When I was in school and taking creative writing classes, everybody told me to get a job doing anything but writing. You want to save your writing muscles for fiction, they said, not wear them out at your day job. I understand this advice, and I think it makes sense for a lot of people—but I haven't followed it.
I started writing nonfiction for pay in college, and I quickly found it a welcome escape from the sucking quagmire of uncertainty that was (and for me, often still is) fiction. Some writers find storytelling easier than the expository form, but in journalism and criticism I found a welcome structure and predictability. If I put a certain amount of effort into a nonfiction piece, I was reasonably sure it would come out all right—I could sink a year into a novel and end up with nothing. And so I freelanced for magazines and newspapers throughout college, and in grad school I began writing for the blog Jezebel, where I still work.
It's sometimes hard for me to write all day and then write some more, just as everybody said it would be, but I learned some ways to make it easier. First, I try to write my nonfiction in a different physical place than my fiction. I do my work for Jezebel at home or in the office—I write my fiction in coffee shops and libraries. I also use different tools—I write my Jezebel posts on my computer, but all my fiction starts out with a notebook and a pen. The steps help me carve out separate brain-spaces for fiction and nonfiction, so I don't find myself worrying about one when I'm supposed to be working on the other—and so I don't feel like I'm doing the same thing all day.
I also find it helpful to have some sort of transitional activity, something to help my mind shift from one job to the other. Often, this is as simple as walking from my house to the coffee shop, and taking the long way around. But if it's too cold to wander around outside very much, I like to take along some poetry or a book I'm reading for background research—something to slow my thoughts down a little and let them change shape. Writing on the internet is fast-paced and, in a strange way, social, and I need something to ease me into fiction-writing mode, which is more solitary and ruminative. Taking a walk or reading a few poems takes me out of the world a little bit, and helps me create my own.
Lots of people tell writers with day jobs to write their fiction in the morning. This makes sense—you get it out of the way, and there's less opportunity for other obligations to sneak in and crowd it out. But I prefer to write in the evening—that way getting to do a little fiction feels like a reward for a long day's work. I think the best advice is really to do your creative writing when you're the most likely to want to do it. This is true no matter what your day job is, but if it's writing-related, it can be useful to figure out what's going to make your fiction feel most like a treat, and least like more of the same.
The truth is that most of the time, I love writing for Jezebel, and I think the reason so many fiction writers have also been critics and and essayists is that ultimately, the forms aren't all that different. If you enjoy writing fiction, you're likely to enjoy writing nonfiction—and if you can get paid for it, there's no reason you shouldn't. But for me, the key to avoiding burnout—so far—has been to keep the two jobs different enough that each feels like a break from the other. And sometimes that's as simple as leaving the room.