Rat Park and Deciding to Ditch the Career

First, let me explain what I mean by Rat Park.

We have all heard, in some apocryphal form, about the addiction experiments where rats would keep hitting the switch for cocaine (or some other drug) until they died. They chose the drug over everything else including food, water and other rat companions. In 1981, psychologist
Bruce Alexander ran a slightly different experiment. He noticed that in all the previous studies, the rats were kept in small, wire cages under very grim conditions. He wanted to test what the rats would do if they were housed in the equivalent of Rat Park. Would their behaviors change?

The rats living in Rat Park had lots of room, food and water, access to rats of the opposite sex and private places for their own dens. These rats eschewed the drugs. Those rats who entered addicted went out clean and those who were clean in Rat Park but moved to Rat Hell immediately started to drug up.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned here. Two examples come to mind: (1) bad experimental design and (2) correlation not equaling causation (i.e. rat suicide due to living in Hell as opposed to cocaine being all that). However, like all good addiction researchers, let’s extrapolate this behavior to humans.

Given the difficulty of living in a modern society, does anyone really wonder why nearly 1 in 3 American adults are
obese? Most of us, it seems, are NOT living in the human equivalent of Rat Park.

What does this have to do with writing? Hang with me just a little bit longer.

My husband and I have a short hand. When one comes home from work, the other asks, “So… was it more Park or more Rat today?” In my previous job (again I do distinguish job from career), it was always more rat, paws down. This made it much easier for me to move on but what about other part-timers looking to increase their writing time? When is it appropriate to starting belting out,
“You can take this job and shove it, ain’t workin’ here no more!”

Conventional wisdom says to NEVER quit your day job. Writing won’t pay the bills. This is true but what this dictum fails to take into consideration is that some jobs are toxic to a writing career. Which jobs are those? Any that require abusing the very skills you hone as a writer.

Specifically, is the job based on writing? Does it suppress the writing itch? Is it complicated and require lots of mental effort? Is it demanding? Do you really only spend 40 hours at the job or does it slop over into your personal time? Do you spend hours and hours in front of a computer screen?

In my non-scientific Google search, the majority of jobs promoted for writers and english majors are limited to: technical writing, freelancing, journalism, editing, copy editing, ad copy/marketing and teaching. If you spend all day writing, how can you expect to have enough energy to do it at night?

But what about teaching you say? I was a teacher for over a quarter of a century and am qualified to say… teaching is singularly the worst job for a writer.

Why? It’s salaried which means 60 hrs per week is common. You are surrounded by people who all write as badly if not worse than you do. (I believe in mentoring and helping your fellow writers but that is different from trying to read 160 papers in less than a week during mid-terms and finals.) Administrative tasks take more time than you spend in the classroom. If you are a college prof, then you also have advisees, grad students, thesis students and you must write and obtain grants to pay your summer salary and your grad students’ stipends. And… surprise! Students are people. Therefore, you will stop writing to help them when they ask. This is because you are a nice person and you care. Widgets don’t need you and don’t show up after your office hours are over.

So what are good jobs for writers looking to write more? Ones that don’t suck your creative energy out through your nose.

What does that mean? Here is a very
interesting site dedicated to the bizarre jobs many successful science fiction writers have had. Note that these successful writers tended towards jobs that, in fact, did NOT abuse their writing talents. These jobs tended to be more social (writing is very isolating), physical (writing exercises the brain not the major muscle groups) and allowed for a lot of inspiration or creative thinking time.

But most importantly, almost none of these jobs were salaried. If the big bosses are sucking off valuable writing time, then by dingy-dongies they’d better be paying time and a half.

Am I suggesting that you run out and quit your job? If it is toxic to your writing career, then yes, I am. Unequivocally. Get one that keeps a roof over your head but doesn’t abuse your writing talent. Marrying well helps.

How can you tell if you have a job that needs shoving? Well, you really already know. But… if you need help convincing yourself, let’s go back to the concept of Rat Park.

Martha Beck is a life coach who wrote an essay on how to use the concept of Rat Park to help people make better decisions. She does a great job of explaining it so I suggest you just go
read it but if you are short on time… here is the quickie version.

Rat Park is like a child’s game of hot and cold. In the game, you hide something and then give clues to help your friends find it. If they get closer, you say warmer. If they get further away, you say colder. Play this game with your job, or more specifically, the various aspects of your job. The hours? Hot or Cold? The people? Hot or Cold? Specific tasks? Hot or Cold? You get the idea. If it’s more Rat than Park… it is time to move on.

This may cause a bit of cognitive dissonance with your friends and family. This is especially true if you have a “degree.” I push paper and do low level tech stuff now. Am I underemployed? Hell, yeah. I have a freakin’ Ph.D. But guess what? When my husband asks if my day is more Rat or more Park, for the first time in a DECADE… yeah… I’m a slow learner… the answer is all Park baby. All Park.