Professional writer. Sounds like the dream job of a lifetime! If you can write creatively, get paid enough to live on, and spend your days doing what you love, why not? Well, there is quite the debate over day jobs for writers. There are benefits to writing full time, as well as drawbacks, and this debate rages on especially in the atmosphere of diversified publishing options.
Now, having high qualifications (like several published works, years of experience, high recommendations, and active memberships in accredited groups) can lead to a writer being called “professional” as well. But for the purpose of exploring the pros and cons of having a day job, we’ll be using that first definition: writing to put food on the table.
Just to put the perspectives here into, well, perspective: I am not a career writer. I have a degree in creative writing, am an avid member of several writing groups, and have a book coming out later this year. I am also a receptionist, and this takes up 8 hours of my day. Before this job came along, writing was what filled my day.
Unfortunately, all it did was give me something to avoid doing. Nothing sold, nothing flowed, and new ideas stalled out before they ever got to drafts. The answer, for me, was definitely a day job. Does this make me less of an author? Am I an uncommitted slob? Was my degree wasted? Absolutely not! A day job has tripled my output, improved the quality of my writing, and has given me the motivation to publish sooner rather than later.
Obviously, this isn’t the answer for everyone. I’m not raining on the hopes and dreams of those who want nothing more than to be professional authors, whose work is so sought after that the money just pours in, filling life with both artistic recognition and financial security. Wow, what a great dream! Really, just like everything in the experience of an artistic soul, it’s really a question of the lifestyle that suits you best.
In lieu of just leaving it at that, advocating the “work it out on your own through harsh experience” approach, here are some points to consider when approaching this decision for yourself:
Having a day job doesn’t mean you’re stuck with one forever. At different stages in life, new opportunities present themselves. Consider Zane Grey’s career path. He was a dentist for years, and he actually hated it. When he married his wife, he made the decision to write full time… of course, he (and their extended family) had financial security through his wife’s inheritance.
If, for instance, you have one of your books suddenly explode in popularity and lead on to something concrete, then it would make total sense to write full time. If you apply for a job in the writing field and land it, great! Go for it! Just be aware, this doesn’t happen often at all. Waiting for it may have a side effect of homelessness.
2. Examine Your Priorities
Unless a person is independently wealthy, owns a time machine (with a paradox inhibitor; a necessity for making a week in a day), and has the dedicated adoration of everyone they meet, you really can’t have it all. Really goes against what the advertisers want us to think, but really.
If you want something in your life, something’s got to give over the hours/budget/attention to make room for it. Toni Morrison, author of The Bluest Eye, Sula, and God Help the Child, has an incredibly full life. She wrote while holding a job as an editor, she taught college courses, and raised two sons as a single parent. She says, “It does seem hectic, but the important thing is that I don’t do anything else. I avoid the social life normally associated with publishing. I don’t go to cocktail parties, I don’t give or go to dinner parties. I need that time in the evening because I can do a tremendous amount of work then. And I can concentrate.” (Slate.com)
Essentially, no matter which job you choose, being successful at your work will require the majority of the waking day. For those who have a day job, the time for writing must be carved out of precious free time at the expense of something else (social events, binge-watching TV/videos, long hours sleeping in or staying up late, etc.).
3. Keep the Pressure
Though some may disagree, many famous authors testify to the merits of limited writing time. One of my favorite quotes to this effect comes from Nicholson Baker: “You find out a way to get more done when you’re really busy. You just learn how to fit it in.” (Slate.com)
Just because a writing project isn’t the focus of your life, doesn’t mean you don’t take your writing seriously. This is something die-hard writers will say to hobby writers to either forcefully encourage someone who has great talent to be nurtured, or to squash someone with talent who is doing better work with less time. No one will ever own up to the second reason, but I can guarantee it’s there on occasion.
4. Find a Balance
The essential dynamic behind keeping a day job or quitting to write full time is the balance between financial uncertainty and creative uncertainty. Anyone considering writing full time has to ask if they can live off what they make with the quality of life they want? Even when work sells very well, if the production stops there will be no steady income. This demands a consistent 40+ hour work week of self-directed writing. That will take it out of anyone! Holly Robinson had a point when she said, “Novels are not cars to be assembled. You can’t write them if the muse isn’t with you, and the muse doesn’t always come when you call her. Yet, if you want to make a living as a writer, you must find a way to go to the muse if she won’t come to you.” (huffingtonpost.com) Good luck with that.
And anyone facing the choice of what day job to take has to consider how their writing will fit into their soon-to-be limited free time. We’ve already discussed the benefit of pressure and its effect on motivation, but those hours spent not writing are often discussed as beneficial to the quality of a writer’s work. Helena Halme says, of her choice to have work outside of writing, “I at least, feel the need to live in between my books; to add to my experiences of life, to inspect and examine people around me; to study the human condition. Isn’t that what we novelists need to write about anyway?” (selfpublishingadvice.com) And Nathan Bransford perfectly voices my own opinion when he said, “When the writing is tough, it can be nice to go into the office on Monday and feel like I’m not living and dying by the publishing world. When I have a rough day in the office it’s nice to be able to go home and write and feel like I have another iron in the fire.” (nathanbransford.com).
Okay, so this post probably swings pretty widely toward the support of having a day job. I chose this path, though, so it makes sense for me to see the benefits of it over the full-time writer path. Just as a personal observation, from the perspective of having gone to a university for creative writing, I know I came out thoroughly unprepared to make a living at writing.
My work wasn’t ready, and I can’t think of a single member of my graduating group (and we got quite close) who made it right away. Few even published more than a few unpaid articles during our years at school, and even fewer had books/agents/editors take their books (and all of them had one)! This, I guess, may make me a bit jaded when I hear a young writer (under 30) debating the choice to have a day job or write full time. There are plenty of jobs writing copy, technical work, textbooks, and web content… but I doubt that’s what any of them have in mind when they say they dream of writing for a living.
In the end, it’s a personal choice, and whatever you choose, may you have the very very best of luck! May the muse be with you!