Side Gigs for the Nonfiction 99 Percent

Unless you’ve recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature or your name is Malcolm Gladwell, chances are that you, like me, need to supplement your writing income. Sadly, unimaginative landlords will not accept prose as payment, no matter how convincing a case we make. Before—and sometimes even after—their book sales could support them, certain big-name nonfiction writers have had full-fledged careers in other fields: Among them are teachers (Frank McCourt), doctors (Abraham Verghese) and psychologists (Lauren Slater). Many more of us try to cobble together a living with second (and third and fourth) jobs that won’t take us away from our keyboards for the entire day. Here, five nonfiction writers offer insight into the relationship between their writing and some unconventional past and present jobs.


Anna McDonald
Published in The New York Times, Food & Wine, Time Out New York. Also buys and sells 20th-century Danish and American silver:

I’m attracted to silver because it’s not textual. It’s not teaching or editing, more typical side jobs for writers. It’s using my visual skills, contrapuntal to thinking about writing. All objects have narratives so there is a detective element, which I like. And it reminds me that, as with my own writing, which gravitates toward the personal essay, all stories are partial. The other way my silver work is like my writing is that I can stand behind it—and I’m shy. I can let the beautiful thing speak for itself.

Jon Irwin
Published in Billboard Magazine, Alimentum, Monkeybicycle.net, Kill Screen. Has also driven an ice cream truck, pedaled a pedicab and worked as a stock boy:

Both the stock boy and pedicab jobs were monotonous and physical; the repetitive, non-thinking nature of each was a much needed respite from sitting in a chair and trying to write. Sometimes, I’d think of a new idea during the slog of pedaling or cutting cardboard; sometimes, I’d think of nothing at all. Upon returning, I’d be rested and ready to churn out some paragraphs. Side jobs (or jobs in general) don’t just help me make a living; they are living. It’s like what Benjamin Franklin once said: “Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing.” The former is hard, almost impossible. So I try the latter. And hope I get lucky.

Katherine Jamieson
Published in Meridian, Narrative, The Best Travel Writing 2011. Also manages Mister G—a children’s musician and the writer’s husband:

There’s a lot of room for creativity in how we run and promote the business. Sometimes, I help him write or develop songs, and there’s always a lot of e-mails, grants, newsletters, etc. The skills I’ve developed as a journalist are also very helpful with booking, i.e. I’m not afraid to cold call almost anyone. Nonetheless, it’s tough to balance this work with my writing. I also love college teaching, but I find that it also takes up all my time if I’m committed to helping students really improve. Freelancing for magazines is a middle ground because you can make money and continue writing, though, of course, you don’t have as much say over your subjects or the copy that ends up being published. Sometimes, I think the smartest writers have day jobs completely unrelated to writing, and I often fantasize about these career paths: chef, farmer, dog trainer. …

Adam Theron-Lee Rensch
Published in Glimmer Train and Copper Nickel; contributed a six-word memoir to “The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure.” Has also been a campus hall director, indie record store worker and personal assistant to the writer Nick Flynn:

Maybe this is a cliché, or maybe I’m just remarkably obsessive, but I have to be scheduled. Opening a document on my computer is like setting off some kind of traumatic memory explosion, and if I don’t force myself to write for a certain amount of time every day, I basically curl into a ball and do nothing except think about all the things I should be writing. I always say, “If only I had more money, I could write all the time,” which I’m not sure is true. The reality is that, at least in my world, 90 percent of my writing happens when I’m not thinking about it.

Mira Ptacin
Published in New York, The Morning News, Anderbo; Founder of the Freerange Nonfiction Reading Series. Has also walked a dog that was a famous painter (you read that right):

I was new to New York City when a friend of a friend heard I was walking dogs and asked if I could walk his Jack Russell terrier. He would put transfer paper onto a canvas, set it down on the ground, and the dog would go apeshit, scratching away at it like crazy. The result was an abstract (and attractive) image. Soon after I started walking the dog, I learned she was invited to become a member of the National Arts Club. Most recently, I had a ghostwriting gig. I wrote a kids’ book. It was pretty hard on my ego to have the first book I ever had published by a mainstream publisher be one I can’t tell people about. It was even harder when it became a New York Times best seller. These past jobs made me ask myself if I write because I love it and have to or if I write because I want to get credit.