The Blurb #10: Managing Writers in the Workplace – A Guide for Employers

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If you suspect, perhaps from a particularly well-phrased passage in a cover letter, or a rhymed couplet tucked into a résumé, that you have a writer on your short-list, you can turn to Google for confirmation. Many writers in the workplace have published a poem, a story, or even a book—maybe two or even three books—but are still unable to earn a living from their writing.

Wise employers have learned that in order to maximize results in today’s fast-paced work environment, they must tailor their managerial skills to the dispositions of their employees. Books, articles, and on-line seminars are now available to help human-resources personnel understand how best to work with individual staff members, taking into consideration such variables as level of ambition, optimism, and ability to be a team player.

Until now, one segment of the population has been entirely overlooked in these analyses: the thousands of writers who have been driven against their wills into the workforce. This group includes 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 calling and seek employment among the rank and file.

Managers who customize their strategies to writers’ peculiar strengths and weaknesses can maximize their contribution to the workforce and overcome their significant challenges. Here’s how.

Identification Pre-Employment

Over time, many writers have built entire careers as fallback positions for their art. They can be found in fields that range from railway maintenance to health care; some even specialize in such esoteric areas as astrophysics or early-Victorian stage design. No matter what their area of camouflage, however, they have learned through trial and error that it is not wise to explain to interviewers that they intend to support a highly time-consuming writing habit on the proceeds of employment. As a result, they can be difficult to identify.

If you suspect, perhaps from a particularly well-phrased passage in a cover letter, or a rhymed couplet tucked into a résumé, that you have a writer on your short-list, you can turn to Google for confirmation. Many writers in the workplace have published a poem, a story, or even a book—maybe two or even three books—but are still unable to earn a living from their writing. They are probably still trying to flog these books somewhere on the Internet.

If you discover you have short-listed a writer, should you share that information with your colleagues and run the risk of predisposing the job search in favor of the writer? Despite overwhelming evidence that no one reads literature any more, there is still some cachet to having a literary writer on one’s staff. The potential opportunity to discuss their own secret literary aspirations with a published author has swayed more than one hiring committee away from more qualified, and possibly more stable, candidates. At the pre-employment stage, some managers have found it is better not to know.

 Identification of Writers Already in Your Midst

Although poets are very different from fiction writers, and playwrights from nonfiction writers, literary artists of all genres share certain basic characteristics that become obvious in employment settings.

1. Writers are excessively grateful—for a while. Particularly in the first few weeks and months after being hired, a writer will be almost inordinately appreciative to have a job. This is partly because after what has typically been an extended period of futile full-time writing, they really do believe (albeit temporarily) that they want to hang out with other people and do the kind of work that supervisors can assign them rather than that which mysteriously burbles up out of their nightmares. Primarily, however, this gratitude relates to having an income once again, at last—not to mention a dental plan, vision insurance, and the opportunity to buy orthotics.

2. Writers appear to have no fashion sense. After the first enthusiasm of being in the world wears off, most writers forget about their appearances. This is not intentional; it is an inevitable consequence of limited human interaction. For the most part writers are not dirty, or smelly, just perennially disheveled.

3. Writers suffer from attacks of inspiration. The first hint that a writer is present in a workplace frequently comes when an individual leaps to his feet in the middle of a meeting, wearing an expression that suggests that he’s been raptured, and rushes off to the washroom. These symptoms may be confused with alcohol abuse or drug dependency (which may also be present, though that is not the subject of this article); however, follow-up investigations often reveal these that this individual has absconded to a toilet stall not to tipple or shoot up, but to scribble messages to himself about some developing story or sonnet.

4. Writers are subject to mood swings. Varying from mild to intense, these episodes are similar to clinical descriptions of bipolar disorder or other pathological conditions. (Again, these conditions may also obtain, but are not covered here.) Writer-related mood swings can normally be distinguished from more treatable syndromes by the brevity of the highs (usually occasioned by finally finishing the abovementioned story or sonnet) and the protracted duration of the lows (due to the interminable wait for the work to be accepted for publication by some obscure literary journal, and usually made worse by that journal’s eventual rejection).

5. Writers lack corporate ambition. All real writers prefer the less-responsible position to the corporate climb, the part-time position to the full-time job. Their inability to be persuaded or influenced by—or punished through the withholding of—the kinds of economic rewards that are highly effective with other employees, can help to identify a writer, and also presents additional administrative challenges.

Managing The Species

Once a writer has been positively identified, he or she can be most easily managed if further classified by genre.

Poets

Poets can generally be identified in the workplace, as in the coffee shops where they are most at home, by their supercilious and standoffish attitude. In most cases, what looks like hauteur is actually shyness, combined with a dollop of fear that they have forgotten your name and/or are about to do something stupid that everyone will notice. Poets tend to sympathize with underdogs: they are strong in union-related activities, and will suddenly and unexpectedly rise to the defense of even the most incompetent colleague.

Poets’ temperaments range across a narrow spectrum from despair to resignation, but they can often be cajoled into getting on with a responsible career because, unlike writers in other genres, they have not even the faintest hope of ever earning a living from their art. They may occasionally dream of a substantial grant, but they know deep-down that they are employees for life.

The greatest challenge of managing poets is keeping other staff from the contagion of their depression and hopelessness. Banning alcohol helps.

Office ManagementFiction Writers

A fiction writer in the grip of a creative project can often seem absentminded or downright demented. She will come into the office after a productive weekend uncertain of the month, or time of day, having forgotten the names of the people with whom she works (and possibly those to whom she is married or has given birth). She may be unclear as to what city or country she is in—or even, in the case of speculative-fiction writers, what planet she is on.

It is important for managers to realize that fiction writers usually do know the difference between an imaginary world and the real one. Given a little nudge or a mystified look, the writer will quickly return from an icy December day in 18th-century Croatia, take off her several sweaters, and add her two cents to the afternoon’s budget meeting.

Due to the nature of her work, the fiction writer will sometimes suffer from lack of sleep or a hangover. This should be seen as positive: lack of sleep means she is getting some writing done; the hangover means she has been fantasizing about her future on the bestseller list, which will improve her spirits (once she recovers from the hangover).

Playwrights

Playwrights are generally more flamboyant and sociable than are other types of writers, and can be great fun to have around the office (unless they write Bleak Plays, in which case, c.f. Poets, above). There is a downside to playwrights’ joie de vivre, of course: inspired by the excitement they so cherish in the theater, playwrights have been known to leap to their feet in the middle of meetings and suggest resolving corporate issues with a rousing chorus, a stake through some villain’s heart, or the introduction to the scene (upstage) of a pair of Bactrian camels. The playwright needs occasionally to be settled down, and reminded that all the world is not a stage—particularly not the conference room.

Non-Fiction Writers

The nonfiction writer is the closest one can be to a “normal human being” while still being a writer. Such an individual can be hard to detect, which creates distinctive workplace problems.

Many nonfiction writers are former journalists. They are likely to be able to turn out an attention-grabbing media release (or, at the very least, a blog post), and probably still have their noses set to smell the kind of corporate rot that can bring down dynasties and presidents. If you suspect there’s a nonfiction writer in the office, it is wise to avoid indulging in insider trading, mismanagement of biohazardous materials, or sexual harassment—except on the writer’s day off.

Aside from these muckraking tendencies, nonfiction writer employees are fairly easy to deal with. Their writing normally has a structure, which means they probably have schedules to follow—and may even be able to adhere to them, thus partly inuring them against the systemic angst that plagues other writers.

Corporate Benefits

Since writers tend to be counterproductively intelligent and come from highly dysfunctional backgrounds, businesses can make an enormous contribution to society by keeping them employed. Employment can temporarily protect a writer from family breakdowns and the self-abuse that occurs when he has too much idle time in which to write—as idle time can lead to Writer’s Block and, thus, to Crisis. As writers are generally most inspired when they have no time to write, employment also keeps them writing, if only minimally—thereby suppressing all kinds of maladaptive passions and impulses which most of us are all too happy to read about but do not ever want to actually see.

Despite the extended periods of moroseness and bursts of disproportionate good cheer, writers are essentially harmless, and with good management they can become dedicated, hardworking, and productive employees. Drawn forward by the ever-present conviction that they are on the verge of a literary breakthrough that will allow them to quit their jobs—when, in fact, the odds of that happening are roughly equivalent to other employees’ odds of winning the lottery—writers are likely to keep right on working until it’s time to collect their watches and retire.

The managers who deal most successfully with writers in the workplace are those who recognize that 1) the writer does not want to be there, and is convinced that she will be leaving at any moment, and 2) the writer is not going anywhere. Careful containment of managerial aspirations in regard to writer/employee advancement, combined with tactful accommodation of writerly fantasies of imminent fame and fortune, can lead to healthy symbiotic relationships of benefit to all.

In the meantime, employees who are writers will invite you to their book launches and even thank you publicly when they win awards, since by then you are likely to be the only member of their inner circle who has not abandoned them. Best of all, they might even put you into a story, a poem, or a play, thus conferring upon you the unexpected benefit of a form of eternal life.
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Mary W. Walters is a freelance writer and editor. She has published two novels, a collection of short stories, and dozens of other creative pieces which have had little or no impact on her income. She has greater expectations for her first book of non-fiction, Write an Effective Funding Application: A Guide for Researchers and Scholars. More from this author →