Don’t give up the day job

My fingers are on the wrong keys. They should be over to the right, punching in numbers and tallying totals. Instead, they’re over here, writing.

I love words, rolling them around for mouth-feel and making pretty shapes with them on a page. I even call myself a writer. But the reality is my day job involves numbers.

I’ve been doing the books for the family business for fifteen years. The phrase ‘doing the books’ suggests something exciting, like group sex in a library or a steamy Latin dance. Au contraire mon frère. The job is  dull. There’s none of the zing that comes from crafting a cunning sentence; just row after row of transactions looking for a home in income, expenses, equities or liabilities.

It’s not all bad. Sometimes, just for fun, I do a few general journal entries. I also have a great relationship with my accountant. I send her witty emails when I’m bored and my fingers wander to the left.

I have clever software to help me keep track and I’ve been at it for so long I have codes and shortcuts programmed to make the job faster. Despite these props, for some reason this quarter’s tax return is even more stubborn than usual. It just refuses to get done. Which is a problem, because it was due a month ago. While my good friends at the Australian Taxation Office are tolerant, this margin of error will probably test their patience. I must get on with it, if only because the quiet tick-tock of the fading deadline clock keeps me awake at night and stems my creative juices.

So I’ve pulled out the bank statements and am staring at the columns of numbers. I enter them into their boxes: a transaction fee assigned to bank charges; parking, petrol and conference fees given a home; and a museum visit stuffed into miscellaneous – a shady, bloated column to be discussed with the cardholder over dinner. And with every filing decision, every stab at a numbered key, I wonder how I got here.

Doing the books source: Ken Teegardin via Flickr

Doing the books source: Ken Teegardin via Flickr

As a student, the only books I ever wanted to ‘do’ held words, not numbers. Somewhere along life’s complicated journey, this bookkeeping job fell into my lap and now refuses to budge. This is tiresome, because now that I’m a grown up I’ve decided I want to write. Increasingly I resent doing anything else, such as showering, feeding my family and most definitely ‘doing the books’. But what if the resentment stems more from the job description than the distraction factor? Perhaps I don’t feel I’m an authentic writer unless I spend every waking moment playing with words.

Hmm. Let’s look at a few established authors to see how a real writer spends their day.

Christos Tsolkias, author of eight novels including TV-adapted The Slap and Barracuda, didn’t just set up shop one day as a wordsmith. After graduating in 1987 from the University of Melbourne with an arts degree, where he edited the student newspaper Farrago, Tsolkias spent almost nine years working as a vet nurse to pay the bills. Author Steven Amsterdam had been writing for decades before getting his first book contract, the same year he graduated nursing. He continues to write while holding down a day job in palliative care. I wonder how he introduces himself at parties, novelist or nurse?

Scratch the veneer of literature’s greats to find similar stories. Franz Kafka? He was an insurance clerk. T.S. Eliot wrote poetry while moonlighting as a bank Johnny.

These writers haven’t lingered in libraries or propped up cafe walls doodling away at their manuscripts. They had (and have) day jobs. This double life may be because writing doesn’t pay the rent. It might also be because a day job gives them space to think, an occupational muse to be mined for literary gold.

Cafe de Flore source: lemonde2015 via Flickr

If writing is a muscle which needs to be worked to get stronger, then that muscle is also part of a more complex anatomy. Life may be a frustrating hindrance at times, but it’s also the bones on which the writing muscle hangs; it’s the undercarriage to every shiny flight of fancy.

My dull day job contributes significantly to the family economy. While it means I’m a less prolific writer, it doesn’t stop me from being authentic. And at least with the day job I know when it’s finished.

So I’m letting go of the resentment. Perhaps less moaning and more movement across the numbered keys and the task will be done. Then, I can doff my cap to the ATO for the quarter, have a quiet wine to celebrate and stay up past midnight transcribing my latest interview. Because that’s what writers do.

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Angela Bensted is Brisbane-based freelance writer who likes to listen first and struggle with syntax later. She pitches stories to magazines, sometimes successfully, and helps businesses produce compelling copy for print and online.

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