Writer in Residence

What is your real job?

By Jowita Bydlowska


Writing novels, I knew from the beginning, was going to be tricky when it came to making $$$$ but I was, of course, going to write an instant bestseller and live in a mansion with six poodles. The reality is, kids, that being an author is not a $$$$-making endeavour; it is a luxury.  Let me explain. “How is work?” my mother asked me the other day. I was confused because I still associate “work” with having an actual job and currently, I am looking for a job because writing doesn’t seem to pay the bills. The words for “job” and “work” are the same in Polish. I decided she was asking me about what I was working on—a lot of writing gigs, most of which don’t pay the bills; in fact, some don’t pay anything at all: a book proposal, rewrites of a novel, an outline for another book…none of this pays until I sell one of those babies to a publisher and that’s a whole other story, how difficult is to do that. Maybe we’ll talk about that later. Anyway. For now, if I’m lucky, I get a paying assignment because I also work as a freelance journalist so there’s some money in that but not a lot. (Recently, I got paid $300 for a 1,000-word article that took me a week to write, for a newspaper.) (When I went to journalism school one of my professors said, “If you want to work as a journalist, you should marry rich.” I thought she was ridiculous—because back then journalism was still a job you could get.)

After journalism school, I got my first writing gig working for a shady Search-Engine-Optimization (SEO) company where we produced articles about real estate (we wrote about small US towns, for instance, which none of us have ever been to), car tires, dentures, plastic surgery and also fake profiles for a site called “Hot or Not.” It was a blast (not) and every morning we would ask each other, “How are you?” to which the answer was always, “I’m trying not to die.” We were given lists of words that were searchable and some of those words were “goats,” “bathtub,” “sex,” “Britney Spears” and you had to incorporate that shit into your articles. Have fun. But if you met your quota at that place, there was time to write novels, which is what I did in secret. My second job was for a magazine and there was no time to write anything other than perhaps your will because we worked so hard I sometimes really did wonder if I was going to die from exhaustion. Some shifts were 9 am till midnight and no overtime pay. Fun. Third job was also writing and because I was a machine of turning out articles by then, I did have a lot of downtime during which I wrote my own stuff. Not a lot of it though I did thank my supervisor in acknowledgments of my first book because I remember distinctly writing chapter three while in my cubicle.

The point is, I was never in the position where writing what I really want to be writing—novels and short stories—sustained my existence. I had some generous family members who have helped a lot during the times of financial crisis but I’ve never not had the anxiety over how I was going to make it to the next month while trying to work on a book. I know of very few authors whose only job is writing books. Most of us have to have other jobs: teaching, freelance writing for newspapers or magazines, copywriting, working in bookstores, working as security guards, working as sex workers, waitressing…

I have no idea if any of those bright and hopeful souls entering Creative Writing programs actually believe they’re going to live off the riches of book royalties but if they do, God bless them and marry rich, kids (don’t do your profs—they are probably teaching because they want to write novels).

I don’t mean to be a downer—it’s only Monday, things are by default pretty bleak—but for the most part, being an author means a lot of sacrifice, some real soul-killing (“trying not to die” is a good adage if you’re in the SEO machine), sometimes major toothache (literally—you don’t get medical benefits just because you made The Globe and Mail bestseller list) and a lot of grit, perseverance and lack of sleep (I’ve written while taking care of a baby and working—before going to work and after baby would go to bed). Do I write because I’m stupid? Yes. No. It’s because I have no idea why I do it. Right now, I should be looking for work. Writing is a luxury that I can’t afford.

I did a small survey on Facebook and here’s a list of more jobs that some of my author friends have done besides basking in the glamour of creative writing: Bookselling, teaching, corporate writing, selling antiques, doughnuts, cleaning offices, washing dishes, working at the Chrysler mini van plant in Windsor, bilingual tour guide in a museum, gardening, rug cleaning, resume writing, catering, working at a weird call centre, copywrting, teaching, applying for grants, map folder, etc.

P.S. Haven’t read any short stories in The New Yorker recently but I’m reading Max by Sarah Cohen-Stali which is told from the point of a view of a Nazi fetus (later, he is a child) and which will blow your mind and I also finished The Idiot by Elif Batuman, which is so freaking funny, look: “Before that summer, I knew almost nothing about the Beatles. (…) I really thought I could go through my whole life that way. But the Beatles turned out to be one of the things you couldn’t avoid, like alcohol or death.”


image by: Hugleikur Dagsson

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Jowita Bydlowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, and moved to Canada as a teen. She is the author of the bestselling memoir Drunk Mom. A journalist and fiction writer, she lives in Toronto, Canada.