Use Your Day Job to Fuel Your Creativity
by Jesica Carson Davis
Being an obscure or emerging writer often means taking a day job while you submit your creations to lit mags, and sit and wait for that big break. However, being an artist who works outside of your creative field doesn’t have to be a death sentence for creativity. In my experiences, I’ve learned to make the dichotomy between the repetitive, dry writing I do all day and the weird, open, poetic things I write in mornings and on weekends, work for me. Navigating the gap between the two has enabled me to more effectively channel my creative energies for my personal output.
Those of us with jobs know that those jobs can help make us better writers, even when they aren’t related to academia. In fact, finding inspiration for our creativity isn’t limited to those working in writing fields. Day jobs outside of creative spheres and practices can be necessary for any number of reasons, but more than that: they can enhance instead of detract from artistic pursuits.
For example, when I worked as a cashier, I jotted down snippets of overheard conversation to later use in a poem or story. If you work in a coffee or retail shop, you may want to try crafting flash fiction pieces about the people around you. A landscaping job in late summer could lead to ruminations in the form of a braided essay on the cycle of seasons and the human condition.
Repetitive tasks often seen as boring can free up your brain to process ideas in the background. How many good ideas pop up when you’re not paying attention?
A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that bored people “are more likely to engage in sensation seeking”—that is, to look for activities or sights that engage their minds and stimulate the brain’s reward centers. These people are more prone to “divergent thinking styles”—the ability to come up with creative new ideas. “Thus, boredom may encourage people to approach rewards and spark associative thought" (Article).
The key in making the most out of associative thoughts is to always jot down the idea, even if it’s just a quick note spoken into your phone. I always carry a small notebook in my purse, just for this purpose.
These days I’m working as a technical writer, which means that among other things, I write the not-super-exciting content of the Help section for software applications. Besides instilling the discipline required to work under periodic hard deadlines, being a technical writer has inspired me to use technical language creatively. When I write up bulleted lists of usage rules, bullet points can find their way into my poems, or when I learned how to read code to document APIs, I was inspired to write poems in the format of Java. I’ve even written a poem as a set of FAQs.
When writing for my day job, I do so in DITA, a subset of XML that requires every topic to be categorized as a concept, task, or reference. This organizational method, called information typing, has changed the way I conceive of certain pieces of writing. First, I ask: what type of information am I trying to convey? which leads to what’s the best form to communicate it? This questioning has transferred into how I approach my creative writing process, and can open up a piece to possibilities that I hadn’t previously considered, such as hybrid forms that fall outside the scope of a traditional poem.
A large part of writing involves observing your surroundings, both external and internal. Indeed, writing is a practice that happens even when you’re not actually writing. When you are at work, start paying attention to your surroundings. On your breaks, turn your focus to mining potential material for your artistic endeavors: interesting characters, energetic language, activated observations, physical metaphors. If you can practice watching for interesting images or moments, even while performing the dullest of tasks, it becomes easier to recognize those moments outside of work, to reach for that notebook, and to make time to write.
For example, if you’re in the same small space every day, like a cubicle, consider going macro to observe the smallest details and shifts in light, see what ripples off them. Try sketching how the shadows make you feel. Or, follow in the footsteps of poet, Frank O’Hara, (who wrote Lunch Poems during his lunch breaks when he worked at MOMA), and use your lunchtime in your day job, even if it’s once a week, to practice the art of writing during those spare moments. You don’t have to be attached to the outcome; the writing doesn’t have to be good, just focus on the practice. Eventually you may look at your notes and discover something you can use.
So if you’re working in a non-academic job and jealously watching others turn their creative passions into actual, rent-paying jobs, try to remember that without that dull job, you might not have material to tap into. Instead of feeling your job is stifling your creativity, start paying attention to how your job can fuel it. The dream of supporting yourself through your creative output is already happening to you everyday. It’s up to you to find ways to channel it purposefully.
Approaching novel thoughts: Understanding why elation and boredom promote associative thought more than distress and relaxation
Code Poetry: Poems Written In Programming Languages
Source Code Poetry
Free Download of Frank O’Hara’s book, Lunch Poems
Experimentation and Creativity
So, I have a deep, dark secret, one that I have never shared publicly before. I’m just going to say it: I’ve been watching soap operas (General Hospital and One Life to Live) on and off since arriving in the U.S. in 1994. It’s not just the element of melodrama that I find engaging or the exaggerated issues and bizarre solutions. It’s about the way in which reality is never accurately reflected and never what it seems.
Actors who play one role, return years later to play another with pleasurable Shakespeare-esque, metatextual results. But mostly, the dead are always able to be revived--nothing ever dies. Nothing is ever final, and there is rarely a neat solution to a conflict. Soap operas have taught me that when reality is challenged, the possibility for creativity opens up and that can make you a better writer. (Check out Lit Hub’s "I LOVE SOAP OPERAS (AND THEY MADE ME A BETTER WRITER" by Deborah Shapiro).
Indeed, reality is shaped by language, so if we subvert language, storytelling, imagery, isn’t it possible we initiate the potential to alter reality by altering those constructs? If in reality, we must encounter death, why not subvert language, redefine its constructs, and perhaps, like in the soaps, live forever? Is it because life isn’t ever presented so neatly that we seek to control it? Is it because that challenging tradition implies experimentation? That we avoid it because it requires stepping into an unknown, embracing the unusual, the unorthodox approaches to form and aesthetics, to discarding the familiar. Form and structure offer control over the environment, and it feels cozy and safe within a solid plot outline, within a satisfying conflict and resolution. For some writers, these components are guideposts, while for others, they are limitations; limitations towards understanding the other and thus our own humanity.
Experimentation can free us to once again write expressively and bring us closer to the self. In writing and art, experimentation functions as an agent of renewal. As writers and artists, we need to practice experimentation as a way to help us reinvent our approaches and use it as a vehicle to help us get out of structure and form, rules and rigidity. When I experiment, I am looking to extend, perhaps even subvert, the boundaries of what is considered artistic practice. Subverting traditional practices in writing allows something new to grow within ourselves and in our work. Most literary works have in some form been at one point experimental before becoming accepted as the norm. As a movement, experimentalism is associated with modernity, implying a rejection of traditions, values, and forms. Experimentalism favors self-consciousness, fragmentation, discontinuity, capturing real life which is often ambiguous. What may appear alarmingly random, is life coming at us in unusual and sometimes disconnected moments. When we step back, real events and scenes are disjointed. And yet historically, we narrate within structure, fearing the unknown in the deviation, and instead insist on portraying work with continuity, even when life does not present itself that way.
One way to step into the realm of experimentation is to consider recycling work that already exists. When I say recycling, I am saying rearrange, redesign, rethink, cut up what exists, and find something new in what already exists. When we recycle through found poetry, erasures, or collaging, we detach and re-adhere, graft others work, and undermine the authority of the author and self, allowing us to better understand the self and the other. By subverting the expectations of what makes something art or poetry, we open the door towards invention.
Recycling language is the realization that one does not need to generate new material. It’s about repurposing what's already been created. And through the process of repurposing, there’s this sense of unpredictability and an element of chance. Writers who repurpose permit a set of unreasoned rules to shape the fate and configuration of their use of language. Writers who experiment with recycling, replace making something new with choosing from what already exists and rearranging them in new ways. And with that, previously written language, like the preconceived versions of ourselves, can come to be seen and understood in a new light.
There are a few methods I like to use to recycle. One is through found poetry, including erasures and collage cut-up technique. When finding poetry, I seek out a pre-existing piece of writing with a non-literary function. By adding, deleting text, and making changes in spacing and lines, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry, I can redefine that text and make something new. The writer Annie Dillard in “Mornings Like This: Found Poems” writes that turning a text into a poem doubles that poem’s context, “The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles.” I like the idea that the use of found texts and images shake fundamental assumptions about artistic practice. I like that with found texts, we can obscure the line between the everyday life and high art, raising important questions about why we value some objects as art and not others; raising questions about how we assign value to the other and thus our humanity.
When creating from found texts, we have to be both observant and imaginative. If we focused on language and structure instead of on utility of a text, many texts that we read during our day (e.g. instructions in a manual) could be the basis for a found poem. When we re-configure pre-existing language into new systems of imagery and ideas, we place voices in conversation with one another across centuries and continents and we can transform the self.
Experimental poetry, such as found poetry, reveals that we are not separated singular beings, but beings found within the other, in layers and dependent on one another. It reveals that we must step into the space of the “other” to be able to borrow from the “other.” When we repurpose texts and rearrange them into new conversations, we establish that life is in conversation with multiple layers of life, interacting with past, present, and future. Using others words and grafting them to our pages, we see text composed of other texts; that is, one’s self as composed of other selves.Roger William Gilman, an American writer, philosopher, and educator wrote in his article, “The Raw and the Cooked: writing cento” that:
When a self is composed of other selves, its self-interest is not in mortal conflict
with others’ interests. When we are composed of each other, violence against an
“individual” Other is violence against one’s “own” Self. And so we are always on
all sides of any war. Every side loses a war. If we recognize that we live inside
each other we will see that we cannot afford to war against each other. When the
economic, political, and cultural interests of nations are in bed with each other,
legs intensely intertwined, they cannot afford to fight. Cultivating our humanity
lies in our regarding Our self as an Other’s self. Such gardening can happen only as
Seeing oneself as another.
In the search for words, we are searching for ourselves, and we find ourselves embedded in the other. And sometimes, the world is found in both what is left and how it is redacted. Closely associated with found poetry is the erasure or blackout poetry — which is poetry that is found by erasing words from an existing text, often in prose text, and framing the result on the page as a poem or prose. The results can stand as is or they can be rearranged into lines and/or stanzas.
As an example, take the work of artist and writer Tom Phillips who marries poetry and art in the same space. Phillips has spent about 50 years redacting text to the most creative levels. Calling his work “a collaboration with the author of the original work and a fight”, his creation a A Humument is originally a Victorian novel that has been altered on every page, either by painting, collage or cut-up techniques, to create an entirely new version. Phillips writes, “I took a forgotten novel found by chance. I mined, and undermined its text to make it yield alternative stories, erotic incidents and surreal catastrophes, which lurked within its wall of words. I replaced with visual images the text I’d stripped away.”
By collaging, Phillips not only erased but took cut-ups of disjointed and discontinuous text and placed them into new discourses. This idea of being able to subvert language, a narrative, inspires me to use cut-ups in my writing as a way to rupture and tap into the secret of language. Major postmodernist author and artist, William S. Burroughs once said of collaging that “when you experiment with cut-ups over a period of time, you find that some of the cut-ups and rearranged texts seem to refer to future events”. Similarly, David Bowie, known for using cut-ups in his lyric creations, said in an interview, “If you put three or four dissociated ideas together and created awkward relationships with them […] the unconscious intelligence that comes from those pairings is really quite startling sometimes.” This “unconscious intelligence” that emerges from dissociated ideas guides my pen, and its existence directs my desire to want to use language to create a reality that operates on a soap opera continuum--where stories are repurposed and reality is subverted.
The literary collage, or the cut-ups that Burroughs and Bowie refer to is a blend of pre-existing texts usually by several different authors. It is the act of removing texts out of original spaces and rearranging them into something new--the act of bringing together fragmented texts from unrelated sources, assembled and juxtaposed into new formations. When I cut up and push things against each other, different discourses present disparate ideologies, contrasting perspectives create productive ambiguities. This collision of ideas through cut-ups often times gives life to different voices and new relationships between the unrelated, whether they are events, objects, or images. As an experimental writer, I am often looking to capture the discontinuous yet seamless appearance of life. With collaging, I can express my creativity through the texts I choose and the way in which I arrange them. Using cut-ups allows me to juxtapose the texts, and for a resonance to occur between divergent texts without the forced appearance of seamlessness.
When we experiment in writing and art, we remix old and new approaches to form and aesthetics, and this is an incredible opportunity to remix ourselves. It is an incredible opportunity to reconfigure our prefabricated molds of self-identity. It allows us to approach creative writing through other means than personal experience. And that approach can infuse work with creativity.
When we remix language, we remix reality, we take apart pre-existing text and images, we make them ours, we undermine the self, we become the other, and we realize, there is no “the end,” no finale to the show. And when we go there, we begin to shake off the restrictions that interfere with creativity. When our words overlap, our lives overlap, and like a soap opera, our stories live on forever.
Digital ways to Collage
Language is a Virus
The Lazarus Corporation Cut-Up Links
Another cut-up machine
Generate random text
Dada Poem Generator
Burroughs Video on Cutups
Burroughs cut-up poems
Bowie video on cutups
The Strategy of Simultaneity in Ted Berrigan’s “The Sonnets"
Kenyon Review articles on Erasures
Tom Philips website
Tom Phillips Video
Austin Kleon on Erasures and found poetry
John Ashbery audio recording of To a Waterfowl
Line Sources for To a Waterfowl cento
Wolf Cento by Simone Muench
Found Poetry Review (archived)
A found poem Dash it by Annie Dillard
Submit your Found Poetry
Since I got my first digital camera in 2001, I’ve been thinking about ways to integrate words and imagery. Until recently, my concern was focused on how to mix poetry and photographs, with some attempts more successful than others, but in the last couple years, I’ve expanded my inquiry to additional media and dimensions.
This has included making poemboxes (sculptural interpretations of my poetry that usually involve a box), playing with geoboard poetry, collaging image with text, and including text when painting and sculpting. When you have another medium to incorporate beyond the written word, one you interact with using your more physical body, such as drawing or assembling, it helps you to approach the work from a new perspective.
Sometimes I am literally holding words in my hands. How does that feel, how does it differ from just reading them? Do some words weigh more than others? How can I embody what poem fragments like “blue stone” or “compilation of silhouettes” or “body as shelter” mean in the work, visually, not just linguistically? When we convey meaning beyond words can comprehension work at a more fundamental, primal level?
Lately, my joy in creating hybrid works is playing with their physical presence: I want words I can touch, turn over in my hands instead of just seeing them. Wondering how to translate a poem into a sculptural format was how my poembox project began. Sometimes I write sentences on pieces of ribbon and wind them around a geoboard to see how fragmentation and viewing from different angles changes the way I experience a piece.
I’ve made poems as flowcharts and mind maps (similar to some of the work in DIAGRAM magazine), chopped up a paragraph into small pieces and mixed it with dirt, played with spreadsheet poetry (inspired by work like Jamie Mortara’s “Parse Table”), buried a prose poem in the ground, wrapped lines into scrolls to sleep with them under my pillow, and used a wooden box with 31 paper slots as a daily writing prompt (asking: what gap do I want to fill today?).
Objects can invoke non-verbal associations: symbols, the collective unconscious, etc. Anything can become an ingredient in your art, but not much starts as a totally blank slate. How can use of materials with pre-existing connotations enhance or affect a piece of work? What happens when you add text to the mix?
Of course, people have been creating mixed- or multimedia art for many years. But assigning these labels tends to focus on ingredients, prepares the mind to experience a piece based on its raw materials, potentially making it more difficult to see the whole through the sum of its parts.
If we instead speak of a piece that goes beyond text to span several media as hybrid, perhaps we can better focus on its holistic composition than the boundaries it incorporates or transcends. Would that change how we experience a piece of completed art? Would it change the way you’d want to compose new work?
There is no limit to ways you can play with integrating your words with the three-dimensional world. If you could carve one sentence into a stick, what would it say? Can you make a shape with clay or play-doh and then write a poem about its existence? What if you gave yourself $5 and 10 minutes in a thrift store to make a visual collaged poem? What would a poem look like as a movie? As a comic book?
Taking words off the page and onto unexpected materials gives us new ways to process their potential, to uncover what they mean to us. Working outside your comfort zone can be intimidating at first, but that’s the point: to see what grows from exploration of unexpected places. That’s one of the beautiful things about hybridity: it can include whatever you need it to.
In May 2017, a group of Mile-High MFA students attended a remote residency in Ireland, spending a week writing together, learning about craft, exploring Irish culture and literature, and supporting each other in their growth as artists. The Mile-High MFA offers the remote residency every spring where writers can learn from local writers and explore another country's art and culture. [Photo by Deanna Rasch]
Becoming a writer also means becoming a part of the literary community. We often think of writing as a solitary act—and in many ways, it is—but we also need a network of support to get us through those long hours laboring through our passion projects. That community pushes us to step away from the endless scroll through Twitter and Instagram and instead attend a workshop or reading series to perhaps provide the motivation and inspiration needed to fulfill our own projects.
But being a part of the literary community also requires its members to give back from time to time. Whether that means teaming up with local prisons to provide writing workshops for the incarcerated, starting an after-school literacy program for young kids, or even creating a website for book reviews to expose people to works and authors that may get overlooked, any involvement has the potential to improve and bolster a community.
As a requirement of the Mile-High MFA (from which I graduated and which is affiliated with Inverted Syntax), students submit a Writing in the World action plan before graduating, detailing how each student will use their writing talents to engage and serve their communities. Many of the ideas students in the Mile-High MFA have suggested often revolve around bringing attention to the art that often gets overlooked and the writers whose voices aren’t quite as loud as some others. These projects strive to create an all-inclusive space for art to be appreciated, no matter the artist, subject matter, or even quality.
As a Denver writer, I’m always looking out for new events and organizations in my community that support other writers. With organizations like Denver Writes, which provides young Denver writers with a supportive community and creative opportunities to express themselves through writing, or FBOMB, a flash fiction reading series, there are resources for every kind of writer in Denver and in most communities around the country. Both of these organizations--and many others--strive to help writers strengthen their craft and confidence in their work. In fact, FBOMB states that their mission is to “1: become better readers of our work; 2: become better promoters of ourselves and each other; 3: share the spotlight with one another, and 4: build community around flash fiction.” Being a writer is not all about getting our work published and promoting our work. It’s instead about recognizing the beauty in all art and lifting our work and others’ work a little higher so it gets seen. We’re all trying to make sense of the world and our role within it, which automatically puts us in the same community anyway.
It’s this engagement that makes being a part of a literary community so special. It’s our duty to help each other succeed and make sure everyone has a chance to make their voice heard and their art to be recognized as a valuable expression of meaning. In any case, isn’t the world a better place with more art? Who are we to put limits on what can be seen, heard, felt, experienced? The world is certainly wide enough for us all.
A few Denver organizations and projects that engage and serve their communities:
At the Inkwell Reading Series
Colorado Writing School
FBOMB Flash Fiction Series
Lighthouse Writers Workshop
Lit Crawl Denver (September 8, 2018)
Poetry Out Loud
Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers
Words Beyond Bars
What are some of the organizations or events in your community that help encourage and support writers? List them in the comments below, and don’t forget to invite a fellow writer along to the next reading or to join your writing workshop.