Monday, September 30, 2013

Why Having a Day Job Is Good for the Creativity

Ruth Brown Snyder
Ruth Brown Snyder. In the electric chair.
If this doesn't creep you out,
I don't know what will.
Have you ever seen a photo of a woman being executed in the electric chair? You have now. But what do this woman, a day job, and the life of a working writer have in common?

I'll tell you.

I work full time, with an hour commute each way. All told, my time is not my own from 6:40 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. 

That's a lot of time that I can't control or do anything with. 

So when I start complaining, it's almost always about not having enough time to write new books and market existing books. I'm deeply, deeply jealous of writer friends who don't work and can spend all day toiling over marketing plans and promoting their books. I can't. And while this feels like a huge disadvantage most days, I'm trying to look on the bright side. 

So I found three ways my day job makes me a better writer.

1. Money. As Dean Koontz wrote in How to Write Best Selling Fiction, "Money is freedom; money is time; money is fame; money is respect; money is a yardstick of many things, but most of all, money is money." I have bills. Lots of them. So devoting 11+ hours a day to being able to pay them is not only necessary, but it helps my mental state remain unstressed and clear for writing. 

If all I'm doing is worrying about the electricity getting shut off or the car repossessed, I'm not going to give a crap about made-up people or worlds. In that respect, having a day job makes my non-office time all about what I want to do. I'm not looking for a job, stressing out, or drifting between friends, hoping someone will feed me for free. Every minute off the clock is spent planning, dreaming, or doing. Yes, you could argue that a true writer writes no matter what. But even true writers really need to eat. Plus, getting foreclosed would make it really hard to charge my laptop. 

Most Interesting man in the World
2. SEO and social media knowledge. I'm a writer. But I also know a bit about SEO. And a bit about social media. I read most of the big SEO blogs and have two monitors at work, where the good folks of Google+ scroll by all day long, presenting helpful insider tips for me on marketing, social media, writing, self-publishing, and of course, life insurance. I file all that knowledge away in my brain (and, if my brain fails, Evernote) for the day when I have the time to unleash it. 

I wouldn't have been forced to learn as much about social media as I have without this job. I resisted it pretty heavily until my paycheck became partly dependent on it. I still resist it in part...I refuse to get a smartphone (no Instagram for me, folks). At the same time, I have license to check every network there is, absorb as much knowledge as I can, and learn as much as I can to deploy on command and for my own benefit (after hours, of course). I have more weapons at my disposal than I did before I had this job. In this world, marketing is everything. And I'm so much better at it now than I was before, when I thought marketing was posting a new book on this blog.

3. The occasional stranger-than-fiction story that falls in my lap. I write about life insurance, all day every day. To make sure I have something new to say, I have to dig into some pretty weird stories. One weird story involves the woman in the picture, Ruth Brown Snyder. I was writing a blog post about the movie Double Indemnity, where life insurance fraud is a plot point. Come to find out, the movie is based on a novella by James M. Cain, who based the story on a real-life insurance fraud case.

Check this shit out. 

Ruth Brown Snyder was married to Albert Snyder, but having an affair with Henry Judd Gray. She told Gray that she wanted to convince her husband to get a life insurance policy and then kill him. Getting the husband to get a policy worked just fine. But she made seven (count 'em!) unsuccessful attempts to kill Albert before she and Gray decided to try something different. They garrotted Albert and made it look like a home invasion robbery. 

But there's some backstory you also need to know before we proceed. Why did Ruth want to kill Albert? It might have been because he made no secret of his real love, a woman named Jessie Guishard who died before she and Albert could be married. He loved her for years, which, you know, probably made Ruth feel awesome about herself. This guy talked about Jessie, kept her portrait on the wall, named his boat after her, and referred to her as "the finest woman I have ever met." I kinda feel for Ruth on this one. 

Anyway, so the cops are investigating this supposed home invasion gone wrong. They think it's kind of weird that nothing actually went missing. When they found a paper with "J.G." on it, they asked Ruth who "J.G." was. Ruth asks them what Judd Gray (her lover) has to do with anything. But the cops weren't referring to Gray. They were referring to one of Albert's papers with "J.G." on it--Jesse Guishard. So Ruth just handed them her lover's name. (Way to go, Ruth.) Once the cops started looking at the name Ruth dropped, they put two and two together.

Ruth and Gray were arrested, tried, and found guilty of murder. Both were sentenced to death via the electric chair. Of course, all photography of the execution was forbidden. But reporter Tom Howard was from Chicago (not New York) and knew he wouldn't be recognized as a reporter on the scene. He rigged up a weird leg camera that would take pictures without anyone knowing. He snapped his shot, and it was plastered all over the front page of newspapers the next day. The photo was described as one of the most famous images of the 1920s. The camera Howard used to take the shot is now in the Smithsonian.

James M. Cain was a reporter at the time of this trial. He wasn't covering it, but it was big news at the time. (Who did cover it? Mary Roberts Rinehart, D.W. Griffith, and Damon Runyan). When he wrote his novella, Double Indemnity, he interviewed some insurance agents in L.A. One told him,  "All the big crime mysteries in this country are locked up in insurance company files, and the writer that gets wise to that...is going to make himself rich."

Money: Y U No Grow on Trees
Guess I'll keep the day job.
Until the whole money tree thing happens.
So, not only did I find this incredible quote and this wacked-out story, I now have an idea for a short story of my own. And I got it because of my day job. 

Serendipitous, yes? 

The lesson here is that no matter how unrelated your day job seems, if you're a writer, it's feeding your brain. It's feeding your bank account. It's putting ideas and experiences in front of you that you might not have otherwise. Process them, and then use them in the work you want to do.