Thursday, November 11, 2010

Soapbox Series #1 (or Reading, 'Riting, Ranting) -- "I Want to Quit My Job to Write"

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You know those pet topics? The ones people raise over and over again, the oft-voiced misconceptions, the FAQs, the "if I had a nickel..." comments, the remarks that make you want to wax eloquent? Most any human endeavor offers them, certainly every profession, and writing is no different. Here, then, commences a new, probably irregular column covering such topics that I find commonly raised by aspiring writers, acquaintances, those closer than acquaintances, or people who are simply fascinated by what writers do, and allowing me to rant -- er, expound -- on them. So without further ado, today's "if I had a nickel" comment is: "I want to quit my job to write."

Well, maybe you do, and maybe you don't.

Writing at home is a subset of working at home, which has wonderful perks and definite drawbacks. Most of these lie on a continuum. Yes, I can work in my jammies (I can also let my appearance go totally to pot). Yes, I don't care if the mother of all blizzards is blizzarding outside (but I can become a big fat weenie about driving in other than perfect weather). Yes, I can set my own hours (but I may end up working more hours than employed people do, or fewer, because people think I'm interruptible, or I may have trouble separating life and work). Yes, I don't have to cope with office politics or prickly co-workers (but I may go nuts all alone -- actually no I won't, but you might). Yes, I don't have to commute (hmm, still trying to come up with a downside to that one). I'll take the pluses -- don't get me wrong -- but we can't have them without risking, and sometimes getting, the minuses.

But that's any working from home, and it's possible someone wanting to ditch the job to write is talking about ditching a work-from-home job. What do we have to consider specifically about full-time writing? Well, it's not like telecommuting for an employer. No salary, no wage, no benefits, no guarantee you'll be adequately paid for the time you put in, and a pretty good chance you'll not be adequately paid, period. Jim Denney, in his breezily titled Quit Your Day Job: How to Sleep Late, Do What You Enjoy, and Make a Ton of Money as a Writer advises this (my words): Realize that you'll start out poor, sock away a year's salary before you make the leap, and plan to squeak by on that money for the first 1-2 years. Hmmm -- save up a year's salary? Let me know how that works out for you. Another point to take into account is that it's awfully hard to know if you can make a go of it after only 1-2 years of full-time effort. Depending on the project, it can take that long to get one submittable-quality book written, the same length of time to sell it, the same length of time to see it between two covers, and another few months to see if it'll succeed or bomb. This could easily add up to 3-6+ years. Even if the book succeeds, that's no predictor that you can sustain a full-time career. Also, Denney has written a number of celebrity autobiographies and memoirs. Celebrities=sales=money, and nonfiction is very often the backbone of a full-time writer's career. Don't misunderstand -- Denney's book gives a lot of good advice. But writing nonfiction book after nonfiction book to tight deadlines is the usual name of the game here, and I'm not at all sure "sleep late" ends up as part of the plan. Because such writing can become another 9-5er (or 9-midnight) in a big hurry.

With fiction writing, the need to rely on your creativity to pay the mortgage or buy food for your kids can put unexpected and unsustainable heavy pressure on something you once found purely enjoyable. Yes, they say do what you love and (1) the money will follow, and (2) you'll never work a day in your life, but there's also truth to the idea that once you have to do what you love, it's work. I know writers who, when given the chance to go full time, chose not to, even though it was what they'd always thought they wanted.They didn't want to think that covering their bills depended on whether their latest project would earn them a contract, and when that might happen. They didn't want to lose the joy.

One big surprise full-time writers often face is that they don't get much more done full-time than they did part-time. Despite all that's been said above about long hours, sometimes 4-5 hours of writing a day is the maximum one can mentally sustain, especially with fiction. Let's say you only manage 3 most days, either because you're not yet as disciplined as you need to be or that's really all you can do. If you previously wrote for three hours most evenings while holding a day job, you're not getting nearly enough extra writing done to justify having dumped the job and its salary and benefits. Another surprise is that "full-time writers" may earn some, or most, of their income from related activities such as teaching, speaking, editing, or writing material much different from their preferred focus. All this drains time and energy from what you really want to be doing.

Quitting your job to write can work well if:
  • You're married to someone who has a regular paycheck, earns enough to support the family, agrees to be the sole breadwinner, carries the health insurance and 401k, and you consider your income gravy. 
  • You're a stay-at-home parent who would be staying home in any case (there's no job to quit).
  • You're responsible for only yourself and are willing to live on a shoestring.
  • You have high risk tolerance.
  • You're a pretty fast writer.
  • You write mostly nonfiction, have a solid network of editor contacts, and have a track record of delivering quality work on time.
  • You're pretty sure that if you ever go back to employment, you want a new job/career.
  • You sold a book for an advance that wowed you (yeah, it can happen), and/or got a multi-book contract, and now you need to go all out to write the next book to meet your deadline. This may be your big break. Hey, if you can go for it, go for it!
Quitting your job to write isn't impossible. People do it. But the reality is that most writers just don't earn enough.

So -- what do you think? Did I leave anything out? Do you write for a living? How does it work in your case? Would you not want to quit your day job? Why not?

19 comments:

TerryLynnJohnson said...

I have a great job, so not sure I'd want to quit. It would be nice to take a little time off to write. But, since we're not all Stephanie Meyers, not sure if that will happen!

Vijaya said...

Great post. I bought Denney's book for the title and he gives excellent advice.

Nope, I'm living my dream life, incorporating writing with my kids and teaching and life. It's slow-going and just like the previous decade was dedicated to my kids and family, this next decade is also for them. Priorities. But the writing fits in between the cracks and it's happening and I'm enjoying it and it contributes to the family pot and it makes me happy. In another 10 years, things will be different ... and I'll be a better writer ... and I'm sure glad I didn't wait until the kids were in school or in college or whatever to start writing. Carpe diem!

Plus, you can do a lot in 15 min. All those early stories I wrote were written in 15 min. chunks.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

This post is brilliant. I love the way you tackled the issue without the romanticism we see so often. I'd love to write full time, but I'm WON'T leave my job - for all of the reasons you mentioned. :-)

Marcia said...

Terry -- I think it's the "either/or" thing that can be frustrating. We can either have no job at all, or not be able to get a break from our job. I was reading just recently about the easier pace of life in Italy. Maybe we need to be more European...

Vijaya -- Oh, carpe diem is so important! I'm busier this decade than I was last.You never know what life will come up with.

Shannon -- Thanks; I'm actually a pretty romantic sort, so I'm glad that didn't cloud the issue. :) Staying in our jobs can help us see enough of the outside world to inform our writing, too.

Laura Pauling said...

What a great post, Marcia! My kids just recently went back to school. While writing, I have to figure out what I want to do. Still searching for that perfect part time job. It's never good to romanticize getting published (even if it's fun to do so)!

anna said...

What a well-timed post. I grapple with this possibility all the time, so it's great to see all its different aspects laid out like this. This year I went part time at my job in order to write and as you suggested, I actually got less writing done than when I was full time...

Rena said...

Great post, Marcia. I homeschool my kids, so I'm home, but it takes up a lot of time. I wouldn't change it for the world, though.

Marcia said...

Laura -- I hope you find just the right job. :)

Anna -- Funny, fewer work hours and LESS writing seems so counterintuitive.And you'd think part time would be the best of both worlds. I keep telling myself all we need is an adjustment period and just the right schedule.

Rena -- I love the feeling of my entire life being integrated at home. Boundaries can be tough that way, though.

Susan Fields said...

You make some great points! Yes, people do think I'm interruptible, which really gets on my nerves sometimes - I'm trying to write here, people! And also, even though I have a full day to write when my kids are at school, my brain just can't take it for that long, and I usually end up doing something different for the last hour or two. Great post, Marcia!

Nora MacFarlane said...

Great post! I might actually get the opportunity to write full-time. Not because I plan on quitting my job, but because I am probably going to be a casualty of school budget cuts. The job loss isn't all bad - It's doable. And truthfully, I've wanted to see if I'm disciplined enough to write on a daily schedule, not in snatches of time. I think I can... I think I can...

Debbie Erickson said...

I'm a previous student of Marcia's and I'm going for it--to stay home and write for a living! But, I am married and when I sell my first children's fantasy novel, which is finished, but am going over my revisions, but soon, I can't imagine doing anything else with the rest of my life!

Dayana Stockdale said...

Great post. It brought up lots that I have learned. You are very right about not getting a full day in. I write "full time" at home, and am lucky to get 5 hours in. It is very difficult to sustain that much mental activity.

I made the decision right out of college. My husband pays the bills. I am extremely fortunate to have him to let me live my dream. Even when it doesn't feel so dreamy, I push through it and appreciate it. I really hope to get published someday and pay him back someday, though he claims reading my stories is payment enough :)

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Wonderful post, Marcia! I'm a stay home Mom. I'm fortunate enough that I don't have to work anymore, however I have a high maintanence husband (LOL). When life runs smoothly I get two or three hours a day of writing time. I can't write when everyone is home. I blog at night. I can do that while I'm watching TV with the family. So far I've only had two publications, one magazine and one SCBWI regional newsletter...but it's a start. :)

Marcia said...

Susan -- Even if we can get people to respect our time, I'm not sure anybody but another creative artist will ever get that the "mental derailment" costs you far more than the "couple of minutes" they interrupted.

Nora -- So sorry to hear that. But sometimes job losses are strangely uplifting, as in: "Now I can 'quit' without taking responsibility for the decision." I hope the "great daily writing experiment" is a huge success.

Debbie -- It's great that you're going for it. You've got plenty of energy and a great work ethic. I hope all your dreams come true! :)

Dayana -- I've heard other writers say that about five hours seems optimum. Your husband sounds so sweet! And good for you for pushing on when it doesn't seem so "dreamy."

Sharon -- It can be hard when everyone's at home. But, as you mention, some of the less intensive things can be done then, such as blogging, browsing a market guide or writing-related website, or reading. Congrats on your publications!

Mary Witzl said...

I always sigh when I hear about people quitting their days jobs in order to write. I would do just about anything to HAVE a reasonable day job!

By 'reasonable', I mean not standing in a warehouse wrapping cheese, or cleaning toilets. I will do almost anything else, including waitressing or sorting mail, but those two, for various reasons, do not appeal. We live in a small town where there is virtually no work for someone like me, and I have tried to market my skills so many different ways, but to no avail. Small surprise that nobody wants an EFL teacher who can read and write Japanese.

Yep -- brilliant, thoughtful post, as usual.

When I was teaching, I sometimes resented the time that took from writing, but most of the time I found it hugely stimulating. My dream 'other' job is non-fiction writing. I have no qualms about supporting my 'art' with largely unrelated work.

(If anybody out there is giving up a telecommuting writing/editing job, give me a shout, okay?)

Mary Witzl said...

For some reason, the paragraphs in my post got resorted. My comment on your post should have been the first, but it's towards the end.

My computer is developing a mind of its own. Worrying...

Marcia said...

Mary -- there's no end to the funny stuff computers do, is there? I've noticed that teachers seem to fall into two categories: they either claim they can't write AND teach, or they're some of the most productive writers out there. Although I can understand why anybody who has to do a lot of work "outside of work" AND has a family would struggle with taking on something as intensive as writing. A life with no downtime is difficult. But a life with only writing risks the well going dry.

Mary Witzl said...

I came back to this post because my ears smarted when I read this line earlier: "I can become a big fat weenie about driving in other than perfect weather". I had to drive to Dumfries yesterday, through gale force winds and lashing rain and hail and roadworks, tailgated half the way there by a truck, and when I finally arrived at my destination, I was so miserable and traumatized I burst into tears.

How right you are!!

Marcia said...

Mary, I'd probably do the same in that situation. Driving in heavy wind is freaky enough without all the rest.