Das Kapital for Writers: Part Two
You're at Part Two of my four-part series on writing and money. To get to Part One, go here.
In this post we’ll be covering the question about whether or not to quit your day job, and what writing full-time is like (the good, the bad, and the ugly). It’s a big decision and it’s important to know that there are lots of options out there, not just the extremes on either end of working full-time or writing full-time. We artists are amazingly creative and we’re like that with our money-making, too. Talk to any writer and you’ll hear all kinds of stories about the jobs they’ve had while writing. I know writers who teach, who are baristas, who are book clerks and editors and entrepreneurs and parents and marketing mavens and non-profit wunderkinds. There are a million ways to live your life with creative intentionality. Remember: we don’t do life like the rest of the world. As artists, what we’re about and the lens through which we view the world is unusual. So why would the way we make our paper be approached in any other way?
The Day Job vs Writing Full-Time
For the past three years, I’ve been writing full-time. This means that I don’t have another job, although I do take on teaching, freelance editorial work, and clients for creative coaching. Those side gigs, to me, are part of my writing. Teaching and editing makes me a better writer because they force me to constantly go back to craft and to keep my skills and instincts sharp. One of the best ways to become a better writer is to read and critique others’ work. Creativity coaching keeps my own creative well full and just plain makes me really freaking happy. Working with other artists on their journey is a constant source of inspiration, discovery, and creative excitement. I absolutely LOVE talking creativity with other artists and encouraging them to go for their dreams and brainstorming about ways they can change both their inner and outer lives so that they can live and breathe creativity in a healthy, joyful way. I always come out of those kinds of conversations recharged and even more excited about my own work and process. So, I don’t consider those things “jobs”—they are part and parcel of my creative process, as well as a way that I can give back to the writing community. The extra income doesn’t hurt, though.
My life wasn’t always this way, of course. Before I got my first book deal, I’d been working part-time as an ENL teacher for several years. Working part-time at a job that didn’t drain me, wasn’t stressful, and didn’t require me to bring work home was probably the single best thing I did for myself creatively. I made enough to get by and had tons of hours to work on my books every day, as well as the weekends. My commute was via train for the last three years of teaching, so I was able to do lots of my reading then, too. It gave my days structure and, I now realize, getting out of the house and being with other humans was a healthy thing to have in my life, as well.
Having a part-time job is the best way to go for most artists. It takes the financial pressure off you and off your creative work having to bring in the bucks so that when you sit down to work, it’s all about the joy of it. While I love being able to do what I’m passionate about full-time, it can get pretty intense. I’m always working on several books at once. This is both a blessing and a curse—I write fast and I write lots of different kinds of books. I tend to sell one or two books a year, plus have one or two coming out each year, so I truly can’t take on another job on top of that. It’s not a schedule for everyone, I can tell you that. It can be exhausting and stressful. But I’ve always been the kind of girl that goes full-tilt and I have the grace to have a supportive partner with a good full-time job and benefits. This is a big part of why I was able to take the leap and quit my day job in the first place.
I want to point out that I didn’t quit my day job until I’d sold five books. I cannot discourage you enough from quitting your day job as soon as you get your first book deal. First, it took over nine months for me to get my money from the time I got the deal. And you don’t get it all at once. Usually you get a portion on signing and another when the book comes out. Or, you may get some on signing, some on delivering the final manuscript (post revisions with your editor), and then you may or may not get more on pub day.
Quitting my day job was a risky move: not only were we moving to one of the most expensive cities in the world, but I was also going through grad school at the time. My husband, a public school teacher, wasn’t exactly making stock broker money, either. But together we made it work, because that’s how we roll. I am deeply grateful for the ways that things came together so that I could have this dream—and I hope if it’s what you want, that you’ll be able to swing it, too. If you do have a life partner, definitely take time to sit down with them and dreamscape. Talk about what you both want and need and how working fewer hours and/or spending more time writing will work into your collective hopes for the future. If your partner isn’t supportive, this will be a harder road. And that brings up a whole lot of other issues for another post.
Side note: Fuck the dream scoffers who tell you that writing is something you can’t make money doing. If you believe that, then, honey, you will never make money. And then the haters win. You might not make money for the opus you’re writing. You might not be able to get pregnant. You might not win the lottery. You might not live to be seventy-five. You might not ever make the mistake of bleaching your hair. You see where I’m going with this. Life is uncertainty. Welcome to Buddhism 101. I am living proof—and so are many of my friends—that you can make money, even a living, as a writer. It’s not easy. It’s not steady. But it’s possible. When I got my first book deal, there were a few people who said, Oh, you’re so lucky. And my husband, God bless him, jumped in right away. She’s not lucky, he said. Luck has nothing to do with it. She works harder than anyone I know. I don’t relate this to be all I’m-more-of-a-workaholic-than-you. I say this because he’s right: It’s not luck, it’s sitting your ass in a chair and writing and getting better and being willing to fail.
In her excellent book on creativity, Big Magic, my go-to girl Elizabeth Gilbert has this to say about what you need to be an artist (she didn’t add balls to this list, but you need those, too—metaphorically speaking, of course):
The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust—and those elements are universally accessible.
This is what she says about her decision to be a writer—and you can take this as an approach as to whether it’s in your best interest right now to quit your job and go for it or not:
…I simply vowed to the universe that I would write forever, regardless of the result. I promised that I would try to be brave about it, and grateful, and as uncomplaining as I could possibly be. I also promised that I would never ask writing to take care of me financially, but that I would always take care of it—meaning that I would always support us both, by any means necessary. I did not ask for any external rewards for my devotion; I just wanted to spend my life as near to writing as possible—forever close to that source of all my curiosity and contentment—and so I was willing to make whatever arrangements needed to be made in order to get by.
Liz feels pretty strongly that you shouldn’t pressure your creativity into making money for you. I can say that having to sell books and sell them often for my livelihood as an artist in New York City is no picnic. I both agree and disagree with her. Asking your art to pay the bills is hella challenging on your spirit. It can make it harder to create, because now it has to work and by a certain date. But it sure gets you working. I’ll also say this: despite the struggle, for me, it’s a hell of a lot better than doing anything else. I know a lot of full-time writers and I think they would say the same.
It’s a bit terrifying (and thrilling) to take the leap. It’s not all fun and games, either. I had this idea of being fabulously creative all day and then jumping on the subway and running around MOMA. Instead, I pretty much locked myself in my office and rarely left my chair, overworked and overambitious. One writer I know actually went back to working part-time at a bookstore because the long, lonely hours alone at his desk was too crazy-making. I had to get a dog, meds, and begin meditating in order to stave off the depression and weirdness that came over me being alone all day with deadlines looming over my head like a guillotine. My pup also gets me out of the house: in the early days, there were literally times when I didn’t leave my tiny apartment in Brooklyn for over 48 hours.
My support system
Now I have the dog, go to a meditation center in the Village, joined the Y…I also write at coffeehouses several times a week, just to change it up and be around other humans. It’s taken me three years to learn how to do this writing full-time thing while keeping my sanity, and I don’t think I’ll ever have it totally figured out.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Writing full-time isn’t for everyone, even if your advances are big enough to make it work. Some of you are the cautious types who want to regularly contribute to your retirement fund and pay down all your debt and buy a house and have cable and do fancy stuff like go to spas with your best friends. I want those things, too. But I want to be a writer more. I don’t own a house. I have lots of student debt. I don’t have a big screen TV or get facials or cable. I don’t eat lunch out or get Starbucks every day. I buy my clothes at Marshalls. I avoid the shoe section in department stores because THEY ARE DANGEROUS. I don’t get fifteen-dollar cocktails (confession: this was not always the case). I eat out more than I should. I don’t smoke or buy bottled water or get my hair professionally colored. That being said, I probably have other habits that you would think are way bougie and you might be right. It’s basically all about the choices you make. What can you live without? No, seriously: what can you olive without? Just stop reading a think about that. It’s a much longer list than you think it will be.
Reality: You might incur some debt and it might take you a long time to pay it off. You will never be able to keep up with Joneses (and that’s a good thing—they’re boring, anyway). You won’t be able to go out with friends as much (especially because you’ll be so busy writing). But then, just watch: suddenly the universe will be sneaking you little gifts. Unexpected money for no reason from your in-laws, just because they love you. Someone pays back a years-old debt you’d long forgotten about. You’re randomly part of a class-action law suit you knew nothing about and get a check for five-thousand dollars in the mail (Yes, this happened to me. Yes, it was awesome). If you’re reading this, my guess you’re in a nicely developed country with a high standard of living. You’ll be fine. Trust me.
No matter your life circumstances, choosing to place your creativity in the center of your life means that you will have to make sacrifices. Those will be different for everyone. Only you know what sacrifices you can and are willing to make. Only you know how important living your life creatively and with artistic intention is to you.
Some of you might be weirdos that can do it all and I tip my cap to you. I have a friend who’s a full-time editor and manages to get at least one book published a year, plus go to every concert in New York city and organize monthly events for the YA community. I suspect he’s a vampire (no sleep, free food) because he rocks at all these things. Some people are just gifted jugglers like that. There are plenty of writers who are excellent at time management. Toni Morrison was a full-time editor, and a single mom with two kids, in addition to being a part-time lecturer and writing all those gorgeous books. Of course, being someone like this means something will have to give. You might have to cut back on some of your hobbies, like making long, luxurious meals. You might not exercise much, or have time to binge-watch Game of Thrones. Sometimes that’s okay.
A note to my friends with kiddos: I don’t have any on purpose. So know that part of why I’m able to easily arrange my life as I see fit is in large part to only having a German Shepard mutt as a dependent. BUT I know loads of writers with kids who are making it work. Many of them say it’s important for their kids to see their mom or dad doing what they love. I agree! One teacher in my MFA program had SEVEN kids. I asked her how she wrote her beautiful books while raising her kids and she said that she would find time pockets wherever she could—one of her most productive times was sitting next to them while they were taking their baths and writing. My friends often, but not always, have supportive partners who also prioritize their spouse’s creativity. Some send their kids to daycare or after-school programs. Some write during nap time. My best friend spent years ferreting away little gaps of time here and there to write and she just sold a super-smart article to the motherfucking Washington Post. Huzzah! It can be done. Even if you’re tired because Sammy was throwing up all night. Even if you have a pile of laundry and the house is starting to look like it’s been invaded by the staff of Gringotts. Sometimes you gotta rock fish sticks for dinner and ignore the mommier-than-thou blogs. Sometimes you have to bring the laptop into the bathroom during bath time.
Know this: making the decision to have writing be the way you make a living means you will have uncertainty in your life. Lots of it. Every book will get a different deal and even getting one isn’t guaranteed. The creative well might dry up, life shit will happen, and you will never know what money to be expecting and when. You might have a ballpark idea, but you’ll never have certainty. For some of you, this is a hell you cannot imagine electing. I get it. Know thyself. For some inspiration, I cannot recommend enough the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. It’s full of incredibly inspiring, short snippets that show you the myriad ways in which we manage to make time to do what we do. What you will notice, though, is that these artists work nearly every day. Somehow, some way. Some do it with other jobs (Trollope! Morrison! Chekhov!), while others manage a few hours before going on their nightly bender. But they work. Every. Day.
So, whatever your choice, here’s to the late-night scribblers, the lunch-hour manifestos, the crack-of-dawn scrawlers, the bath-time dissertations.
Ready for Part Three? Head on over here.
P.S. Here’s a little extra inspiration, an interview with Paulo Coelho on On Being about how he didn’t start writing until he was forty. It’s wonderful and will fire you up--for some reason I can't link it, so the address is here: http://www.onbeing.org/program/paulo-coelho-the-alchemy-of-pilgrimage/6639
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