Managing Writers in the Workplace: A Guide for Employers

by Mary W. Walters

(This essay was first published in a slightly different form in The Rumpus in Oct. ’09.)

Wise employers have learned that in order to maximize results in today’s fast-paced work environments they must tailor their managerial skills to the dispositions of their various employees. A proliferation of books, articles, workshops and on-line seminars exist to help human-resources personnel understand the nature of those who work for them, and develop appropriate individual strategies to stimulate productivity.

Until now, one entire class of worker has been overlooked in these analyses: 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. It is not due to any danger to the employing organization that managers will find it of value to identify such people on their staffs; in fact, most writers will contribute knowledge, creativity, experience and a range of other skills and talents to their jobs, almost in spite of themselves. However, these people can best be encouraged to maximize their workplace contributions when managers know who they are, and are able to tailor administrative strategies to suit their particular strengths and weaknesses. This guide is intended to assist them.

Identification pre-employment

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. Many writers in the workplace have published at least one book, or maybe two or even three—or four, or ten or twelve—while continuing to be unable to earn a living from their writing. They probably have a web-page, and if any of their books are still in print, they are likely available through on-line bookstores.

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.” The potential to rub shoulders or discuss one’s own secret literary aspirations with a published author has swayed more than one hiring committee away from other more qualified, and possibly more stable, candidates.

At the pre-employment stage, most employers agree, it is just better not to know.

If you think you have hired a 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;
  2. Writers appear to have no fashion sense: After the first enthusiasm of being in the world wears off, most writers forget about their appearance. This is not intentional; it is endemic. For the most part writers are not dirty. Generally they do not smell. They simply tend to be inattentive to externals, and therefore to appear perennially disheveled;
  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;
  5. Writers will always prefer the less responsible position to the corporate climb, and the part-time position to the full-time job: Writers’ inability to be persuaded or influenced by—or punished through the withholding of—the kinds of economic rewards that are highly effective with most people, not only helps to identify them, but also presents employers with additional administrative challenges.

Managing the species

Once a writer in the workplace has been identified, the attributes that differentiate their writing genres form the most effective basis for their management.

The Poet

Poets can generally be identified in the workplace, as they can at social gatherings and in the coffee shops where they are most at home, by their supercilious and standoffish appearances. Their hauteur is not, however, what it seems: it is actually mainly shyness, combined with a dollop of fear that they have forgotten your name and/or are about to do something stupid which everyone will notice. Perhaps for this reason, poets in the workplace are known for their tendencies to sympathize with underdogs. They are strong in union-related activities, and will suddenly rise to the defense of the most incompetent employees.

Poets have no hope of ever making a living from their art. Alternately plunged into states of despair and resignation, these individuals can normally be cajoled into getting on with a responsible workaday career because, unlike writers in other genres, they know for absolute certain that they have no alternatives. The greatest challenge to office administrators when it comes to managing poets is how to keep the other staff from the contagion of their depressive and hopeless mindsets. Banning all alcohol from the workplace may help.

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.

Also due to the nature of their work, fiction writers tend to suffer from lack of sleep and occasionally come to work with hangovers. The best approach is to forgive them when they arrive in such conditions—the lack of sleep means they are getting some creative writing done, which will help to keep them sane, while the hangovers mean they have been fantasizing about their futures on best-seller lists, which tends to improve their spirits (at least once they recover from the hangovers).

The Playwright

Playwrights, or dramatists, are generally far more flamboyant and sociable than are fiction writers, and certainly far more so than are poets and non-fiction writers; as a result, they are generally the best types of writers you can have around for the company.

However, torn between their need for writerly solitude and the excitement of the world of theater, playwrights tend to leap to their feet in the middle of meetings and suggest resolving corporate issues with a rousing chorus, a stake through the heart of the evil villain, or the introduction to the scene (upstage) of a pair of bactrian camels. While playwrights are far easier to manage in the workplace than are most other writers, they do need to be settled down from time to time and reminded that not everyone believes that all the world’s a stage.

The Non-Fiction Writer

The non-fiction writer is the closest to “normal human being” that it is possible to get while still being a writer. This makes these individuals very hard to detect, which can lead to distinctive problems for employers. Many non-fiction writers were activists when younger, and have inadvertently become writers only as a result of honing their skills while attempting to build support for social causes and political issues. Although they may now have turned their attentions to a newly evolved and far less lucrative area of the genre known as “creative” or “literary” non-fiction, where style is as important as content, they likely still have their noses tuned finely toward the detection of the kind of corporate rot that can bring down dynasties and presidents. To make things worse, such individuals have also typically refined their writing abilities to the point where they are not only skilled at identifying and describing unfortunate corporate practices (and supporting their findings with statistics, dates and locations), they now also have the connections to place these pieces with major publications. It is therefore wise, if you suspect a non-fiction writer in your midst, to avoid indulging in insider trading, the mismanagement of biohazardous materials, or the harassment of employees—at least while such writers are in the room.

Aside from their tendencies toward socio-political eruption, creative non-fiction writers are fairly easy to deal with as employees. They often have books that they are working on at home and possibly also during their lunch hours, but unlike their fiction-, drama- and poetry-writing counterparts, their work normally has a structure and even an outline. This means that they are likely to have schedules to follow—and may even be able to adhere to them—thus eliminating some of the systemic angst that tends to plague their colleagues in other writing genres.

Writers Can Spell “Corporate Success” For You

In general, writers are keenly intelligent people who come from highly dysfunctional backgrounds. Employers are making a contribution to society by keeping them employed (safe in the office from the kinds of family breakdowns and personal damage that can occur when such individuals are given too much idle time in which to write, which only leads to writers’ blocks and thence to crises both personal and interpersonal) but also by keeping them writing, if only minimally (and therefore sublimating all kinds of passions and impulses and emotions which most of us are all too happy to read about but do not ever want to actually see).

In the meantime, writers tend to make good workers. They are so busy imagining the great success of their current writing projects that they take conflicts and even uproars in the workplace in their stride. The odds of their actually quitting because they have had a literary breakthrough are roughly equivalent to those of any of your other employees leaving because they have won the lottery.

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.

Rewards for the sensitive management of writers by employers can be substantial. Despite their long periods of moroseness and bursts of disproportionate good cheer, writers can prove in the long-term among the most dedicated, hard-working and grateful employees a company will ever be fortunate enough to hire. Continually drawn forward by their conviction that they are about to make the breakthrough that will allow them to quit their jobs, they are likely to just keep right on working until it’s time to collect their watches and retire.

In the meantime, such employees will invite you to their book launches, perhaps even dedicate a story or poem to you, maybe even thank you publicly (if they remember) when they win awards, since by then you are likely to be the only members of their inner circle who has not abandoned them. They might even put you into a story, a poem, a play or a book, and unexpectedly (to them as well as you) confer on you the side-benefit of eternal life.

__________________

Link to The Rumpus version of “Managing Writers in The Workplace”

10 responses

  1. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, as is the sensation of laughing out loud in an empty room because I can’t contain the wonderfulness. Every employer needs to be warned about the dangers of hiring writers, especially my boss, who manages an entire team of these odd creatures. Thank you for this fantastic (and suspiciously well-written…) article.

  2. This is hilarious and in some places, very true. I, however, have never been able to keep a job I didn’t love because it felt false to me. I’ve consistently ended up working various part-time and contract jobs that fit my personality. The best best scenario includes a paying work-life that nurtures your writing life and vice versa…not that you still won’t be looked at as the office weirdo.

  3. This is fantastic! I laughed and laughed, because it’s all so true. I’ve emailed the link to coworkers, and I’ll be linking to it on FB and Twitter when I get to a computer that can access those (sadly, our work firewall blocks both).

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