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Creative writers can be difficult to detect during job interviews

31 December 2011

From author coach and editor Mary W. Walters:

Until now, one entire class of worker has been overlooked in these analyses [of how to successfully manage employees]: the undercover writers—to be specific, those poets, dramatists and creators of literary fiction and non-fiction who have for one reason or another eschewed careers in academe, and whose parents and/or spouses and/or children are no longer willing to support them. Unable to make a living from creative enterprise, they have been forced to conceal their true vocations in order to seek employment among the rank and file.

The men and women who make up this segment of the workplace population are intelligent and crafty, and they have very little to lose. Indeed they could be dangerous if they worked together—but fortunately it is not their disposition to operate in groups.

. . . .

Creative writers can be difficult to detect during job interviews. Over time, many of them have built entire careers as fallback positions for their art, some even having acquired degrees in interesting areas of specialization like astrophysics or early-Victorian stage design. As result, they can be found not only in writing-related occupations, but in fields that range from railway maintenance to health care. However, they have learned that it does not suit their short-term goals to explain to job-selection committees that they intend to support a highly time-consuming writing vocation, quite aside from themselves and any dependents they may have, on the proceeds of the position for which they are applying.

If you suspect, perhaps through a particularly insightful or well phrased passage in the cover letter, or a rhymed couplet tucked into the resume itself, that you have a writer on your short-list, there is, admittedly, a fairly easy way to find out: you can Google the candidate.

. . . .

Here is the dilemma: if you do discover that you have a writer on your short-list, what do you do with that information? Do you share it with your fellow selection-committee members and run the risk of predisposing the outcome of the job-search process in favor of the writer? For despite the overwhelming evidence that no one is reading literature any more, there is still a cachet to having a literary writer on one’s staff; consequently the imaginations of many of your employees, including perhaps those on your selection committee (perhaps—admit it—even yours?) will be caught by the thought of hiring a “real writer.”

. . . .

Human-relations managers are generally relieved to hear that although poets are very different from fiction writers, and playwrights from nonfiction writers, literary artists of all genres do share certain basic characteristics that can be used to identify them in employment settings. Here are the most essential:

1. Writers are grateful: Particularly in the first few weeks and months after you have hired them, you will find them almost inordinately appreciative that you have given them a job, This is partly because after what has typically been an extended but futile period of full-time writing, they really do believe that they want to hang out with other people rather than doing battle every day with their solitary nightmares. Primarily, however, they are grateful for your company’s dental plan and optical coverage, and for the opportunity to buy orthotics;

. . . .

3. Writers suffer from attacks of inspiration. The first suspicion that a writer may be present in a workplace frequently occurs when such individuals leap to their feet in the middle of meetings and rush off to a washroom with expressions that suggest they have been possessed. Supervisors unused to working with writers frequently assume that such employees are displaying symptoms of alcohol abuse or drug dependency (which may also be the case, but that is not the subject of this article). However, follow-up often reveals these individuals to be crouched in toilet stalls not for the purpose of tipping back or shooting up, but in order to scribble messages to themselves. These are not mere “notes” – not grocery lists: they may in fact be outlines of award-winning short stories or scenes from future Broadway hits—or, indeed, entire sonnets;

4. Writers are subject to mood swings: Varying from mild to intense, these episodes are similar to the clinical descriptions of bipolar disorder or other pathological conditions (which may also be a problem, but are not covered in this article). Normally writer-related mood swings can be distinguished from treatable syndromes by the brevity of the highs (usually occasioned by having mailed off a story to a magazine, producer or publisher) followed by the protraction of the lows;

. . . .

The Fiction Writer

Writers of fiction who are in the grip of a creative project can seem absent-minded and even at times downright demented. They will come into the office after a weekend of writing or at the end of a creatively productive lunch-hour with no idea of the names of the people with whom they work (nor, indeed, at times, those to whom they are married or have given birth), and also uncertain of the month, the year, and especially the time of day. They may be unclear as to what city they are in, or even which country—and, in the case of speculative-fiction writers, what planet they are on. It is important for their co-workers and managers to realize that this phenomenon results from the fact that the world inside the writer’s head has temporarily become more real to him or her than you are. Please be assured that fiction writers do know the difference between the fictional world and the real one. Given a little nudge or a long, mystified look, they will return in an instant from an icy December day in 18th-century Croatia, take off their several sweaters, and be ready to add their two cents’ worth to the afternoon’s budget meeting.

. . . .

The managers who are most successful with writers on their staffs are those who recognize that 1) the writers do not want to be there and think they will be leaving at any moment, and 2) the writers are not going anywhere. The careful containment of managerial aspirations in regard to writer-employee advancement, combined with tactful accommodation of employee-writers’ dreams regarding their imminent fame and fortune, can lead to symbiotic relationships that will benefit everyone.

Link to the rest at The Militant Writer


Books in General

9 Comments to “Creative writers can be difficult to detect during job interviews”

  1. This article is laugh-out-loud funny. I’m sending a copy of the OP to my boss, who manages a whole roomful of these odd creatures, poor man.

    • A roomful of writers doing something other than talking about writing is a terrifying prospect, Bridget.

  2. This particular roomful writes AND talks about writing, all day long, and on Quiz Night at the pub, even longer. I believe we are a bit terrifying, but we also look forward to going to work of a morning. Sadly, that’s more than I can say about most folks.

  3. Oh my god, that is funny and terrifyingly accurate! I especialy love her line about about non-fiction writers being as close to normal human beings while still be writers. Hilarious! It’s also a comfort to realize I’m not the only weirdo around.

  4. Run out of a meeting to make notes? Ridiculous!

    A true writer never goes anywhere without something to make notes on. In a work environment, the other employees and managers become accustomed to seeing you constantly with sticky notes or notepads. Even in meetings.

    An idea comes in the meeting? Well, you already have all your sticky notes and notepads. Start scribbling furiously. The head of the company or the head of the meeting will see you taking notes on the ‘meeting’. Oh, nice, an employee paying attention and really getting something out of the meeting while everyone else is falling asleep! This employee is going places! We might think of giving them a raise or a promotion…

    Meanwhile, you are actually writing out the rules of Faster Than Light for a new novel, or how the Protag can get out of the trap the Antog set up without losing a limb or their life.

    Ahh, the life of a undercover writer! :D

    • That was my strategy.I always took my day planner, because it made me look amazingly organized. Sometimes I even took notes on the meeting, because who knows what the next book will include? Everything becomes grist in the mill of the writer.

  5. A lawyer I worked for told me he thought I had left my position because I needed something more creative than the drudgery I did for him. I had actually enjoyed working as a paralegal, but I’d often been tempted to embellish appellate briefs with fictional details and bits of purple prose just to liven things up.

  6. Aside from my varied experience and the memory and processing capacity of my writer brain, my longest-term employer found he liked to exploit my ability to spell more than any other talent. He would frequently interrupt the high-pressure multi-tasking work (simple duties for those with mutant writing superpowers) that he insisted required my utmost attention, to ask me how to spell some eight-letter word in our native language (English)that he had decided he just had to put into his latest letter/email.

    In the years I worked for him, he never managed to impress me intellectually, as a businessman, as a manager, as a leader or, sadly, even as a human being.

  7. Ha, this did make me laugh. Especially since I recognise myself in it, and I’m not old enough to have a job. I’m the one sitting at the back of the Maths room frantically writing on my arms because I can’t find any paper to write down this AWESOME IDEA I’VE JUST HAD. Teachers are also used to me walking into the classroom looking shell shocked because I just killed off a character during my lunch break.

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