Turning Your Day Job into Fiction

Turning Your Day Job into Fiction

IMG_3016It’s no shock that most writers have “day” jobs. The average writer in the U.S. earns less than $10,000 annually from writing, according to The Authors Guild. We daydream about the elusive future in which we’ll write that break-out novel, all the while surrounded by rich material. So mine the field you’re in.

Writers are natural observers, and at any job there is plenty going on. A labor lawyer I once worked for explained that she’d chosen employment law as her specialty because all social change plays out in the workplace, rather promptly. She found it rewarding to help people resolve the conflicts that changing times invariably presented.

I became engrossed in the stories of her cases. There was the born-male employee who underwent a complete sex change, and who subsequently endured extreme sexual harassment by the very men with whom she had formerly unloaded trucks. At trial we met her partner, who was also female. We also represented an internet marketing company whose employees emailed each other photos taken at the company Christmas party, showing their married boss making whoopee with one of the underlings on a couch in a nearby office. Of course, these salacious shots ended up on Facebook just as the case was settling. Workplaces are multi-level plot factories for the imaginative writer.

Everywhere I’ve worked there have been people with amazing hidden talents, people from dysfunctional families, weekend adventurers, at least one sociopath or narcissist, shrinking violets, blabbermouths, dreamers, liars, physical fitness freaks, addicts, great team players, seekers, loners, geeks, both good and terrible bosses. The same can be said of the clients, whether they are the student body, patients in a doctor’s office, or the general public. The stories behind why and how they came to be your clients are full of juicy material for fiction.

Once you start viewing your day job as a source of writing material, it will seem less like a pirate ship robbing you of precious writing time and energy, and more like a cornucopia.

Transforming fact into fiction is tremendously liberating. You can make a dicey situation turn out the way you wish it had and imbue it with a message that will help others avoid the mistakes you made.

Writing fiction is enlightening. If you want to understand something, or figure out what you really think about it, write about it. Fictionalize something that has happened to you, but stick with the basic set of facts. Getting into your characters’ heads will force you to see the situation from their viewpoints. Delving into your characters’ personal histories will shed light on the motivations behind their behavior and choices, and will open the door to understanding and compassion.

Writing fiction is empowering. You can make unprepossessing people magnetic, give your boss the noble nature he so sorely lacks, transform your friends into glamorous geniuses, or turn a sourpuss into a wise man of few words, exposing the absurdities and humor we so often miss in our myopia. You can create characters who are composites of several people, set the tale in a different place and time in history, bring the dead to life, or create a reality you wish existed from the one you in which you dwell.

So the next time you think, “I don’t believe I just saw that” at the office, or “No one would believe this if I told them,”—believe it and start writing!

May 21st, 2016|Writing|


  1. Steve Susoyev May 25, 2016 at 2:04 am - Reply

    Very inspiring, Jennifer Dwight. Thank you. I still work at the law firm where you were working about 10 years ago, and feel blessed that I have been able to write and publish a few books and several essays while maintaining a full-time job.

    About 20 years ago, while the manuscript of my first book was still a swirling 900-page mess, I received some of the best advice I’ve ever received, from a writer whose book had been translated into several languages. We met at the retirement party of the editor we each had worked with. As we talked, she revealed that she had been a legal secretary while writing her best-selling book. I complained that there were days when I had only a half hour to write; with no hint of flippancy, she replied, “A half hour? That’s wonderful!”

    She went on to explain that as long as I wrote every day, my book would never grow stale–“It’s on the back burner, but it’s not in the freezer. When you’re not scribbling on a printout or entering changes on the word processor, you’re thinking about your characters and resolving questions about how to tell their stories.” That was so helpful! (Her name is Donna Gillespie, and the book was “The Light Bearer.”)

    Eager to read “The Tolling of Mercedes Bell”–perhaps a bit because, but not only because, I want to see if I recognize any characters among the people I still encounter at law firm Happy Hour and in the elevators!

    Congratulations on getting this, your first novel, out into the world.

    • Jennifer Dwight June 1, 2016 at 1:12 am - Reply

      Hi Steve!
      Thank you for this nice comment. Of course I remember you – and I’ll look for Donna’s book and your work. She’s absolutely right: as long as we don’t give up, many difficult goals are achievable. We law firm ex-pats are lucky to have worked around so many articulate people and to be exposed to so much “material” to write about. I hope to see you in July at a Morrison & Foerster social hour event, which will include a book signing. Oh joy!

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