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Day Job

by Steven Utley

Relatively few freelance writers actually make enough money from their writing to live on nothing else; most of us have day jobs of some kind, and there is no shame in it this side of being an usher at a XXX movie house, or CEO of an imploded Fortune 500 company. In fact, many writers take pride — after the fact — in outlandish occupations by which they kept the wolf from the door. (One should always have a few grains of salt at hand, of course, for writers like to pad their résumés as much as anybody else.)

For my own part, I have not been an oyster pirate like Jack London, a cavalryman like Edgar Rice Burroughs, or a Pinkerton agent like Dashiell Hammett. I haven’t even sold newspapers on a street corner like Ray Bradbury — but did any of those fellows ever operate a vinyl extruder? If so, they certainly never spoke of it.

For the past several years I have been a running-dog lackey of capitalists: working for (but, at least, not in) a bank. Almost the first question I asked when I started the job was, “Am I going to learn more about banking than I really want to know?” I soon wound up in the department responsible for straightening out the glitches that attend modern banking just frequently enough to keep a dozen people busy eight hours a day, five days a week. I’m sure your bank doesn’t need nearly so many people, however.

Before embarking on a career in low finance, I was a thrall of a major state legislature and served it in the capacities of proofreader, cartographer, and writer of resolutions. These called on what I regarded as my strengths, yet I turned out to have the wrong mindset for the job. Assigned the task of composing a resolution designating an official state reptile, I thought immediately of our then-senior Congressman, who looked and acted like the evil twin of a turtle character in Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip.

Once disabused of that notion, though, I set to work researching and writing a piece about the real designee, the horned lizard. The result would have earned me an A from any middle-school science teacher, for I made sure to mention its ability to squirt blood from its eyes and also the threat posed to its very existence by chemical fertilizers.

Well, my boss took out the blood-squirting part because it was gross and the part about chemical fertilizers because it would offend farming constituencies, and finally he rewrote the whole thing at about the level of a Little Golden Book. It passed through both houses of the legislature with flying colors. My boss, unlike me, understood the audience, which is why he got to go on being the boss while I had to fall back on freelance writing until another day job came along.

Copyright © 2004 by Steven Utley

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