There are writers who make a full-time living from writing. Then there are the rest of us. There are those who grab temp jobs and wait on tables and tend bar so that they can devote as much free time as possible to the next great work, and there are those of us who have a full-time career and write on the side.
I am a public defender with the Legal Aid Society in New York City. I’ve been doing it since 1984. And I write on the side. My first published story came out in 1991, my first mystery novel in 1999. I’m now up to eight published mystery novels and fifteen published stories scattered across different genres. [Then there are the musicals, but that’s another story entirely.]
Now, my output is dwarfed by quite a few people, but those people don’t handle seven to eight hundred criminal cases every year. And the question I most often get from my two worlds is how do I manage to do both? Followed up by, are you crazy?
I would like to answer the questions in reverse order. Yes to the second. Writing is a compulsion. An addiction. It triggers endorphins and puts me into my happy place. When I approach the end of writing a novel, I tend to slow down, reluctant to leave the world I have created, to let go of the characters running around inside my head, doing such interesting and occasionally homicidal things to each other. When I have finished a project, I invariably experience something akin to post-partum depression, which can be cured by launching into the next project.
As for the how -- this is where the compulsiveness comes in handy. I try to write every day. The time of day has varied, usually according to my son’s sleeping and school hours. When he was small, I would write around nine at night. There was a sweet time when he was three when he insisted on going to sleep on the living room sofa while I typed away at my computer desk. I would pause when his breathing became regular and carry him to his bed, then come back and write until I was too tired. When he got older, he had to be out the door before 7:30 in the morning, and I had that hour to myself. In an hour, I could get two pages written. And nine months later, a book was born.
The day job is also conducive to research. Courts are inefficient. You spend hours sitting and waiting for a case to be called. While the hubbub does not let me get into a creative zone, it doesn’t prevent me from bringing along a book to read [say, a history of the vertical water-wheel, and yes, I own one], and a notebook to record facts, thoughts, and inspirations.
The other lawyers have come to tolerate these eccentricities, and respect, even envy, what I do. Scratch a lawyer, and you’ll often find a writer wannabe. [Actually, scratch a lawyer and he’ll sue your ass, so don’t do it.] There are a surprising number of lawyer/mystery authors. Most of them write about heroic mystery-solving lawyers.
I don’t write about lawyers, for the most part, and this is why I am able to do both. Writing, for me, is as much of an escape from the stresses of my daily life as reading is. As long as I have that happy, endorphin-ridden part of my brain to escape to, I can greet the dreck of the day job with equanimity. And the day job, which has its own spiritual rewards, also subsidizes the writing career. Each part of my life is unbalanced by itself, but together, they produce balance. A precarious balance, but balance nonetheless.
Would I quit the day job if the writing income suddenly took off? I honestly don’t know. My second published mystery, Jester Leaps In, was written during my only sabbatical from Legal Aid, which coincided with my wife going back to full-time work. I wrote six hours a day, picked up my son at the school bus stop, coached his Little League team, and finished the book in four months. It was one of the most enjoyable periods of my life. But I missed the camaraderie of my colleagues and the daily challenges of criminal law.