The delusion of the day job, according to one of the world’s greatest novelists

At least it pays.
At least it pays.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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The French author Gustave Flaubert found le seul mot juste to describe the idea of keeping a day job: A “delusion.”  

Proving that the debate about whether it’s better to make a buck doing anything by day and write poetry or throw pottery by night has been unsettled for more than 150 years, Open Culture recently published an excerpt from one of Flaubert’s letters to his mother on the very topic.

Flaubert, for the unfamiliar, is the author of Madame Bovary, published in 1857, among other works. He has been called the “great apostle of le mot juste,” or using the exact right word, for his insistence that authors strive for just that, never settling for the close-enough.

In his missive to mom dated February 23, 1850, he makes an impassioned case against taking “a small job,” which his mother had recommended, apparently repeatedly, in her correspondence with him.

(“You are never at a loss of things to torment yourself about,” he says in his opening.)

His argument begins with some, perhaps phony, self-doubt:

What is the sense of this: that I must have a job — “a small job,” you say. First of all, what job? I defy you to find me one, to specify in what field, or what it would be like. Frankly, and without deluding yourself, is there a single one that I am capable of filling?

Then the writer moves on to the real delusion: that he’ll still have time for his art. His experience has taught him otherwise.

You add: “One that wouldn’t take up much of your time and wouldn’t prevent you from doing other things.” There’s the delusion! That’s what Bouilhet told himself when he took up medicine, what I told myself when I began law, which nearly brought about my death from suppressed rage.

Next comes a plea for what today’s productivity geniuses might call “deep work,” or the flow state, before Flaubert focuses on the specifics of his personality and economic situation:

When one does something, one must do it wholly and well. Those bastard existences where you sell suet all day and write poetry at night are made for mediocre minds — like those horses equally good for saddle and carriage — the worst kind, that can neither jump a ditch nor pull a plow.

In short, it seems to me that one takes a job for money, for honors, or as an escape from idleness. Now you’ll grant me, darling, (1) that I keep busy enough not to have to go out looking for something to do; and (2) if it’s a question of honors, my vanity is such that I’m incapable of feeling myself honored by anything: a position, however high it might be (and that isn’t the kind you speak of) will never give me the satisfaction that I derive from my self-respect when I have accomplished something well in my own way; and finally, if it’s for money, any jobs or job that I could have would bring in too little to make much difference to my income. Weigh all these considerations: don’t knock your head against a hollow idea.

Finally, in a brilliant move that the editors of The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1830-1857 write may have won over his mother, he reminds her that a day job could also mean moving away:

Is there any position in which I’d be closer to you, more yours? And isn’t not to be bored one of the principal goals of life?

Flaubert’s letter, while beautiful in style, may irk defenders of day jobs as a necessity. The fact is Flaubert, while a genius, had something else going for him: His mother was a doctor’s daughter and his father a surgeon with some distinction—who also made a small fortune in real estate.

People of lesser means have had to prove to themselves that it’s possible to be pragmatic and artistic, to pay the rent and bang out a novel or screenplay, or run between auditions. Authors Franz Kafka and Harper Lee (hardly mediocre minds) held day jobs, as an insurance clerk and an airline ticket agent, respectively. Jennifer Egan, the Brooklyn author of A Visit From The Goon Squad temped in Manhattan.

A few years ago, comedy writer Sara Benincasa argued in a popular essay for Medium that you’re an artist if you make art, no matter what else you do in your day. “When I was 23, I decided to become a high school teacher in order to support myself as a writer,” she explains. “And so I taught high school in the Southwest and no one published anything I wrote, though I tried to convince them it was a good idea.”

She was a real writer then, she states, before continuing to list other random day jobs:

I was also a real writer when I was a paralegal working at a law firm in Chelsea specializing in immigration for fashion models. I was a real writer when I worked at a publishing company in the South Bronx, in a neighborhood so violent we were required to sign out of work no later than 4 p.m. so that we could reach the subway before nightfall (there had been an assault and a murder a few years back, so the company was cautious). I was a real writer when I worked at a fancy pet boutique on the Upper East Side, where customers spent upwards of $300 on luxurious cat beds and eccentric women came into the shop pushing puppies in prams.

Still, if you can better relate to Flaubert’s suppressed rage than Benincasa’s cheer, it may have something to do with your own disposition.

We know that creative pursuits are rarely successful on “clock time,” according to scholars who study time and the way we experience it. Western culture is synced with the clock to maximize efficiency, especially at work, where we believe time is money. (On clock time, a conversation ends at a prescribed hour, even if the topic has not been thoroughly dissected.)

But this way of living is frustrating to people who live on “event time,” and thus who allow events to occur according to a natural rhythm. Event time types eat when they’re hungry, not when their watch tells them to, Tamar Avnet, a professor of marketing at Yeshiva University in New York told Quartz at Work. And most creative types and creative pursuits are better suited to an event time mentality, making day jobs an obtrusion on one’s mental space.

For what it’s worth, George Saunders, the American author of, most recently, Lincoln in the Bardo, sides with Flaubert on this topic. Make something beautiful to you, he tells writing students. “Otherwise you’re putting the cart before the horse, and it’s very possible that the emphasis on making a living (or being viable, or commercial, etc etc) might cause you to miss a vital path,” he once said, ”to be, that is, both (a) lame and (b) unpublished.”

Then again, in his early days, he found a way to write while working at an engineering firm, an albeit risky approach to avoid the day job delusion trap.