Peter Schechter’s average day isn’t exactly boring. From 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., he’s dealing with a presidential election in South America. From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., he’s advising the Serbian prime minister on how to communicate his economic-reform program. By the afternoon, he’s counseling a client on the Oracle-Microsoft battle. There’s no doubt that Schechter’s job scintillates him. But there has always been an insatiable void for the partner at CLS & Associates, a Washington, DC-based crisis-communications firm. “I’ve had the bug in my head that said, ‘I want to write a book’ for a long time,” he admits. “I remember about 15 years ago, someone I worked with gave me a leather-bound book with blank pages in it for my birthday. She said, ‘Stop talking about the damn novel and write it!'”
Finally, in early 2004, Schechter, 46, got serious about his writing. Two years later, his first novel, Point of Entry (HarperCollins, 2006), is on bookshelves, and between meetings he’s on the book-tour circuit. “Will I drop it all and move to a beach in Vietnam?” he poses. “No. I just don’t think I’d be happy. What attracts me now is: Is there a way to split your life? Carve your life in half and do both things?”
Schechter isn’t alone. He is part of the corporate literati–an undercover group of software engineers, communications experts, brand strategists, and others who get as much thrill from waking at dawn every morning to write as they do from rolling out a new strategy. They’re the modern analogues of Wallace Stevens, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who spent almost 40 years working for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., rising to a VP title. “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job,” said Stevens in a 1950 interview. The duality can lead to stress, though, and many people rationalize that there’s no time and energy to do both. But it can be done, and you may be surprised how pursuing your dream while keeping your daytime gig makes you both a better artist and a better professional.
Like Stevens, many aspiring writers have found that being immersed in a workplace environment feeds their writing in a way that’s not possible if they’re shacked up in the woods alone with a typewriter. First, there’s the endless fodder of the business world. “CEOs I met, tech leaders, four-star generals, even Carrot Top provided me with some of the absurdities that gave me the voice of the Futurist,” says James P. Othmer, referring to his soon-to-be-released corporate sociopolitical satire, The Futurist (Doubleday, June 2006), which he wrote while working as an executive creative director for Young & Rubicam. When Deon Meyer, a South African thriller writer who produces events for BMW, went to one of the wildest areas of the South African bush for several weeks last year to scout terrain for an off-road motorcycle adventure, he discovered his next book idea. “I came to get to know their ecological problems, their nature conservation problems, the problems with people who need more land to survive, and that experience became the subject matter of the novel,” he says.
The creative techniques and business skills honed in corporate gigs also become invaluable tools for nascent novelists. Eric Frost, writer and group head for ad agency Fallon’s interactive group, employs the exercises he uses for creating advertising to aid his novel writing. For example, he’s constantly gathering “mood images” and quotes that represent a character or setting, and tacking them to an inspiration wall in his home office. Yasmin Crowther, a director at SustainAbility, a London-based research and advocacy consultancy, whose first novel, The Saffron Kitchen (Little Brown), debuts in the UK this month, says that years of working for rigorous companies such as Shell have conditioned her to stay disciplined throughout the nebulous writing process. “That sort of planning you learn in business–defining a strategic objective, outlining the steps you need to get there, giving yourself deadlines, being quite tactical–was really helpful.”
Perhaps the greatest asset the corporate world gives the artist is the ability to think like a marketer. When writing her first novel, The Booster (Atria Books, 2006), advertising creative director Jennifer Solow says she adopted the ethos of her onetime employer, Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners–“outthinking the competition rather than outspending them.” She drafted a creative brief, identified her target market, and, using grassroots tools like Craigslist, compiled a database of 214,000 “influencers”–from Hollywood producers to A-list Hamptons types. “I attacked the book like I would a business,” she says, proudly noting that she invested just a few hundred dollars. Her sleuthing has already garnered The Booster early online buzz and interest from film producers and foreign publishers.
A moonlighting project can also help people perform better in their day jobs. Twentieth Century Fox Television’s vice president of comedy development, Nicholas Weinstock, who just published his third book, The Golden Hour (HarperCollins, 2006), notes that his writing lets him set aside his ego when it comes to creative control in the workplace. “It keeps me from being that a–hole executive who pitches their own jokes,” he says. “I sort of have my own creative pressure valve.”
Those kinds of perks can keep employers from feeling cheated by employees who go home to write by the light of the moon. The advertising agency Fallon, for example, sees workers’ outside projects as beneficial for the company. “We encourage it,” says Rob White, Fallon’s president. “We believe our people should have the opportunity to flex their creative muscles in different ways. It makes you a happier, more productive individual.” In fact, Fallon goes so far as to offer a “Dreamcatchers” program, in which the agency gives employees paid sabbaticals to pursue their projects, and it created a gallery space for its novelists and artists to hold events.
No matter how supportive the environment, coexisting as two different selves isn’t easy. To make time to write the political thriller that had been brewing in his head for years, Schechter, the crisis PR guru, worked out a deal with his partners that lets him commit two mornings a week to writing. The rule: No clients, no emails, no Internet. In return, Schechter insisted that he take a 23% pay cut, thinking it would be “psychologically helpful.”
Weinstock–who has “reprogrammed” himself to get up at 4:30 a.m. every day and write for two hours–seems to have struck the best balance between the two worlds. He had tried once to turn his passion for writing into a full-time job, leaving his career for five years and writing two books. But with a growing family, he needed stability. So he discovered the benefit of doing both at once. “If it becomes your hobby, it lets you take bigger risks and be more passionate about it,” he says. “For me there’s a real yin-yang thing… and I’ve never been happier doing both.”