out a career in your chosen field, making it difficult to muster up the energy for your writing job after-hours. You may find working overtime, socialising with colleagues and answering emails at home all eat into your writing time. You may end up hating the job you take and find it slowly eats away at your soul until one day you find yourself staring down into your breakfast cereal contemplating whether the milk’s deep enough to drown yourself in.
I guess what I’m saying here is if you decide to pursue a second career outside of theatre, give it some serious thought as to what you do. Consider whether you’ll get any enjoyment or satisfaction from working in this field. Think about whether you’ll be wanting to do this in thirty to forty years’ time. Investigate potential career progression and top-end earnings in the industry. And of course, be realistic; are you qualified, and are they hiring?
There’s one more thing that’s definitely worth thinking about if you’re looking for a second job, either within or outside the theatre industry; do you want to write in this job? There are two schools of thought here. The first group believe that all writing of any kind counts as practice, whether you’re writing a storyboard for a promotional video or a health and safety risk assessment for erecting a scaffold.
Then there are those who believe you have a limited amount of creative energy at your disposal which has to be carefully protected. This group of people insist any kind of writing done during a day job will deplete your reserves and leave your creative tank empty by the time you sit down to write at home.
Personally I don’t have any issues with writing at work. I work in marketing and, while what I’m writing isn’t always that creative, some imagination has to go into it. I am generally creating something out of nothing, even if it’s writing content for an instructional webpage. At the same time, I don’t really think of my work as good practice, because although I’m writing, it is different enough to be almost totally unrelated to writing a play.
You’ll have to make up your own mind on this one.
In conclusion, this is a big decision to make and I have to urge you to put some serious thought into it. However, we do live in an age when people seem to change jobs and even careers at the drop of a hat. Don’t let this keep you awake at night, weigh up your options and make the best choice for you now. You can always change course later.
The one thing I will say is that you should try to pick something you can tolerate at the very least. Waking up filled with dread at what awaits you in the office will shorten your life and make you miserable. And depression isn’t the best state of mind for creative writing either.
Just remember, you don’t have to love your job, but you do have to keep going.
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